“An ingredient can transform in flavor, texture, shape, and color in an infinite amount of ways.”
Self-described as curious and adventurous, creative and straightforward, the passionate Manila-born Nicole Server-Pawlukojc was always encircled by food—glorious food—as far as she can recall.
She loved to cook even as a child and she would try to sneak into the kitchen and politely ask if she could lend a hand.
But no one was interested in cooking within her immediate family. Server-Pawlukojc joked that her sole connection was that her grandma’s brother is married to the Glenda Barretto. (Barretto, of course, is the established restaurant pioneer and caterer par excellence, the force behind Via Mare’s decades of success.)
The close-knit clan composed of admitted foodies gathered for Sunday lunches over at their grandfather’s place. Together with her extended family, they would huddle up around a table laden with wonderful food, aimlessly chatting and sharing stories as they lovingly caught up on each other’s lives.
Igniting her passion
A proud alumna of the Assumption College, Server-Pawlukojc began her formal culinary education by earning a four-year degree from the De La Salle-College of Saint Benilde. She then followed it with an apprenticeship at the Costigliole d’Asti Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners in Italy.
This gave her the opportunity to intern at her first-ever commercial kitchen, the Ristorante La Fermata, a one Michelin star restaurant.
“It opened my eyes to the reality of working in a kitchen,” the chef says. “It ignited my passion for cooking. I finished my internship, went back home to graduate and came back the next year to work for a few months in La Fermata.”
Her main takeaway was the chef’s life was definitely suited for her—she could not wait to get out of the four corners of the lecture classrooms and food laboratories to start her career.
Fresh out of college, supplemented by brief courses at the Societa Dante Alighieri Comitato di’Manila, she worked at Brasserie CiCou, then at Circolo Golf Bogono, Chez Karine Patisserie, and at the Impressions at Maxims Hotel, home of one of the finest French food in the metropolis.
“Brasserie Cicou taught me the basics, how to work under pressure, to be strong, to be the best version of myself,” Server-Pawlukojc shares. “At Chez Karine, we made thousands of macarons, petit fours and small cakes every day. My teachers supported me in advancing my career and encouraged me to move abroad for further exposure.”
Server-Pawlukojc eventually signed up with Noma in Copenhagen, which gave her the most intense experience. She learned how to transform the simplest of ingredients into the most delicate of tastes.
“When you’re working in a kitchen that’s at such a high level, where everyone is constantly at 110 percent, where colleagues have something to prove, the level of competition and pressure is truly immense,” she says about working in Noma.
“The most important thing I have learned from Noma, aside from the discipline and focus of service would have to be that nothing is ever as it seems,” she continues. “An ingredient can transform in flavor, texture, shape, and color in an infinite amount of ways.”
During her stint in 2014, she met Bart, her husband-to- be, a butcher who specializes in meat fermentation, a cheesemaker, and a trained chef.
Mielcke & Hurtigkarl is where she spent more of her young career. Server-Pawlukojc was promoted to Senior Sous Chef as she, together with her mentors, worked their way up to be recognized by the White Guide Denmark 2018’s Third Best Restaurant and Sixth within the Nordic countries.
Throughout these years, she has met and worked with a number of global culinary influencers, with an impressive honor roll to include Cyrille Soenen, Rene Redzepi, Jakob Mielke, Christian Puglisi, Matt Orlando, Chad Robertson, Massimo Bottura, Will Goldfarb, Anita Klemmensen, and Dan Barber.
She singles out Redzepi, the genius behind Noma, as a particularly influential role model.
“It’s his incredible way of looking at food in general, of looking at each and every ingredient and evolving it in ways no one could’ve ever imagined,” she says. “His mind and his sense of taste are just seemingly out-of-this-world. Due to his hard work, the Danish food scene has reached the high level it’s at today.”
After having lived in Copenhagen for so long—the couple yearned for real sourdough which was exceptionally difficult to find for some reason.
“It’s temperamental. When it’s too hot, fermentation goes way to fast and you end up with frisbees instead of bread. When it’s too cold, fermentation is a lot slower and the bread doesn’t rise,” Server-Pawlukojc explains.
Fueled by their love for the living bread, they decided to move to Kilkenny, a medieval Irish town with religious roots and an impressive hub of arts and crafts. There, they opened Arán Bakery & Bistro.
Arán, which means bread in Scottish-Gaelic, is an artisan bakery, café, and bistro nestled in the heart of Kilkenny.
“We took over an empty unit for the past decade, so a lot of work had to be done to it,” Server-Pawlukojc recalls. “Since we had no investors, Bart and I had to do as much as we possibly could. We managed to rebuild, clean, furnish and set-up the kitchen, all in a month’s time. “
Just a 10-minute walk from the main street, the eatery can sit 38 patrons at a time and exuded a very casual and fun work environment.
According to Server-Pawlukojc, there is substantial trust between individuals in Danish workplaces and a true sense of equality.
“It’s not an uncommon sight to see Bart or myself cleaning coffee cups so that the custodian doesn’t have to,” she says. “It’s an indication of the high level of mutual respect between colleagues, regardless of level in an organization.”
As fate would have it, they happened to be located amidst the most amazing mills in the Bennetsbridge area. They source their Purple Wheat and Ølands Wheat from Tom Butler, Spelt from Will Gabbot and White Rye from various farmers, who all raise local heritage grains which produced sterling quality in endless quantities.
What serves as inspiration for? While she expresses a wish to cook together with her late grandmother Aba, Server-Pawlukojc’s answer is quite simple: the guests.
“At the end of the day, it’s about making them happy—their reaction when the dishes are served, their facial expressions as they eat and the pleasant memories they create,” she says.
This story originally came out in the April-May 2020 issue of Lifestyle Asia.