Getting to know “The Racing Chef” Nicky Morse

The worlds of racing and cooking, they seem like a merger of oil and water in many worlds. (That is a bad reference to cooking, oil and water will not mix, emulsifying takes work) Chef Nicky Morse is the man who emulsified the two worlds into one, successfully making “The Racing Chef” a household name amongst NASCAR fans.

I had the opportunity to speak to Chef Nicky and everything was on the menu of topics. What inspired the Chef, how did he merge cooking and racing, working in the NHRA, and his show on SPEED.

Nicky was born in London, Ohio and grew up with the influence of his Italian grandmother, which sparked his cooking interests as a young child. “When I was a kid, I had it made,” said Chef Nicky recounting his childhood memories of being in the kitchen with his grandma. “My grandparents were Italian on my mom’s side and that was a great environment to grow up in. The food was amazing, From the United States standards we didn’t have much, but we ate like kings and queens in our family.”

Chef Nicky explained that duplicating a recipe that grandma made is not as easy today because of the quality of ingredients available. “You have to start with the same ingredients your grandparents started with if you want to get that flavor. I spent a lot of time in the kitchen with them and I saw these ingredients but not only that, I got the smells from it, you see what it looks like and can taste it, you can feel it. For me, some people never forget a face or a name, but I never forget a smell and that taste.” Chef Nicky shared an example with me: he buys salt pork (salt cured pork which is made from the same cuts as bacon) but if he wants the good salt pork, he has to go to a butcher and drive far out of the way to get it, so what is boils down to is that not all products are created equal. Today, quality is often an after thought of products due to speed of producing.

From the time he was still in diapers, Chef Nicky knew it was in his future to become a chef. At the age of 30, Nicky developed cancer and knew he needed to change his path, the 70+ hour work week as a gourmet chef was wearing on him.

As Chef Nicky and I discussed cooking, I felt at ease speaking with him as I too love cooking and racing so to find someone else with their passions as strong as mine, PERFECT! “It takes time, good cooking takes time and is a way of life,” said Nicky. Being a classically trained French Chef who spent much of his life working in 4-star restaurants, Nicky speaks so passionately about food. Describing arugula he said “If you are going to pick arugula out of the garden it is so peppery, hot, snappy and the flavor is AMAZING! But if you go sit it in the grocery store for a week or two weeks, the flavor just losses that punch. There is no option, it just does, its how it works. As a chef, working with the best, freshest ingredients is the main thing.”

Onto racing…Chef Nicky was a Racing Chef long before he appeared on the NASCAR circuit. For eight years Morse traveled the NHRA circuit with Jeg Coughlin Jr, who is a five time World Champion in the series. It was Morse’s duty to prepare healthy meals for Jeg and his team, even going as far as gardening and picking his own vegetables in the morning, making fresh dough and punching it down while in flight to the race track. (Punching dough deflates the dough, knocking all the excess air out, leaving you with a more tender bread) Once at track, Chef Nicky would cook meals with his own vegetables and herbs that he fresh picked that morning prior to flying out with Coughlin and the team. The menu he cooked was nothing like you see at track – he sold me on grilled lamb and in this picture below you see him cooking various pizzas from scratch and only with the finest ingredients. (Nicky often traveled with his own cheese, making sure that what he cooked with was to his liking. Depending on the town they raced, finding some ingredients were hard, so he brought his own.)
Fresh cooked pizzas were on the menu this day for NHRA superstar Jeg Coughlin Jr.

Chef Nicky says of his time with the JEGS team “they treated me like gold. I would fly out on Friday, cook lunch and dinner for about 15 people and they even took my wife Mitzi with on the plane. I would get up and make breakfast for about half a dozen people, lunch for half a dozen and when the race was over we flew back home.” In between races Chef Nicky would go to the local grocery stores and markets to purchase his own ingredients, depending on the freshest ingredients for his menu for the team. Chef Morse even recounted to me his biggest tip of road traveling as a chef: He had his own meat shipped in from BluesCreek Farms, a local farm focused on all-natural raised animals.

Through working with the JEGS team, interacting with media members who would stop by the kitchen area to eat and interview Coughlin, he was often told he needed his own TV show. After some time and a lot of work, VOILA! The Racing Chef appeared on our screens.

Cooking in the Bahamas with Amanda Speed and Samantha Busch
ranks as Morse's show highlight.
Since the beginning, Chef Nicky has set out to entertain and educate race fans about cooking by tying together the two worlds. Nicky is out to show those who spend the weekend grilling in the infield that they don't have to settle for just burgers and dogs anymore. SPEED TV seized the opportunity and “The Racing Chef” hit the air. His show featured guests ranging from Kenny Wallace who cooked a “redneck: sandwich, Jeff Hammond who BBQ’ed elk that he himself hunted and even went to the Bahamas to cook with Samantha Busch and Amanda Speed. Asking Chef Nicky a favorite memory, he pondered for a moment, no one likes to single out one thing but I had to ask for a highlight. “I have to tell you, going to the Bahamas was definitely a highlight. It was amazing for me probably because of the after effects of a show – when the fans would come up and grab me to talk and laugh with me. If I had a dollar for every person that grabbed me and wanted to talk to me about Kenny Wallace’s Missouri Redneck sandwich, as simple as it was, it was funny stuff.”

The tales of Chef Nicky and his NASCAR race adventures left me captivated. In particular, a story from Talladega involving something usual to serve at track, well in my book it is usual. Never in my life would I think of ALLIGATOR on a tailgating menu but as Chef Nicky told me, “that was the most unique thing I have ever eaten.” A fan was roasting a whole alligator – not just a section of meat – the whole thing. 30899_388685932972_293682877972_3782096_6692263_n (1) (see below for the gator picture)  Morse said to himself upon hearing about the odd item being cooked, "Hmm I have got to taste this.” Visiting the campsite, the fan reached in and pulled a hunk of the smoking meat off the alligator’s back and offered it up for tasting. Morse said, “Amanda, it was great!” What’s that they say, tastes like chicken? I will stick with my chicken for now Chef. You are braver then I am.

If you think I would write this whole article and not include a Chef Nicky Morse original recipe – well, that would be wrong! If you have seen his show, he cooked chicken parmesan with Joey Logano. (A secret as Chef Nicky told me, a cast iron skillet, which helps to brown the meat. Another tip I got was to add a little cheese into your bread crumbs for the breading, it helps with getting that crispy, buttery flavor you want.) Hungry..want to try it? Here is the recipe for Chef Nicky’s Chicken Parmesan.

1 pound Chicken Breast (Boneless-Skinless) (Cut into 6 Pieces)
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/2 cup bread crumbs
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/4 cup plus 6 teaspoons grated Parmesan cheese
To taste salt
To Taste pepper
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
2 tablespoons Italian parsley – freshly chopped
1/4 cup Olive oil
1 cup tomato sauce
2.5 ounces grated Mozzarella
2.5 ounces grated Provolone

1. Mix the bread crumbs, garlic powder, basil, oregano, parsley, and ¼ cup of Parmesan cheese together.
2. Pat the chicken breast dry if needed so that the breading will stick.

3. Season the chicken breast, flour, eggs, and bread crumb mix with salt and pepper.
4. Lightly coat the chicken with the flour followed by the eggs and then bread crumb mix; let rest 2 minutes.
5. In a non stick skillet over medium high heat, brown the breaded chicken to a light golden brown.
6. Remove the chicken from the skillet and place on a baking dish.
7. Cover the chicken with the tomato sauce. (Home made sauce is best)
8. Sprinkle 1 teaspoon f parmesan cheese on each piece of chicken and cover evenly with mozzarella and provolone.
9. Bake until the chicken is done. Enjoy!

Having some fun with Chef Nicky, I asked him the best thing he ever ate in his life..and that stumped him. I guess asking a Chef that was like asking a mother her favorite child, but after thinking about it, it brought us back to his inspiration, Grandma. “Boy, when my grandma made pasta fagioli (pasta with beans) it was probably the best thing I have ever eaten in my life.” On the opposite end, I asked the Chef, the thing he won’t eat or is hesitant to eat, if there is one. “I will eat about anything. I guess if I am hesitant to eat anything, if I walk into a restaurant and it is not clean, I do not want to eat there. I think a kitchen should look like a laboratory, you are putting stuff in people’s bodies so everything should be as clean as possible.”

A poignant moment came when Chef Morse said to me, “To be honest I do not know if I showed my cooking skills at all. I do not think anyone at SPEED has truly seen my cooking skills to the degree of what I can cook.” After researching and speaking to the Chef, I have to agree. I am a true food lover and food show addict, Chef Nicky could go toe to toe with any Food Network star with his experience in the kitchens of fine dining and then onto his work with JEGS.

Although “The Racing Chef” show has been put on the back burner for now, Morse is thankful for where he is today. Saying: “The only thing I can do is thank SPEED, thanks for giving me the opportunity. Those people at SPEED, I cannot say one bad thing about them, they have been amazing to me.”

Next time you see Chef Nicky, whether at track or even if you give him a shout on Facebook or Twitter, give him a friendly hello and talk some food with him. He is very fan friendly. Also – ask him a cooking question, I was floored when he told me about sticking potato chips into cookie, which creates a shortbread cookie. (That is a must try for me now)

I thoroughly enjoyed the time I got to speak with Race Chef Nicky and would like to personally thank him for his time. Chef Nicky – it was my pleasure to speak to you.

NASCAR By the Numbers and In the Rearview Mirror (looking back at NASCAR's history) are Amanda's two weekly columns with Skirts and Scuffs, but as an Associate Editor her duties are limitless. Amanda also expanded her area of coverage to include exclusive interviews, brought straight to the readers of Skirts and Scuffs. To read her past columns and interviews, click here. Feel free to follow and contact Amanda via Twitter.
Getting to know “The Racing Chef” Nicky Morse Getting to know “The Racing Chef” Nicky Morse Reviewed by Unknown on Tuesday, September 13, 2011 Rating: 5