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Published April 29, 2014, 03:56 PM

Sweet shop shift: NYC chef takes over Nichole’s kitchen

FARGO – After celebrating 10 years of her namesake sweet shop last year, Nichole Hensen knew something had to change.

By: By John Lamb, INFORUM

FARGO – After celebrating 10 years of her namesake sweet shop last year, Nichole Hensen knew something had to change.

Business was good. If anything, too good. The owner and chef of Nichole’s Fine Pastry was surprised by just how well the eatery caught on after opening in early 2003 and found herself working up to about 80 hours a week.

Hensen is breaking free of the baking grind and recently handed over the ruling rolling pin to Nichole’s new pastry chef, Nancy Olson.

Olson’s official title is general manager, but her role is more than the job title suggests. She’ll lead the kitchen and front-of-house staff while Hensen works on the business end of operations from the basement office.

“I’m doing a little more of the heavy lifting,” Olson says. “You don’t come in guns blazing. That’s no way to impress people.”

The new GM is making her mark but in ways that aren’t visible to the customer. The sweets in the pastry cases won’t change, but what happens behind the cases will.

Olson moved back to Fargo last summer after years as the head pastry chef at Gramercy Tavern in New York, overseeing a staff of 12.

She credits her time at the institution with teaching her how to be a better manager and run an efficient kitchen.

“I worked a lot of years being a crabby chef, screaming and swearing and throwing sheet pans because restaurants can be conducive to that personality. Gramercy Tavern is not like that,” Olson says. “You can push people really hard and still be nice to each other.”

She learned a lot from Danny Meyer, the restaurateur behind Gramercy, and his book, “Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business.” She now has Hensen reading the book as well.

Hensen likes that Olson has a background in fine-dining and thinks she’ll bring a new level of professionalism to the Fargo business.

“For the pastry shop to benefit from what she got from Gramercy is stellar,” Hensen says.

“You have the people skills I don’t have,” Hensen says to Olson. “Directing traffic in the kitchen. You’re probably a lot sweeter than I’ve been…. I didn’t work enough places to know any better.”

“I can change my personality to fit in with everybody,” Olson says.

Both credit the existing staff for its proficiency and former employees Minda Ringdahl (now living in Grand Forks) and Abby Swegarden (now a teacher) for helping the business grow over their combined 17 years at the pastry shop.

“We have a very strong team here now. We rock out a lot of stuff,” Olson says.

While the women have different personalities, there are similarities. Both are in their early 40s and grew up on North Dakota farms – Olson in Napoleon and Hensen in Glenburn. Both attended college before realizing the wanted to work in restaurants. Hensen graduated with a business degree from University of North Dakota and Olson left Concordia College in Moorhead to learn the ways of the kitchen.

They met in the late 1990s when Olson was at the Fargo Country Club and Hensen, a ’97 graduate from the Culinary Institute of America at Greystone in St. Helena, Calif., was at the VIP Room.

Shortly after, Olson left for the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. She graduated in 2001 and moved to the Big Apple.

They stayed in touch and before opening Nichole’s, Hensen visited Olson and they hit 24 bakeries in two days.

“I was envious of her in New York, doing the big city thing,” Hensen says.

But “the big city thing” wore on Olson. After turning 40, she started evaluating her life there and decided she wouldn’t stay.

“I didn’t like the way 50 looked in New York, hanging out with my line cooks until the sun comes up,” Olson says.

She moved back to Fargo and started working at Nichole’s in July, all the while both talked about how they could best work together moving forward.

Already, Olson earned Hensen’s trust.

“That’s a big thing for me,” the owner says, acknowledging that being career-driven comes at a cost.

“You pay a price for that. You can add it up, but I’d rather not,” Hensen says. “I haven’t given up hope on that, getting a personal life outside of the shop.”

Olson’s presence won’t change the focus of the shop. Hensen says they won’t deviate from the tried and true menu staples, though they may add flavor variations to dishes like the mousse towers.

Still, Olson’s own confections are coming out of the kitchen, though maybe not to the pastry cases yet. Her peanut butter truffles and housemade macaroons will be featured at Saturday’s Plains Art Gala to see how they go over.

Readers can reach Forum reporter John Lamb at (701) 241-5533