Affina restaurant is located on a quiet corner of San Carlos and 6th, away from the bustle of Ocean Avenue. There is no sign displaying its name, and you’ll probably pass it the first time looking for it. But its small interior hides a secret by the name of Nico Izard. Nico (aka Nicolas) is French, speaks excellent English, and unlike some of his out-of-town colleagues, knew the Monterey Peninsula before settling here.
Nico Izard was born in Bondues, a rural part of France in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais near the Belgian border. His father, Daniel, a microbiologist, works in food safety for the French government and mother, Viviane, was in marketing. While his parents worked, Nico, an only child, was raised by his strict but forgiving nanny, Bernadette.
While France is often recognized for prolific art and culture, attributes that have been credited for creating numerous romances throughout history, Nico says living in France has its challenges, like anywhere else. The simple task of obtaining a drivers license, for instance, took Nico six months despite having passed the exams the first time around. “The system is very slow,” he says.
Fortunately for Nico, he found many passions that provided happy distractions to the frustrations of life. Before he began attending French cuisine school and interning under the tutelage of Chef Christophe Hagnerelle, a Michelin star chef, he developed a love for tennis and scuba diving. And like kids of all ages, he often set off on his bike, finding freedom as he rode through the neighborhoods of his hometown.
When Nico was 14, his mother was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Nico took over the domestic chores of the household and by necessity learned his way around the kitchen. “When my mother got back from the hospital, she couldn’t walk, so somebody had to cook.” Taking his mother’s recipes and advice, Nico’s experiences would serve him well in later life. “I liked cooking before, but this time I really got into it!” Nico eventually applied to study at Monterey Peninsula College in 1997. A friendship with future business partner Dexter Salazar would prove fortuitous 17 years later. Transferring to the Monterey Institute of International Studies, Nico earned a degree in International Studies in 2003 and later a master’s degree in International Business at the University of Stirling, Scotland in 2005.
When the worldwide recession hit Europe, Nico faced an overcrowded job market. He changed course at 28 and went to the Ferrandi School of Culinary Arts in Paris. After completing his French studies, Nico spent nearly two years seeking employment in France. He finally posted his resume online, landing a position at the famed L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, London. “Suddenly the phone kept on ringing all the time,” recalls Nico. “It was really hard. Everything is done by hand. No blender, no Robot Coupe, only knives. I was prepping the famous Robuchon mashed potatoes and the guy that was standing on my left was cutting the fries one by one. It takes 12 hours to make tomato sauce!”
Although Nico had many experiences that molded his future, it was his partnership with old pal Dexter Salazar that gave life to Affina. “We had this idea over three years ago,” Nico says. Well-lit, with whitewashed walls and simple wood furniture, Affina could be called “Carmel casual.” As for the cuisine, “it is what we call in France, bistronomy,” meaning a mix of fine dining culinary techniques. Start out with an appetizer of Kurobuta pork rillettes or organic beet and citrus salad, then a 14-ounce grilled New York prime steak. If you’re thirsty, there is a wine bar and espresso machine. “All food is local and sustainable,” Nico says. Because the menu changes, you may get something different each time you come.
Nico seems to have little time for relaxation, but when he does it usually involves spending time with friends, cooking, and watching movies. You might keep an eye out for him though. He has full intentions to get back into scuba diving. “I’m just happy to be in California,” he says.
By Peter Hemming | Photos by Manny Espinoza