Q&A with Logan McMahan of Nicole-Taylor’s

When he was growing up, Logan McMahan never cooked with his mother, who didn’t want anyone else in the kitchen. It wasn’t until he was a health sciences major at IUPUI and living on his own that she taught him some recipes for quick, flavorful dishes such as the rice noodles he could make with a tea kettle in his room. A longtime pescatarian, McMahan challenged himself to go vegan a decade ago, later taking a job at the erstwhile raw food eatery Ezra’s Enlightened Cafe, where he honed his talents with plant-based cuisine. After helping with the food programs at both Coat Check Coffee and Provider, McMahan got the opportunity this summer to join chef Erin Kem at Nicole-Taylor’s Pasta + Market + Backroom Eatery, known for its selection of Italian gourmet products, its lunch cafe, and its wildly popular private dinners, which sell out in a few hours every year. McMahan has expanded the vegan offerings at the cafe, tweaking the offerings as he and Kem bring their own culinary personalities to the beloved 54th Street eatery.

Did you have any experience with Italian cuisine before you came on at Nicole-Taylor’s?

Not really. But I was excited to learn how the pastas were made, familiarizing myself with all the machines and the different extruder dies. It’s not a big leap for the kind of food that I’ve been making. Many people don’t know that all our pastas are vegan, made from just water and high-protein durum flour. The Hanslits [Tony and Rosa Hanslits] made the decision about 12 years ago when they were selling their products at the Carmel Farmers Market that they didn’t want a product with eggs sitting out in the heat. So that makes it easier for me to add some pastas to the menu and make them vegan. 

What are the challenges of putting together a dish if you’re vegan?

At first, I wasn’t sure how I would make a meal where I would feel full and where I wasn’t missing key nutrients. I think these are the common worries of people on a vegan diet. So I made sure to cook some grains, greens, and beans every day or at least with dinner. This is really how I feel good from what I eat. In a restaurant kitchen, I always make sure that I have someone I can rely on to make sure the dish is right before it goes out. That’s why I have Erin. I finish the dish, and she checks it see if it’s good before we serve it. I don’t find this limiting at all.

How did you go from being a barista to being on the kitchen staff at one of Indy’s most popular private-dining facilities?

Being a barista was just a job I had in college. I was a health sciences major at IUPUI, and I was thinking I would do something in public health. I didn’t know if I wanted to be in a hospital or where I would end up. After I worked at Ezra’s, I thought I might go to culinary school. But I continued to work at coffeehouses. They were my comfort zone. I worked at Kaffeine Coffee Co. for a bit, and then I moved on to Provider. They wanted someone to develop a food program there, so I put together a menu that included avocado toast and an almond ricotta toast with carrot lox. I also had breakfast burritos and “Brunchos,” or brunch nachos. Then, I moved to Coat Check Coffee where I created a biscuit-based menu with a barbecue chicken biscuit and a pot pie with a biscuit on top. So I wasn’t just working the line but really putting together a food vision for the places where I worked.

How are you helping to change the profile of the offerings at Nicole-Taylor’s?

We really want to keep things mostly the same for now, until people are used to having new owners in place. I have seen great potential in the food we offer in the cases up front, with offering a few more vegetarian and vegan options. For the cafe menu, I’ve added four new vegan dishes, a couple of sandwiches, a pasta, soups, and salads. So far, people have received the changes very well. Some people saw that we had posted our new vegan items to Instagram, so they posted to a vegan group on Facebook. That brought some people in. People have been pulling me aside and asking me to do more vegetarian items, and business has been steady since we’ve been offering more plant-based dishes and products.

And you’re tweaking how you do the private dinners?

In the past, people could only book one dinner per year, but now people can buy shares and get up to four dinners per year. We’re making it a bit more of a supper club. This is exciting, as I’m hoping that people will now opt for at least one of their dinners to be vegetarian or vegan. 

What do you like the most about what you’ve inherited at Nicole-Taylor’s?

There have been some nice, unexpected surprises since I’ve been here. We’re known for our lasagnas, pastas, and sauces, and our cases of prepared foods. But I hadn’t really thought about how much we could switch those up seasonally. We have lots of fresh options at the market that are only available for a few weeks because we can get an ingredient locally. And it keeps things interesting since we don’t have to commit to having it on the menu for four months at a time. Every week we put out something different as an additional option. It’s been fun to work with the pasta machines. One day I decided I wanted to sit in the back and learn the ropes. We have machines that extrude the pasta, but we cut the pasta by hand. It’s harder than it looks. Once you add the dough, the pasta comes out fast, then it slows down, then it speeds up again. So, we have to hand cut it to ensure that it’s consistent, particularly for our restaurant customers.

When you’re not cooking, what are you typically up to?

I have a 3-year-old daughter, so I mostly spend any free time with her, working in the backyard, playing games. Of course, she likes helping Dad in the kitchen. She loves pasta, too, especially rigatoni because she can put it on her fingers or fusilli because it sounds like “silly.” About a week before we took over at Nicole-Taylor’s we found a rabbit near our house, and it was clearly a pet someone had owned, not a wild rabbit. So, we took the rabbit in, and my daughter named it “Noodles,” which was just so appropriate.