Coming from a large, Italian and food-focused family, Noodles & Company’s executive chef and vice president of culinary, Nick Graff, says his future for pursuing a career in the culinary arts was always pretty much set in stone.
“Our whole family would always get together for dinner every night,” said Graff, who grew up in Del Mar. “We were a bunch of Italians that loved good food and were always cooking.”
Graff’s quest to become a professional cook and food craftsman began at 16, taking a part-time dishwashing job for gas cash and weekends with friends. It wasn’t his big break, but Graff said being in the kitchen all the time “got the restaurant thing in my blood.”
Graff went to Mesa College for their culinary program and was even given a scholarship to the Culinary Institute of America in 1990. After college, Graff worked at North County restaurants like Cilantro’s Taco Shop and Epazote, then became an apprentice at George's at the Cove in La Jolla. But the chef soon discovered fine dining wasn’t his niche and, after working at Hops Bistro & Brewery in La Jolla, Graff developed a strong taste for fast-casual dining.
“Breweries are great places to cut your teeth on culinary because there’s no limitations to what you cook,” said Graff. “Hops broadened my horizons and my cooking experience. The guests wanted something better than fast food or quick-service, as we call it, but they need it in that same sort of speed. That’s what attracted me to fast-casual, the challenge of walking that line between speed and quality all at once. It’s a lot of fun.”
Graff was eventually recruited by Denver’s Rock Bottom Restaurant & Brewery — which also has a branch in La Jolla — and from there he made his way to more well-known chain restaurants like Quiznos and, eventually, Noodles & Company in 2014.
“When you look at a brand like Noodles, we’re all over the board with our flavors. There’s no limit to what we can do here either.”
For the past five years, Graff has been working to revolutionize fast-casual dining at Noodles & Company with dish creations like vegetarian “zoodles,” “Caulifloodles,” and chicken Veracruz salad with jalapeno ranch dressing, black beans, fresh corn and toasted jalapenos, and fresh avocado. Graff says his cooking draws on inspiration from San Diego flavors like those at Roberto’s Mexican Restaurant, a place Graff frequented as a kid growing up in Del Mar and La Jolla.
“Inspiration’s a funny thing because you don’t really know what inspired you until you look back on the road and reflect,” said Graff. “Southern California in particular is a culinary playground with so many awesome ingredients and so many talented chefs. I’m always inspired by what they’re doing and enjoy creating my own take on it. But the signature thing about California is fresh ingredients that are readily available. I like to believe San Diego is the birthplace of clean eating, or clean food.”
It was that San Diegan, clean and nutrient-rich ideal for food which inspired Graff’s 2018 zoodles, spiralized zucchini noodles, currently served with fresh asparagus and tomatoes in a light lemon cream sauce, topped with toasted breadcrumbs.
“Every time we bring out a new zoodle dish, the zoodle gets even more popular,” said Graff, who also launched Noodle’s Caulifloodle — a cauliflower-infused noodle dish — on Sept. 25, just in time for International Noodle Day on Oct. 6. The Caulifloodles are served with roasted zucchini, mushrooms, spinach, light onion cream and Montamore cheese.
Noodles & Company also specializes in fast-casual desserts and Graff has partnered with Ghirardelli Chocolate to launch a peppermint cocoa rice crispy treat made with Ghirardelli peppermint bark for the holiday season. The new desserts will be rolled out a week after Thanksgiving.
“That’s the kind of food that I think San Diegans are looking for, delicious stuff that’s got great nutrients and can be made fast,” said Graff. “This menu, even the desserts, really speaks to that crowd. The Caulifloodle is already one of our most popular dishes.”
Graff added, “Fast-casual is for that person who wants to eat quality food but doesn’t have the time for slow-dining. They want to get in and out. People are always on the run in San Diego, how could it not be a great place for fast-casual?”