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How I Go Columbia: Kristian Niemi

Kristian Niemi
Kristian Niemi

Kristian Niemi’s career weaves an undeniably impressive culinary thread through some of the Capital City’s stalwart restaurants.

The chef’s entrance onto Columbia’s dining scene began at The Blue Marlin, where he was the restaurant’s first general manager. From there, Niemi opened Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Cafe in Five Points in 1995 and then went on to open Gervais & Vine in the Vista. Niemi then went on to open Solstice Kitchen, Rosso Trattoria Italia and, in 2013, Bourbon whiskey bar and Cajun-Creole kitchen

Interestingly, Niemi’s journey to becoming a chef and restaurant owner began after a stint as a Farsi translator for U.S. Army intelligence units after he graduated high school in Minnesota. After four years on active duty, Niemi moved to Charleston, where the love of cooking that was instilled in him in Minnesota by his mother and grandmother developed into more than the hobby. He worked at famed Charleston restaurants Ferante’s, Hyman’s Seafood and The Colony House and soon returned to Minnesota, where he earned a historic preservation architecture degree from the University of Minnesota and a culinary degree from St. Paul College’s Culinary School.

Before opening Bourban, Niemi founded The Great American Whiskey Fair, which has become the largest whiskey show in the nation, with more than 500 whiskeys presented by over 125 distilleries.

His restaurants have been featured in Bon Appetit, Southern Living and Wine Spectator magazines and on Travel Channel UK’s TV show, “Jeni and Olly’s Deep South Food Adventures.” He was a featured chef on two seasons of Carolina Cooking.

EAT: Even though I love to cook, I love to eat out even more. When I’m craving some carbs, I love stopping by Rise (Gourmet Goods & Bakeshop) for their fried chicken biscuit and maybe something sweet in the morning. For lunch, if I’m not eating at Bourbon, I love sitting at the bar at Thirsty Fellow or The Oak Table. If I go out for dinner, you’ll probably see me at Rosso Trattoria, 116 (State), Terra, Bangkok or Baan Sawan. But if I’m not working, I can usually be found at home, cooking dinner while my dogs patiently wait for treats. I seriously think they think I cook just for them.

DRINK: I don’t drink much, but when I decide to have a cocktail somewhere other than Bourbon, I head to see Josh (Streetman) at Motor Supply Co. or Andy (Haddock) over at Terra. I also love stopping by River Rat Brewery to see what new brews they’ve come up with. Mostly, it’s a small tumbler of bourbon while I relax at home.

PLAY: Being from northern Minnesota, I play ice hockey. It’s my religion, and as such, you’ll find me at Plex Ice in Irmo on Wednesdays and Sundays. I also look forward to nice weather so I can ride my motorcycle with the Art Bar Euro Moto gang. If I didn’t cook at all of them, I’d definitely attend the Farm to Table Harvest Dinners at City Roots. It’s fun to cook for them, but it looks like it would be even more fun to dine at one. Finally, and this may not qualify as play for me, but I am required by my dogs to throw the ball for them at least six times a day.

SEE: I’m constantly amazed at the variety of theatrical and musical offerings we have in Columbia. On any given night, you can see an amazing play or up-and-coming band at a number of places. I’m a huge fan of Trustus Theatre, since they like to push the envelope, and I really love seeing the best independent movies in the confines of the new Nickelodeon Theatre on Main Street. Anyone who says there isn’t anything to do in Columbia must live under a rock. Most nights, my problem is narrowing down my choices. More often than not, I end up going to multiple events.

LISTEN: Our (South Carolina) Philharmonic simply rocks. I try to make it to most of their performances, but sometimes restaurant life doesn’t allow it, but I still try. We’re really fortunate to have Morihiko (Nakahara) here. If I had to pick a few of my favorite local bands right now, they’d probably be the Capital City Playboys, Death of Paris, Debbie and the Skanks and The Plowboys. They’re all completely different from one another, but they all rock in their own way. When I’m in the car, I’m usually listening to podcasts or a book. I’m addicted.