Beyond The Workweek: Lito Nicolai (Home Chef)

[Welcome to Beyond The Workweek, a series of profiles featuring young people doing cool work beyond their day jobs. I had the opportunity to meet with creatives in order to pick their brains about how they work and what gets them excited. Quotes are paraphrased then fact-checked because recording and transcribing is tedious. Enjoy!] 

Lito can’t really pin down why he likes cooking. “I guess I just like making things that taste good?” he laughs. “I don’t know why I do a lot of the things that I do.” Right now, Lito is embarking on doing a cooking show with his friend Rhys, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area. You’ve probably seen the videos he’d like to make: the ones from Buzzfeed’s Tasty that are filmed from above and sped up to show how to make easy, visually stunning dishes. “I want to do that but a lot slower,” says Lito.

Lito once invited me over his apartment for dinner. He had a couple friends over and made pasta from scratch and “little bougie salads” as he described them. He had very little furniture in the space so we all sat on the couch or on the floor and enjoyed the fruits/foods of his labor.

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“Cooking is one of the most human things we can do,” Lito tells me. “What do I like about food? Why is it attractive to me? I guess I like the specificity of matching food to a time or a place. Like having hot chocolate on a really cold night.” We then launch into talking about cooking foods that are in season, and how oftentimes the right combinations of food just feel right if the environment and time is taken into consideration.

“I am lucky enough to know a farmer,” says Lito. He met this farmer in his calligraphy class, and once in the summer and once in the fall he gives them a check in return for fresh vegetables. When I ask him what cookbooks he uses, he tells me he doesn’t really use cookbooks at all. “I use the internet. Cooking blogs and YouTube.”

“A lot of what I make is really bad,” he continues. I’ve eaten one of Lito’s meals once, so I’m convinced that he is very talented, but he tells me that his process is one of constant experimentation. “I don’t cook with that much care, I just do it until it’s right.”

Though cooking is one of his most focused hobbies, Lito doesn’t appear to have an intense motivation to turn it into a business. He works nine-to-five in software development and cooks on the side. His attraction to his hobby doesn’t venture too far beyond the simple explanation that he wants the food he eats to be good. His cooking show has that kind of singular focus as well. “The main feeling I want my food show to convey is a nostalgic desire for places viewers haven’t been or things they haven’t eaten.”

As a human pursuit, Lito seems in tune with the artistic element of his culinary hobby. His motivations are simple and his process is rich with meaning, which is perhaps what makes dining with him such a pleasurable experience.

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