Nikki Steward's Star Turn
Long before she was catering Dave Chappelle’s Summer Camp or Diddy’s Super Bowl party, Nikki Steward started in the same place countless other chefs have: grandma’s kitchen. Growing up, Steward says her grandmother was the only person she knew who cooked from scratch. Sunday dinners after church were a staple in Steward’s family, and by the time she was a preteen, she was helping prepare the meals.
“At one point, my grandmother started passing the torch to me and was like, ‘You got all of it.’ I was like, ‘Wait, I didn’t want to do all of it. You can still make some pound cake, because those are your thing,’” Steward says laughing when we talk via phone in October.
Eventually, her grandmother’s pound cake pan became Steward’s.
“It’s in my cabinet as we speak,” says the Columbus-based chef. “I still will use it to make pound cake. My grandmother passed away last year, so those are some of my fondest memories of her, is of making cakes.”
Although Steward, who grew up in Cincinnati, discovered her love of cooking early on, her parents wanted her to pursue a more stable career. That led her to Ohio State, where she graduated with a degree in pharmaceutical sciences in 2002. After working in the field for several years, Steward realized she wasn’t happy. She wanted a job that allowed her to use her creativity, so she started hosting dinner parties for her friends and sorority sisters. Someone asked her to cater an event, and from then on, she was all in.
“I went into more or less an immersive training that I put myself in. I didn’t want to go to culinary school, because I’d already been in school for something else,” she says. “So, I studied culinary [arts] in a lot of different places. I went to Thailand, to Europe, studied in different restaurants with different chefs across America. I really honed my skills, started from the bottom of the kitchen and then went to the top.”
As she made her way up the kitchen hierarchy, Steward realized that working for someone else, creating someone else’s concept, wasn’t for her. She wanted to follow her own vision. On top of that, the pay inequity in the industry was an issue for her. At the time, she was married and raising two young daughters. “There’s no way I could survive off of $12 to $13 an hour, and I don’t think anyone should,” she says.
“I decided that I was going to try to find a niche, and I went the celebrity route,” Steward says. “I enjoyed the travel and the excitement of being able to create any menu for anyone at any point in time.”
A few words about the celebrities Steward has worked with: This summer she catered Dave Chappelle’s Summer Camp, a star-studded comedy and music event series that he held at Wirrig Pavilion in Yellow Springs, near his home. She’s gone on tour with DJ Khaled, preparing food in a new city every night. In 2017, she held her first large-scale cannabis dinner party—and it was for Snoop Dogg. (Besides her work with celebrities, Steward is also known for her brand, The High-End Affair, a traveling “infused culinary experience.”) Three days before the 2020 Super Bowl, Steward got a call from Diddy’s people, who asked her to cater his party. She’s collaborated with the cognac brand Martell for events with the rap group Migos and singer Jhené Aiko. When we talk in October, she’s working on an event for Saint Laurent, the French luxury fashion house, at its New York flagship.
As glamorous and fun as Steward’s job looks on her Instagram account (@thechef
nikki), she puts an immense amount of work into each event. She is the first to point out that her line of work is not for all chefs. When the James Beard award-winning chef Kwame Onwuachi of Top Chef fame came to Ohio to help Steward with Chappelle’s birthday party, he told her, “You guys are kicking ass, but I would never do this.”
“I think that a lot of people think it’s all fun and games because you’re at Dave Chappelle’s Summer Camp, and you’re hanging around all these super-famous people and partying and having a good time,” says Catie Randazzo, owner of the now closed Ambrose and Eve, who Steward recruited to help at Chappelle’s events. “But that’s not it at all. There’s a high level of standards that people expect and [that] you maintain. There’s also a level of privacy. You have to put your head down and do the work.”
Randazzo and Steward met when they both worked out of ECDI’s Food Fort, a commissary kitchen. When the pandemic hit, Randazzo says Steward checked in to see how she was doing. When Randazzo loaned Steward a food truck for an event, Steward ended up bringing the chef on to help cook.
“She was like, it’s for an event in Yellow Springs. Do you want to come help me? By the way, it’s for Dave Chappelle,” Randazzo recalls.
After working together this summer several days a week for 10 to 12 hours, the two became good friends. “When you spend that much time with someone, you really get to know them,” Randazzo says. “She kept me calm and level-headed when I didn’t know I needed it. She was a great support system.”
It’s not difficult to find Columbus chefs to speak highly of Steward. She is well-known on the local dining scene, both
for her skills and her advocacy. As her friend and fellow chef Linda Berry points out, there’s much more to Nikki’s work than celebrities.
“People see her with celebs. They don’t see her when she’s going to Ohio State and teaching the football players how to make food,” says Berry, who is also the sous chef for The High-End Affair. (Like a true friend, Berry makes sure to mention the volunteer work Steward does, because “Nikki won’t tell you all this,” Berry says, noting her friend’s humble nature.)
Both Randazzo and Berry point out that Steward makes every effort to staff her events with women and people of color. Oftentimes, the staff for one of Steward’s events comprises only women. (“It’s so nice to work with all ladies,” Randazzo says. “It’s just nice to empower each other.”) During Chappelle’s Summer Camp, Berry says Steward brought along local small business owners and artists to perform and sell their wares to a larger audience.
Although COVID-19 has changed the nature of Steward’s work—fewer events in general, and smaller, socially distanced ones now—she’s planning ahead for the new year. She’s currently helping to develop a cannabis-infused restaurant in Detroit. When the question of opening her own restaurant comes up, Steward says it could happen—one day.
“It’s to the point where I have to sit down to open a restaurant. That’s the problem,” she says. “And I’m not ready to be stationary at the moment.”