James Nassikas

January/February 1991

Food Arts presents its January/February 1991 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to James Nassikas, consummate hôtelier.

Best known as creator of San Francisco's Stanford Court, Nassikas set new standards for fine food and service in that elegant hotel. A perfectionist with an infinite capacity for attention to detail, Nassikas was as likely to be seen picking up lint in the lobby as playing gracious host to the distinguished roster of regular guests, which included such luminaries of the food world as the late James Beard, Julia Child, his former classmate Craig Claiborne, and a number of great French chefs, including Roger Vergé, Paul Bocuse, and Jean Troisgros. By courting food celebrities, holding wine tastings and opening a notable restaurant in the Stanford Court, Fournou's Ovens, Nassikas helped reposition hotels as a mecca for fine dining. He also pioneered the concept of presenting a gastronomic star in a hotel environment by hosting Beard's cooking classes for nine consecutive years.

Having grown up in New Hampshire surrounded by picturesque country inns, Nassikas aspired to own one, never dreaming that one day he would be at the helm of a 402-room luxury operation. Following his mother's wishes, he enrolled in pre-med at the University of New Hampshire, but it wasn't until he switched to hotel administration that he found his true niche. He went on to the prestigious École Hôtelière de la Société Suisse de Hôteliers in Lausanne, Switzerland and and flourished in an atmosphere where a hands-on approach to learning was valued. "I just fell in love with the business. I love the feeling of a big house with lots of happy guests," Nassikas says.

Nassikas held top food and beverage management positions at the Plaza Hotel in New York City, the Royal Orleans in New Orleans, and the Mayflower in Washington, D.C. It was at the Royal Orleans that Nassikas developed a friendship with Edgar B. Stern Jr., whose family owned the hotel and who would alter become his partner int he development of the Stanford Court (completed in 1972) and the 7,000-acre Der Valley Resort (opened in 1981) in Park City, Utah. Nassikas served as president of both until 1989.

Nassikas, 63, and his wife Helen currently divide their time between Mill Valley, California and the ski resort complex, of which he is now officially president emeritus. He describes himself as "semi-retired," but a man like Nassikas never really retires. "Work is only work if you prefer doing something else," Nassikas says, "and I never preferred doing anything else."