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Culinary Connections: Nick Van Deren & Jewish American Heritage Month

Culinary Connections celebrates all the ways food influences our lives and our connection to community and land. Join us as we feature stories from Northwest Harvest’s staff and their culinary heritages.

In honor of Jewish American Heritage Month, we sat down with our very own Nick Van Deren, Senior Philanthropy Communications Specialist, who shared stories of food, connection, and family.

Nick Van Deren poses in his kitchen, wearing a black sweater with a green kitchen towel over his shoulderNick Van Deren is no stranger to good food. He grew up in the Pacific Northwest, enjoying access to a broad range of cuisine: sushi at Aoki’s in Capitol Hill, breakfast at Costa’s in the U-District, Italian at Cafe Lago in Montlake, Afghani food from Kabul in Wallingford, pizza from Pagliacci’s, and Mexican dishes from El Puerco Lloron in Pike Place Market (whose doors have, sadly, since shuttered). Nick’s palette was informed by many cuisines, and many flavor profiles. Both of Nick’s parents cooked during his youth, and their family made it a point to share dinner together each day. His dad picked up a wicked good fish taco recipe from living in Arizona and his mom knows her way around some scalloped potatoes.

On the weekends, the Van Deren family would spend lazy mornings reading the paper and watching the incomparable Jacques Pépin and Julia Childs on PBS. Nick’s childhood was set against the softspoken French and Italian chefs and their recipes, techniques, and deep and abiding love of food. Many nights in college, Nick fell asleep to the sounds of cooking shows on YouTube, dreaming about hand rolled pasta and the perfect fried egg.

a loaf of challah wrapped in a blue towel rests on cutting boardNick’s love of food runs in the family. His Jewish grandfather and grandmother, who would visit often from New York City, would often ask “What are you people doing for lunch?” moments after they sat down to eat breakfast. Of course, breakfast was often the classic: a bagel, smear, lox or white fish, capers, sliced cucumbers, and pickled red onions. These days, it can be hard to get a bagel in Seattle that meets the standards of East Coast relatives. When visiting his grandparents in New York, he was treated to kosher salami (all beef) sandwiches, which he describes as the “Jewish version of a bologna sandwich.”

Nick’s grandparents on both sides were raised in houses that struggled to put food on the table, which resulted in lots of meals including boiled meat. Their particular appreciation for quality food, prepared with skill and love, to be shared with others was handed down in Nick’s family. This legacy lives on in Nick’s cooking today.

His home chef journey started in college. Once he moved out of the dorms at Western Washington University, Nick routinely frequented Joe’s Gardens, a local farm store across the street from his old apartment. He also worked in food: Nick worked in grocery stores throughout his 20s. Eventually he landed at Metropolitan Market, working as a buyer. “I started getting into cheese,” he said, and boy was he not kidding. Met Market sent him to the American Cheese Festival in Richmond, Virginia one year, for a three-day conference on cheese. Nick was surrounded by farmers, producers, cheese experts, and connoisseurs. He launched into studying for a test that would eventually earn him the title of Certified Cheese Professional, awarded to him by the American Cheese Society. “I think I worked harder on that test than I did for my college degree,” Nick chuckles.

french toast with berries atop a blue plate with powdered sugar being sprinkled on topHis love of cooking continued to grow. As a self-taught chef, Nick never uses a recipe. “I usually just ask myself ‘what do I want to experience?’ and then I go for it,” he says, “and whatever dish I’m preparing I always add more garlic than it calls for. I cook by taste, I don’t measure ever.”

In 2019, Nick found himself ready to leave behind the grocery world. A combination of good luck and a friend’s recommendation put Northwest Harvest on his radar. Nick applied for and got his first position at Northwest Harvest as an Events Specialist. Over the years, Nick’s career has flourished, and he currently serves as the Senior Philanthropy Communications Specialist. He writes content in support of the Philanthropy team and advances the mission of growing food justice across the state, all while crafting the most delectable snacks, which he generously shares with his colleagues.

We acknowledge and honor Nick and his family history of cherishing food for Jewish American Heritage Month and all year round!