Nico Albert fell in love with restaurants as a teenager. But it wasn’t the food that initially drew MixCo’s executive chef to the industry, it was the lifestyle.
"At 17, I was working as a veterinary assistant, and I had a friend who was working as a hostess at a restaurant," said Albert, who was born in Bakersfield, CA but spent her formative years in Arizona before moving to Oklahoma at 19. "She was always having so much fun, going out and drinking with all the older staff members. It was always a party and she was always telling these crazy stories… I thought, ‘well, she’s having more fun than I am, so I need to do that.’"
Albert landed a job at that same restaurant, an upscale Mexican place in Scottsdale, AZ. The electricity and excitement of the environment—constant yelling and fighting among staff, wild parties after work—fit the teenager well, and foretold her eventual career as a chef. She especially idealized the back-of-house culture. "The kitchen dudes were terrifying and fascinating at the same time," she remembered. The restaurant specialized in Oaxacan cuisine, a taste that stuck with her and still influences her cooking 15 years later.
In 2007, after moving to Tulsa, she "bullshitted" her way into a kitchen job at the Petroleum Club downtown, glorifying her stint at a health café in Bartlesville on her resume as evidence of prior experience as a line cook. "I had no business being in the kitchen," she laughed. "I fudged it a little bit and told this manager I was fully capable of running a station on a line. Which was an awful lie; I’d never done that."
At 24, she was finally in a proper kitchen, working alongside ex-cons covered in tattoos and full of filthy jokes. "They were terrifying! I was like, ‘this is wonderful, I love this.’" She quickly acclimated and the kitchen crew accepted her as one of their own, thanks in part to a serendipitous accident that occurred the night before her first day of work.
"I’d had a particularly rough night of partying, I fell down some stairs and ended up with a gnarly black eye," she recalled. "Of course, when I showed up for work I made up some outrageous story, like ‘you should see the other chick.’ They were like ‘whoa, what is the deal with this bitch? Don’t fuck with her.’"
She says this encounter offered her the first clue for navigating a kitchen full of men: get on their level and scare them. "You have to lay that foundation: you don’t have to tip-toe around me, because I can kick your ass, I can tell dirtier jokes than you, and I can cook better than you."
Albert’s time at Petroleum Club proved invaluable; in addition to navigating the dubious politics of restaurant culture, she learned cooking technique and quickly graduated from pantry to more difficult stations.
For nearly a decade, she ascended the ranks of the Tulsa restaurant scene, cutting her teeth at places like The Brasserie, Lola’s at the Bowery, Green Onion and Lucky’s, where she was chef de cuisine.
Under the tutelage of Lucky’s owner Matt Kelley, Albert pushed herself harder than ever. Though the menu, written by Kelley, has barely changed in the near-decade the restaurant has been open, it gave her the opportunity to achieve perfection through consistency, executing the same dishes day in and day out for years while showing off her expanding skillset with a weekly menu of specials.
"Matt pushed me hard," she said. "Every week. Four new specials every week… it was always about finding a new ingredient, showcasing something new, learning something new. That was invaluable."
Then, two years ago, after establishing herself as one of Tulsa’s most interesting new chefs, she walked away from the kitchen for a job as a bartender at MixCo, a stylish craft cocktail bar that was opening across the street from the BOK Center.
"It was burnout on the manager side of things, which carried over into the creativity," she explained of her decision to leave Lucky’s. "Once you get to a certain level, you’re not cooking anymore. You’re making a schedule and balancing a budget and sitting in an office doing math all day. People are calling you constantly asking you what to do about this or that. It kinda took all the joy out of cooking. I needed a break."
So she remade herself as a mixologist, becoming a fixture behind MixCo’s bar. "[Bartending] is very similar to cooking—it’s recipes and technique," she said. "Learning the drinks wasn’t the problem… The problem I had was the social aspect to being a bartender. I was bad at it."
This past spring, MixCo announced plans to build out a kitchen for food service, and in May, they started serving a full menu of high-end pub fare, which Albert created in her newly minted role as executive chef. This return to the kitchen completes a reboot for her career that began when she walked out of Lucky’s in 2014.
"I guess I didn’t realize that I made any impact at Lucky’s, but it was amazing to find out that people really appreciated what I did."
Fans of her cooking at other establishments will be pleased to see the MixCo menu is perhaps the purest representation of her sensibilities yet. "I knew that we were trying to do shared plates, that was the initial guideline," she said. "Flavor-wise, this was kind of my debutante ball as a menu, the first time I was in control of everything. So it ended up being this kind of weird mix of Mexican-New Orleans soul food. It’s dishes that I’ve made a million times." Indeed, the menu reads like a greatest hits of flavors that have defined Albert’s cooking over the years: Roasted Chicken Croquetas, Fried Red Beans and Rice, Cochinita Pilbil Tacos, Ahi Tuna Nicoise, Harissa Chicken Lollipops, along with more traditional offerings like the "Dad Burger," Steak Fries, and the Basque Dip (a Spanish take on the French Dip).
Now, as she settles back into her role as a chef, MixCo is already expanding its food service to themed brunches (so far they’ve done a Party Brunch with DJs and a Sunday Funday Brunch with games). This Sunday, July 24, they’ll host "The Big Gay Brunch" in conjunction with local theatre company Square 1 Theatrics. Acclaimed NYC drag troupe The Haus of Mimosa will perform for patrons; the brunch has been booked up for weeks.
Albert has returned to the kitchen wiser and more aware of her burnout threshold.
"I’ve learned to listen to myself and know my limits. And it’s still something I’m working on," she said. "You’re always looking to be better."
For more from Joshua, read about his experiences at an Insane Clown Posse concert.