Nikol Nakamura has been able to do things a lot of pastry chefs would like to do: she cut her teeth at The Herbfarm, got her longtime wish of apprenticing under her idol, acclaimed San Francisco pastry chef Donald Wressell, and served miniature works of sugary art at Seattle’s former Four Seasons hotel (now the Fairmont) as well as intimate, white-tablecloth joints in L.A. But it’s now that the Pasadena, Calif. native finally feels at home, heading up the pastry team that services the half-dozen or so dining establishments and catering services at the Tulalip Resort Casino.
While the casino life on the outskirts of big cities may not be something that most pastry chefs aspire to, for Nakamura, it’s a match made in heaven. “I love showpieces, and not everyone having dinner in a restaurant wants a giant showpiece in the middle of their table,” Nakamura told me. “Tulalip really appreciates those over-the-top kinds of things.”
I came face to face with her talent for spectacle last weekend at the Taste of Tulalip. Fabulous wines from more than 50 wineries across Washington, California and Italy were flowing, and about a dozen cooking stations were churning out savory bites to compliment the wine, most of which were very good. But the obvious star of the show was the dessert bar, or “Dessert Lab,” as Nakamura had dubbed it.
Centered around a large display of gigantic molecules made from confections, pastry chefs in white and black chef coats worked away in a cloud of smoke emanating from giant tanks of liquid nitrogen that froze pistachio ice cream on the spot; from one table guests snatched up plastic petri dishes filled with butterscotch pudding topped with pretzel crumble, caramelized banana and nutmeg whipped cream; while another station served apple pie “shooters” out of test tubes with oatmeal streusel and vanilla meringue. Computer displays, rather than the paper menu signs displayed elsewhere, informed people of the sweets in the offering.
“Right now I’m really digging what Spanish pastry chefs are doing—using a lot of the molecular gastronomy thing, but also in their styling incorporating things that aren’t typically pastry related, like architecture and nature,” Nakamura explained. “So I thought science would be a cool thing to start with as my inspiration.” Her team of 13 doled out an astonishing 12,000 portions of dessert in all, and that’s exactly the kind of scale that gives her a thrill.
At Tulalip, where Nakamura has been trying to continually outdo herself for the last four years, they affectionately call her the “Pastry Diva” for her habit of demanding outlandish things—and getting them.
At Woodinville’s Auction of Washington Wines in August, she created a display in the image of the king of candy insanity himself, Willy Wonka. And though she didn’t quite get her way with gravity-defying rivers of rushing chocolate milk, she did accomplish life-size lollipops and trees with leaves of cotton candy, a floor of artificial grass, and yes, edible wallpaper, dusted with strawberry powder over a glucose stencil pattern and served atop little topiaries. “You should have seen all these adults licking wallpaper with their tongues turning red. They were really loving it,” she says, “and that’s what it’s all about.”
What Nakamura still has yet to do, which she says most pastry chefs dream of, is to open a place of her own sometime down the road. Be warned though—while she considers Seattle home, she still feels a pull to return to L.A., where she says the food scene is more suited to her style. “I just want to give guests something they’ve never seen before,” she says.
So my advice to you is this: next time you’re gambling the night away, make sure to cash out while you still have enough money left for dessert.
Tulalip Resort Casino, 10200 Quil Ceda Boulevard, Tulalip, 360.716.6000, tulalipcasino.com