Chef Nicholas Harrison chose belief over fear and, inspired by a social justice movement stirring the country, decided to take an unexpected opportunity to open his first restaurant.
Amid the tumult and uncertainty of 2020, Harrison turned to the joy of cooking the food of his childhood. He will open Creole-inspired restaurant La Joie Thursday at 1500 E Whitestone Blvd. Friday in Cedar Park.
The coronavirus pandemic had temporarily shuttered Olamaie, the restaurant where Harrison had recently risen to junior sous chef, when the chef was introduced by a mutual friend to restaurateur Wade Nguyen, who was looking to open a restaurant.
Harrison, who worked as a corporate chef at Apple for two years after jobs at Driskill Grill and Italic, wasn’t sure he was ready to open his own restaurant when the opportunity first arose. But as uncertainty from the virus grew and spring gave way to a rise of protests and activism around the nation in support of social justice, the Black chef said he could not turn away from the moment.
"I don’t see a lot of representation from us as owners and executive chefs across town. That was one of the main reasons I wanted to do this was to stop being afraid and also to open that door. Because once the door’s open, I believe more will follow in my footsteps," Harrison said.
The 29 year-old Louisiana native turned to his familial roots for inspiration. La Joie’s menu takes its cues from the Cajun, Creole and old-school Southern classics cooked by his two grandmothers and father at home.
He calls his restaurant "Creole-inspired" to keep from putting himself in a traditionalist box, and diners can expect offerings like bouillabaisse, raw oysters, a stuffed pork chop, shrimp and grits, and po boys.
Harrison’s time cooking under chef-owner Michael Fojtasek at refined Southern restaurant Olamaie, consistently one of the city’s best, helped sharpen the young chef’s skills and opened his eyes to the possibilities of the cuisine on which he was raised.
"It’s grandmothers’ food with a little technique. Everything we do here we do with love," Harrison said. "That’s one of the things I learned from chef Fojtasek: stick to what you love and what got you here and apply some technique, and people will love it."
In a town with few Black executive chefs, Harrison sees Le Joie not only as a platform for himself, but as a vehicle to give other young Black cooks an opportunity. Harrison worked with La Joie pastry chef and baker Juiliano DeBribe as teenagers in Lafayette. Ten years later, after a decade spent cooking on the East Coast and a stint at Austin’s Comedor, DeBribe joins Harrison in the kitchen.
"He’s gonna be one of Austin’s greatest bakers, if he has the spotlight to do that. If I see someone who is great, especially if they are African-American, I am going to open that door for them," said Harrison, whose staff also includes sous chef Myreon Smith, a Black cook with whom Harrison worked at Apple.
While he was initially hesitant to take the leap into his own kitchen, Harrison says he is excited to bring the flavors of home to a market that lacks a lot of Creole and Cajun cooking. In a time of uncertainty, he chose to bet on himself.
"I honestly just got tired of being scared. You’re never gonna be ready for something like this, so you just have to ask yourself if you want to do it or not," Harrison said. "Right now feels like the perfect time to take advantage of chaos."