We wrap up Celiac Awareness Month with a spotlight on Nick Nikolopoulos, owner of Gluten Free Gloriously, in Stirling.
JERSEY BITES: How did Gluten Free Gloriously get started?
NICK NIKOLOPOULOS: My parents opened a business in Brooklyn in 1972, and we still have that place. It’s still operating in Bay Ridge—Bay Ridge Bakery. It’s a high-quality European-style bakery, with French, Italian, Greek pastries. We do a lot of wholesale, we supply the Tri-State area and we have a storefront as well. About two years ago, because of my nephew’s severe gluten, dairy, and soy allergies, I decided to start looking at a space to do that.
When did you realize you wanted to make this a career? Was there an “aha!” moment?
I studied forensic osteology by education, and I was a New York City paramedic for many years I saw the trend of medicine and I saw the trend of food and I said, I think I’ve got this passion for pastry. It put a smile on people’s faces to have my dessert.
What is your baking style?
I bring the old-school baking that I learned from my father and marry it with techniques that I learned studying the French pastry arts. So the base is always beautiful. We don’t use mixes, we make our own from scratch because that’s how I learned—using high-quality ingredients. In my gluten-free bakery, I bring products that test the limits. To me, you should never know that something is gluten free when you eat it, and that’s easier to do than most people think. If you use high-quality ingredients and you know what you’re doing, it shouldn’t taste like cardboard. It should taste like real dessert and it should be high quality. I’m not afraid of spending money on ingredients. My rice flour is the finest rice flour, it’s double the cost, but my result is beautiful.
What is the greatest opportunity that has come to you as a result of baking?
A few years ago, politics aside, I had the privilege of making a U.S. Capitol cake for Congressman Maloney’s birthday, and I got to meet former Vice President Biden. It was a great moment. They took pictures and it made the Wall Street Journal. It was really a highlight in my career thus far.
What is the most memorable baked good you’ve had?
I’ve eaten a Greek dessert, but it’s really underappreciated. I’ve eaten it in Greece and we make it in Brooklyn, it’s called ekmek. It’s basically shredded wheat on the bottom infused in orange syrup with a layer of pastry cream and then almonds, topped with whipped cream. If I could figure out how to make gluten-free phyllo, I would love to get my celiac friends to try this dessert. It’s amazing, you don’t see it very often, and it’s just so refreshing and simple.
It’s your last day on Earth: what will your final meal be?
Well, being partial to Europe, in Greece or Italy on the waterfront, having grilled sardines with a class of grappa. That would be a great last meal.
What is the best advice you have to share with young people interested in becoming bakers?
It’s a great career. You do have to commit to not having weekends or holidays off—this is the nature of the beast. You have to move on up in the kitchen by proving your capability, by multitasking and being alert and doing the dance of the kitchen—not getting in your own way. It’s like an art, you want your dessert to come off happy, and joyful, and positive. I hate baking if I’m angry, so I try to work in my kitchen every day with a positive attitude.
Also, there are no seats in a commercial kitchen. If you can’t stand for multiple hours, get an office job. You get so many people that come for jobs, and they want an office, they want to sit down. This is not reality television, it’s a real kitchen, there are no actors. There’s multiple people and it’s tight sometimes.
If you could choose to be any food item, what would it be?
I think I’m most similar to chocolate. I love making people smile and making people happy. Chocolate can have the same effect on people and pairs well with a variety of foods. You can eat it as is, you can mix it into bases, you can drink it, coat things with it. It’s just an essential ingredient that brings various emotions out of people.
What do you always have on hand at home?
Olive oil and oregano from Greece. Those are two ingredients that I can really incorporate with anything.
What is your beverage of choice?
Gin martini—dirty, or a good Old Fashioned.
What is your favorite comfort food?
I’m a New York City guy, born and raised in Brooklyn. So although it may sound gross, a New York City dirty dog. It always hits the spot, on those rare occasions that I have one. For those who don’t know what a dirty dog is, it’s a hot dog from the carts outside. The New Yorkers call them dirty dogs. They’re so darn good.
What New Jersey bakeries or bread shops do you love, besides your own?
I love the concept of Sweet Melissa Patisserie. She was a Brooklynite before she came to Jersey, but she also has that vision of the French cuisine that I do. You can see the passion that she has about the pastries and the food that she does is made with love. It’s a limited menu, but it’s a good menu. I always say, “You know what? This is a beautiful little spot.”
If you could have dessert with any three people, living, deceased or fictional, who would they be and why?
I’ve always said I want to have a sit down with Gordon Ramsay, because he’s similar to me in the kitchen. No floss, no BS, get the job done at a high level and you’re fine. I laugh because I grew up in the kitchen with an always-angry Greek father, who would make Gordon look like an angel, actually. So I get his style. He knows discipline, and that’s what’s missing sometimes in today’s kitchens. That’s why I appreciate his style.
Another person, on the other end of the spectrum, would be Warren Buffett. I love his humbleness, his success, and if I could learn one thing from him, it might be the one thing that changes my life.
Finally, I have to include Eve, my wife, who is my best friend and always supports me no matter what I do, whether it’s crazy or normal. And she always makes me feel like she has my back. She’s a great mother, great wife, and yeah, I would have a great time having a nice dessert with her, with a glass of champagne.
What’s next for you?
We’re always working on new projects. We’re launching an online catalog soon—that’s my main project at the moment, and gluten free doughnuts. We’ve done some nice things with the doughnuts in a test run and we’re looking forward to launching them sometime in the spring or summer.
Anything else you’d like to tell us?
Something that’s always on my mind as a business owner and as a human being, is that customer service is lacking in general. People don’t realize how important customer service is. When you come to a bakery, I always say a bakery is like a circus, people should be happier when they leave than when they walked in. So there’s way too many times when you go into places, and whether it’s a bakery, a restaurant, or whether it’s just a coffee place, people just don’t smile. They don’t say a simple thank youor good morningor hello, so I really push that on my staff, that customer service is more important than your product—that’s what’s going to bring your customer back. That’s one message that I would really like for my fellow businesspeople to emphasize: Let’s get customer service back, at least on a small business level.
All photos are courtesy of Nick Nikolopoulos.