#IAmCullman: Meet Chef Rico Nishimura

Chef Rico Nishimura poses in front of 412 Public House. (Christy Perry for The Cullman Tribune)

With this feature series, The Cullman Tribune is highlighting everyday individuals all around Cullman County who make our community a great place. #IAmCullman

CULLMAN, Ala. – Easter Sunday marked the second anniversary for Cullman’s popular eatery 412 Public House, and behind the restaurant’s success in Executive Chef Ricardo (Rico) Nishimura. He moved to the United States 20 years ago from Sao Paulo, Brazil on a tennis scholarship and on Jan. 17, 2020, he officially became a United States citizen. The soft-spoken chef, sporting one of his many pairs of colorful Crocs and doughnut novelty socks, sat down with The Tribune to explain how Cullman, Alabama became the place he proudly calls home.

“I moved here just myself. I got a tennis scholarship to play for Wallace State. I played tennis and soccer,” Rico explained.

When he first moved to the United States, Rico moved to Bristol, Tennessee where he stayed less than a year before moving to attend Wallace State Community College.

Rico was one of the top ranked junior tennis players in Brazil.

He said, “Some agents came and said they were looking for some players to play junior college and so I sent a tape of me playing. That’s how it got started.”

When he came to Wallace State, Rico did not speak English, only Portuguese.

He said of his move to Wallace, “I love it. Everybody is always so supportive and helped me so much in terms of holidays and invited me for holidays because I didn’t know anything. The culture and everything was so new for me, but I got so many help.”

His entire family still lives in Brazil and visiting them has been hard with the new restaurant keeping him so busy.

While playing tennis and soccer in college, Rico found a job washing dishes at The All-Steak, which led to an interest in cooking.

“I just started getting an interest in cooking when I started working in some local restaurants. To be honest, I never did so much cooking. I started washing the dishes and helping the other chefs prep. I started moving up and working a little on the fry side and helping the chef with prep and I liked it,” he said. “There are so many things you can do and the interaction with people, that’s what I love the most here. When I get to know the customers, the relationship we get to have with them- everybody is so nice here and I just love it.”

Rico developed a passion for cooking and enrolled in Wallace State’s Culinary Arts Program.

“Every chef has a different taste of things. One likes savory more and one likes a little sweeter. What I love about cooking is you can always do so many things. Every time I see a recipe, I always want to do it differently,” he said.

After completing his program at Wallace, Rico continued working under other chefs and eventually felt he was ready to run his own kitchen. He worked with chefs at Terri Pines, Chamblee’s and Brothers.

“I think working under them, it made me who I am. I think everybody I worked with got me better,” he smiled. “They pushed me to be better because you can always learn something with anybody. I am still learning. Even if I hire somebody who has never cooked before, maybe they can always show me something like, ‘Wait a minute, that’s a better way to do it.’”

Rico likes cooking all things but especially loves pasta and seafood.

He added, “Pretty much anything, I love it. From taco to pizza to pasta, steak and seafood. My favorite has always been Italian food because I use always these ingredients you pretty much use on everything- garlic, fresh basil and more garlic and butter.”

What does he make at home on a day off?

He laughed, “Honestly, I don’t cook at home. All I have at home right now is…people say, ‘You must be eating good at home’ and I say ‘No, I don’t. I just eat microwavable food.”

If he were to cook at home, he said, “Whatever is the easiest and doesn’t include washing so many dishes later.”

One dish he enjoys is peanut butter on a blueberry bagel with bananas. 

As he learned the ways of the kitchen, becoming a U.S. citizen had been on his mind.

He said, “I’d been working for over 10 years for my citizenship. First, I had to get my green card, and after a few years to obtain the green card, you can apply for citizenship. It’s been a long process, but it’s always been my dream to be a U.S. citizen actually because I just love it. I love the culture, the people, plus, I’ve been living here now most of my life.”

Rico will turn 39 years old later this year and has been in Alabama most of his adult life.

The process of becoming a citizen was long and Rico described it as “nerve racking” due to only having two chances to pass the test.

“I did Ok and passed first try,” he said. “I was so relieved! It was something I had been trying for.”

His work family organized a surprise party for Rico, and of his family back in Brazil, he said, “They were excited because they knew that’s what I wanted. So they were really excited for me.”

Rico considers himself blessed to not only be a U.S. citizen, but also to have the opportunity to run his own kitchen.

He said of his partners and staff, “They came to me to help me to fulfill my dream which is to have my own kitchen. They have been a big influence on my dream, too, so I couldn’t have done it without them.”

As for being homesick for Brazil, his parents, two sisters and three nephews, Rico said, “I did a lot, but now I don’t think about it much. My first few years, it was hard. I thought I wasn’t going to make it. I was like, ‘I want to go home to my friends and my family.’ Now, I think if I went home, I would get homesick for here. This is home now. It is.”

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Christy Perry