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Stanley Nicas, 90; turned The Castle into dining mecca

Stanley Nicas played an important role as a teacher to other chefs, spicing his lessons with a good story.

Stanley Nicas played an important role as a teacher to other chefs, spicing his lessons with a good story.

Chef Stanley Nicas, owner of The Castle restaurant on Lake Sargent in Leicester and a renowned figure among devotees to continental cuisine, pinned his success on hard work and sheer luck.

It was luck that he was born in America after his parents emigrated from Greece, he said, and it was luck that helped him survive epic battles in the Pacific when he was a Navy gunner firing up at Japanese kamikaze pilots during World War II.

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Luck was on his side again at a church dance not long after the war ended. The six Kotseas sisters, whose father owned a produce delivery business, were sitting side by side when Mr. Nicas approached.

“I thought, son of a gun . . . one of them has got to say yes,” Mr. Nicas recalled in an interview recorded by one of his grandsons. “So I went to the first one, and it was Helen. So we danced and we danced again and she said, ‘Where are you from?’ And I said ‘Worcester,’ and she said, ‘Well I never saw you before.’ And I said, ‘I’m always working,’ and she said, ‘Me, too!’ ”

He married Helen Kotseas in 1949, and the industrious couple embarked on a business venture that transformed a small restaurant and ice cream stand in Leicester into the epitome of fine dining.

Mr. Nicas, who trained generations of chefs and was named Chef of the Year by the Culinary Institute of America in 1980, died May 25 in UMass Memorial Medical Center. Mr. Nicas, who had been battling heart disease and cancer, was 90 and lived in Leicester.

By the 1970s, critics were heralding his lobster thermidor, his frog legs Provencale, and his tender chateaubriand served inside a fieldstone replica of a 16th-century Cuban fortress, complete with a moat and medieval knights’ armor.

“He was such a great professional and a very inspirational man,” said Karen Pelletier, a chef who met Mr. Nicas 25 years ago when he was organizing Les Amis d’Escoffier Society dinners at the Publick House in Sturbridge. Mr. Nicas was a former chairman and president of the New York-based epicurean society, which began in 1936.

Pelletier, who is executive chef at UMass Medical School’s dining rooms, said she watched Mr. Nicas patiently train students from culinary programs at Johnson & Wales University in Providence and the Culinary Institute of America.

“If you didn’t do it right, he’d bring you right back and go over it again,” she said. “I never heard him yell ever. He didn’t have that kind of quality about him. And he would always tell you a story of how he learned to do it.”

Mr. Nicas helped found the Distinguished Visiting Chef program at Johnson & Wales in 1979, and chaired the program until his death. He helped make visiting chefs, including celebrity chefs Jacques Pepin and Barbara Lynch, “feel at home, secure, and comfortable in an amphitheater full of JWU students,” the university said.

A son and grandson of chefs, Mr. Nicas told his family he had always wanted to become a teacher. His parents, however, sent him to train in the kitchens of Paris and Rome.

One of 11 children, he was born in Milford but was a baby when his family returned to northern Greece to care for his ailing grandmother.

When World War II broke out in Europe, Mr. Nicas’s family pressed him to heed an announcement from the American Embassy advising US citizens to go home. He left for New York City as a lonely, distraught teenager who did not speak English and had only $20 in his pocket. He wept when he left his village, he later told his family.

At first, Mr. Nicas went to work for an uncle’s sandwich and ice cream shop in Stoughton, but soon sought higher wages cooking in restaurants in Taunton and Worcester.

He put his culinary career on the sidelines after Pearl Harbor and joined the Navy, serving aboard the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill from 1942 to May 1945.

“There was nobody prouder than me standing on the deck — over 1,000 feet long — wind blowing in my hair. I said, ‘That’s me!’ ” Mr. Nicas recalled last year in an interview recorded by his grandson Jack, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal.

“When you’re young, you’re kinda stupid,” Mr. Nicas said. “I wanted to win the war single-handedly. That’s how you are.”

During the Battle of Okinawa, Mr. Nicas survived a kamikaze attack that tossed him into the sea and killed hundreds of his fellow sailors.

Back home after the war, he shipped crates of food to his starving family in post-war Europe and launched a plan to help support them. He used all of his savings to buy the White House restaurant in Worcester, and later sold it to buy The Castle in 1950.

He and Helen had three children, who grew up working in the restaurant. Their son John, who died in 2005, was executive chef; son James is now the maitre’d and wine expert; and daughter Evangeline oversees the business side. Helen died in 2004 at age 83.

In addition to Evangeline and James, both of Leicester, Mr. Nicas leaves his brother, Ilia, of Greece; five grand- children; and two great-grandchildren.

A service has been held and burial was in Hope Cemetery in Worcester.

Jack Nicas recalled baking bread with his grandfather as a boy, and busing tables and checking coats at The Castle. Last Thanksgiving, he joined his grandfather in the kitchen again as Mr. Nicas prepared 10 turkeys to serve to holiday regulars at The Castle.

“I was very close with him. He was a wonderful influence as far as lessons in working hard and building a family business,” said Jack, who lives in Chicago.

The Castle, built in 1937, evolved under the Nicas family ownership. In the 1960s, amid redevelopment in Worcester, Mr. Nicas struck a deal with city leaders to take the granite stones from the old public library and the YMCA, his family said. He hired local youths to work chipping cement from the stones and he built a dining room addition named The Camelot Room.

He worked long hours cooking and doing construction and “said it was pure madness on our part,” his daughter recalled.

Mr. Nicas was still cooking at The Castle as recently as March, she said.

“Of course, after all, I didn’t build the place for myself,” Mr. Nicas told his grandson. “I built it for Jim and John and Evangeline.”

J.M. Lawrence can be reached at jmlawrence@me.com.

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