Nordhem Restaurant to reopen under new, experienced hands
Brooklyn, N.Y., native and internationally-trained chef Pedro Diaz began his career in the kitchen as a dishwasher. He has since moved up from dishwashing. Over a 35-year career, he has met famous chef Bobby Flay, appeared on a pair of Food Network shows, and cooked in various settings— hotels, a cruise line, a resort, airlines, private jets.
Now, his culinary journey brings him to Nordhem Restaurant in Karlstad. A place closed throughout much of the pandemic, Nordhem Restaurant is scheduled to reopen on August 9, 2021, under Diaz’s leadership as Nordhem’s Executive Chef/Operator.
Diaz discussed his culinary background, how he found out about Nordhem and what he plans to bring here, what he enjoys most about the work he does and what he has enjoyed so far about his time here.
Growing up in Brooklyn during the 1980’s, Diaz began his time in the kitchen doing dishwashing jobs with his friends. An artist in his early years, Diaz would get noticed for his work in the kitchen.
“A friend of mine, who was going to culinary school,” Diaz said, “he kind of noticed my work one day just playing around and he said, ‘Why don’t you go to culinary school?’”
He attended culinary school in New York. Getting dismissed from this culinary school, Diaz— through the help of a friend— got a job working at the Pembroke Hotel in Manhattan. Famous individuals, such as Danny DeVito and Joe Piscopo, would stay at this hotel, Diaz said.
“My introduction to the culinary world and the clienteles was like, ‘Wow,’” Diaz said, “so from that day on, I just made an effort to stay in the business.”
His time working in New York City provided him with some valuable opportunities.
“Those 15 years were just experience and experimenting and working with the best chefs out of New York City,” Diaz said.
He would get what he called his first break with Norwegian Cruise Line in 2005. Stationed in Hawaii, this brand new vessel was looking for cooks. Diaz put in his resume and a woman with Norwegian Cruise Line considered him “overqualified.” She told him to downsize his experience and return with an updated resume, and Diaz did just that and was eventually hired to work on the ship.
“But she (Norwegian Cruise Line representative) said when you get on the vessel, show them what you got,” Diaz said, “In other words… Do your best, and sure enough, I did.”
Within the vessel’s two-week trip from California to Hawaii, he would prove what he had. Asked by the cruise line if he could do the job of a manager after he expressed dissatisfaction with the previous individual in charge, Diaz would show them what he had and would get a team assembled by the time the vessel arrived in Hawaii, at which time guests arrived on board.
After four years with Norwegian Cruise Lines, he worked for corporate airlines and private jets. He got into international cuisine working for companies such as Flying Food Group and Gate Gourmet, always working as a General Manager/Executive Chef.
Then, one day he was watching the Food Network with his wife and was laughing. He saw this guy on the show had a chicken wing, mozzarella sticks, and celery. He insulted the guy and his wife asked if he could do better.
“I said (to my wife), ‘Yeah, I can,’” Diaz said with a laugh.
He went online and applied for the show, “Chopped”— his first show with the Food Network. He earned a spot on “Chopped,” specifically season two, episode eight. He didn’t win the show. A couple years later, he would get another opportunity on the Food Network.
“That (“Chopped” experience) left a bad taste in my mouth, but nonetheless, I’m a professional,” Diaz said. “… They (Food Network) had called me to say, ‘We’re doing a show called “Cutthroat Kitchen.” Would you like to be on that show? I said, ‘Yeah, I want to make up for the loss.’”
He appeared on “Cutthroat Kitchen” on exactly a year to the day after his mother had passed away. On this show, Diaz, as he said, “kicked butt” and won $16,000 for eight hours of work. This would gain him some recognition as well.
He then started traveling, working at hospitals and hotels. Then about 10 years ago, he decided to help restaurants in need.
“I would go in and clean out the restaurant, fire the staff that was causing problems,” Diaz said, “hire new staff, re-change their menu, introduce international cuisine.”
In 2019, right before COVID hit, Diaz would gain acceptance into the Culinary Institute of America, where he would be offered an opportunity to finish his master’s degrees. Then COVID hit, shutting that opportunity down.
That, he summarized, has been his 35-year culinary journey.
“It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve met a lot of great people. I’ve worked under great chefs, especially out of New York City,” Diaz said. “I used to work with Bobby Flay before Bobby Flay was even Bobby Flay.”
A couple of months ago, he flew out to Alaska to help a struggling private resort near Kodiak, Alaska, specifically Afognak Island.
“(It) was pretty cool, pretty amazing,” Diaz said. “(I) got into the bear season, got to shoot bears and skin bear. So it was a lot of wonderful experience that I’ve never done before.”
Then, he received a call from Kathy Wikstrom, who has a resort in Alaska, and she presented Diaz with an opportunity at Nordhem, a restaurant her family owned back in Karlstad.
“And I said, ‘Minnesota.’ I traveled all over the United States quite a few times and I think I’ve never really thought about coming to Minnesota,” Diaz said. “And she (Wikstrom) said, ‘Well, we have a restaurant. We’re willing to give you full ownership of the restaurant that you can operate and run it and do what you want with it. And we’ll also will provide you a nice, beautiful home.’”
At the time, Diaz said he wasn’t really interested, but asked her to provide him with more information.
“I told her I can be there November (2021),” Diaz said. “Unfortunately, it was too far off for them, so I declined. And that week, I couldn’t sleep.”
He called her again to hear more about this restaurant’s story. She sent him photos and the restaurant’s website.
“I saw the website here and I just fell in love with the place,” Diaz said.
She also sent him photos of his potential home and he considered it a “beautiful” house. He then reached out to some friends to find a replacement in Alaska and received a response. He then called Wikstrom back and agreed to do the job.
He traveled back to New York to pick up his car and drove out to Karlstad.
“Sure enough, I drove in, I saw this restaurant,” Diaz said. “It was beautiful, fully-equipped, and needed some modification in some areas, food being one of them.”
To see the complete story, read the August 5 issue of the North Star News in print or online.