Story by Alexandria Lindstrom | Photography by Catherine May Taylor
A native of central Florida with a love of diverse cuisines and mad skills at turning sugar, butter, and flour into edible masterpieces, the proverbial stamps in Chef Nicki Lewis’s culinary passport have come not from trotting the actual globe, but from working as a young chef at Walt Disney World’s beloved Epcot World Center. It was here that Lewis gained the attention of some of the best chefs in the company—and in the industry—and received invaluable training that would make a lasting impact on her future.
With such acclaimed culinary geniuses as Chef Gregg Hannon and Chef Scott Hunnel willing to teach her the tricks of the trade, she truly gained an understanding of dining at its highest. And when the legendary Chef Art Smith opened Homecoming at Disney Springs, he tapped Lewis to be his sous chef, making the Happiest Place on Earth the place where all her dreams began to come true.
Her time there taught her what it took to build a restaurant from the ground up, from menu planning to execution. And while she could easily have made a successful career for herself for the foreseeable future there, fate—and her husband’s military career—took her to Northwest Florida, where she worked under Chef Nathan Davis, gaining a deeper appreciation for her Southern roots in a way that would forever change her style of cooking.
“That time had the greatest influence on my cooking and gave me the most courage to find myself and speak through my food,” says Lewis. “I pride myself on being Southern, and it is truly something I enjoy sharing with people through food.”
That level of passion is something that any restaurant would consider an asset, and now that she’s manning the kitchen at Café 44, it’s something that her guests taste with every dish she puts out. Less than a year into her time with the team, she’s taken the menu and made it something totally unique, and not simply something that speaks to her culinary point of view, but one that her entire staff can take ownership in. After all—they were the inspiration behind it.
“I love food. I love the science behind it. I love the creativity and freedom. I love that you can show someone where you’re from and have an entire conversation with them without ever saying a word. Food can do that, and it’s amazing.”
“When I started at Café 44, we decided to rebrand and take a step away from dinner and more towards the happy hour scene,” Lewis explains. “I created a small menu to get us going and asked each person on my kitchen team to give input: What are we missing? What would you order? I worked with each of them individually to finalize each plate, and I really loved everyone’s creativity and passion. I wanted to make sure that my team knows how much I appreciate them and their dedication and to help keep pushing them to be creative and become better cooks.”
Whatever she’s making, Lewis brings her passion to the plate—and that passion has a flavor profile more powerful than any spice could impart. “A salty person makes salty food. A happy person makes happy food. If you rush it, it’ll taste rushed. Freshness counts, and salt matters. The sauce for my shrimp and grits takes around five hours to make, and you can really taste the love in it. Those little things are what makes people want to eat your food.”
Visit Nicki at Cafe 44 for brunch, dinner, Happy Hour + more!