Looking back on her start, chef Nicole Roarke has to laugh. She was a waitress at a San Diego hotel when she gathered the courage to ask the sous chef for a shot in the kitchen. She had no formal training, the odds were against her. She didn’t speak any Spanish in Southern California where Latinos formed the backbone of many kitchens. And she was 10 years into a vegetarian diet, something that makes seasoning and cooking meat difficult. But Roarke had two things going for her—hers arms, which were deeply scarred.
“I remember telling the sous chef that I had more experience than I really did,” she said before she gestured to the burns on her arms from carrying hot sheet pans. “I said ‘I can do this, look, look, look.’” He ran the idea past the head chef. “I remember overhearing a conversation he had with the chef and he said, ‘You know, she’s got battle scars.’”
The Blue Point native enjoyed cooking and while she had front of house experience, she left Long Island looking for an adventure and knew it wasn’t going to come by reciting the daily specials. She wanted in behind the swinging kitchen doors—and figured the rest would resolve itself. Working in the kitchen for a couple of years she picked up Spanish, along with the skills to prepare Latin flavors. Becoming reacquainted with meat, however, happened sooner and far more violently. “The first thing I had to try was chicken soup and I threw up,” she said of the first meat she ate in a decade.
Working her way back east, Roarke made stops in Florida where she helped run a Hilton kitchen before heading to Buffalo to cook old-school Italian. “At each stop I always did my thing. Wherever I was living, I’d take a walk and stop in at the restaurant that made food I’d want to eat. If I liked the food I usually found a way to speak to the chef about an opening.” She enrolled in culinary school while working at the Spice Market in the Meatpacking District before returning to the Island to teach culinary classes in Syosset and start a catering company.
Then an opportunity came to get in on the ground floor of a restaurant in Long Beach where she was living. She could help design the kitchen and hand-pick her cooks. The owners wanted J.A. Heneghan’s Tavern to serve solid comfort food and the chef wanted to add her twist. “It is very much me, it’s my terms,” Roarke said. “Familiar food with that family and community feel but the way everything is prepared and the ingredients is very me.” And lately that’s included things like poached garlic or adding honey in just about everything and dishes like the rabbit she made last Easter, a nod to her time in Buffalo. Her calamari comes with a lemon aioli and the mac-n-cheese has a truffle oil topping.
The kitchen crew represents the best of her former students, each of whom probably has scars of his own. Funny thing about those scars is, Roarke can’t picture her life without them. “Now my arms are disgusting but I love it, I secretly love it, I really do.”