Nico Norena Brings The Succulent Bite To Your Kitchen With His New Cookbook - Exclusive Interview

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Like the pied piper, Nico Norena is playing a tune that has millions of people hooked: succulence. Between the hurried, half-chugged coffees and microwaveable meals that define a 9-5, to not crave succulence is to be inhuman. Norena dishes it out in spades. If it were possible to spend your day window-shopping at the best bakeries from Madrid to Miami, you could do that. Or — counter proposal — you could stop by Norena's Instagram for the cheesecake, waffle, crepe, and ice-cream fantasy of your choosing.  

The COVID-19 pandemic marked a shift for Norena. When restaurants and bakeries closed down, he started baking in his home kitchen for his 1.7 million social media followers, and offering up his recipes for reproduction, to boot. "It was absolutely a game-changer for me," Norena exclusively told Mashed — even if he managed to inundate his microwave with red velvet dough on more than one occasion. Now, the foodie and food influencer is on the brink of publishing his first cookbook: "The Succulent Bite: 60+ Easy recipes for Over-the-Top Desserts." Hint: Norena's no-bake Kinder cheesecake is taste-tested and approved by seasoned profesionals. But we'll let Nico tell you about that, his childhood Nutella memories, Michelin-starred truffle restaurants, his cricket-eating takeaways, and more in this exclusive interview.  

How to master a cheesecake

Your family is Colombian and part French. You've lived in Madrid as well. You've lived in Chicago. You've lived in Miami. What are your favorite desserts from each place?

That's actually a great question. I'd say that different desserts from each place [are favorites. From] Colombia, obleas, all my life, have been one of my favorites — thin obleas, nice dulce de leche in the middle. Obleas is nice and simple, maybe some shaved coconut too. Always, always great. Chicago, let's see. Let me think, because Chicago I usually go for my deep-dish pizzas. Not necessarily for desserts, but they do have their fair share.

The best [dessert in Madrid] is cheesecake. Absolutely. Those come from [the] north of Spain, but [they're the] best style of cheesecake, for me. [They] are an absolute home run. That's why I do so much of that content on social media, is because I absolutely love the dessert itself. I took it upon myself to create some of that dessert on my own.

Let's dive into cheesecake, which is a passion. You've eaten cheesecakes from all around the world. Basque-style is one of your favorites. What are your top three tips for mastering a cheesecake?

In general, the cooking time and temperature have to be perfect for sure. Don't overcook it. Don't undercook it, unless you're doing a Basque-style, [then] you can get away with a little bit of undercooked-ness. Overall, I like to say Basque style cheesecakes, high temperature, no bain-marie. No steam bath inside of the oven, and definitely hit it on the 45-minute mark at 400 degrees Fahrenheit. The reason why is because that creates that perfect texture inside without over-baking it and then it comes out like stiff blocks. 

If [however] you're doing it with a crust, then I absolutely say yes, bain-marie, you do need that. Cook it covered instead of uncovered, like you would with a Basque-style, because you want the top to be nice and clean. You don't want it to be burnt. You don't want that basque burnt top that you usually get with those, and the cooking time is a little bit longer at a [lower] temperature, 350 degrees for maybe an hour, if you will. That way it cooks through, it's nice and thick in the middle, but you still get that creaminess by not over-baking it.

Nico Norena love Nutella

Can we shift to Nutella, which is part of your origin story? You say that everything clicked when you were eating a slice of Nutella pie. Tell us about that and explain your love for Nutella.

Growing up, I used to visit my great-grandfather, which is my mom's grandfather, in Paris, a lot. That's where he lived, so we used to travel a lot to Paris and visit him. I used to stay at my aunt's house. I remember that something we would always have is a breakfast of French crepes rolled up with Nutella inside. That was always a treat I had as a child growing up. 

Down the line, years later, there's a bake shop in Miami called Fireman Derek's. They were the first ones in Miami to really start pioneering that creative pie combinations. They have all sorts of different combinations, like a cookie dough pie stuffed with Nutella.

They have the Nutella cream pie, which is [what] you just mentioned. They have a bunch of different varieties, but that Nutella pie took me back to when I was little, simply because of the fact that it involves Nutella in a very creative way. In a different world at the time, it was very innovative. Today, you [have] seen more and more of that across the board in different restaurants, but they were the first ones. 

That's when I tried it for the first time, when I was like, "Wow!" That's actually the first photo I took for Succulent Bite Instagram. As a matter of fact, if you scroll down like five, six years ago, the first picture you'll see is precisely that, the Nutella pie and a big photo of me introducing it. 

Nico Norena's crazies food experience

You once got a box of ice cream from The Cheesecake Factory in the mail.

Yes, I did. Wow. A long time ago. 100%, yeah.

Let's talk free food. What are the craziest, most unexpected things that you've got as part of your adventures?

I wouldn't say this is the craziest, because in many cultures this is normal, but for me, I had never had crickets before and I had crickets for the first time in Mexico. That was definitely something different. Would I do it again? Probably not. Do I respect and enjoy that it's in certain restaurants? Absolutely. It wasn't my favorite, but it's definitely one of the things that I'm like, "Okay. I tried crunch crickets!"

What do crickets taste like?

The ones I had were a little juicy, if you will. They had this seasoning. I'm not sure if it was a tamarind seasoning, but I'll say this, they were juicy and a little chewy and they had this flavor, it was probably like a tamarind marinade that they had in them. It's definitely not for everybody, but I understand that it's fun to say and to have and whatnot. I'd say that.

Nico Norena gets a lot of free food

What's been the funnest free food that you've had as part of your job?

I've had quite a fair share of that. Touching on the food delivery specifically, I remember during the pandemic, Yardbird was doing ... Yardbird ... is a southern cuisine, [a] local restaurant here in Miami. They're part of a bigger conglomerate, but they have one here and they sent me a box of DIY fried chicken, family-style. Imagine, it was like a [giant] box. I actually have a YouTube video on that. It's this big [box] filled with fried chicken and biscuits and sauces and it was like, build your own. 

It was so much fun. I actually filmed the YouTube episode about it, but that was definitely one of the funner ones. It was simply the large format, everything nice and organized. Super neat.

I'm trying to think of something that's different and innovative per se, that I could say that I've been sent ... I had once, this giant donut-shaped cake, [and] I also have the post on Instagram as well. One of them was pink and all was chocolate. Imagine a massive donut. It was shaped like cake and you sliced it and you could eat it actually as a regular cake. 

[There was] another very cool one for my birthday. A couple of years ago, I worked with Lucila's bake shop here in Miami and they did this insanely beautiful cake. It had five different stories. The inside was a marble cake, but the outside was decorated with different hamburgers and French fries and whatnot, but it was all pastries. It was all handmade pastries made with sugar, really. They create all these beautiful artwork based out of that.

Nico Norena's Michelin-starred experience

Is it ever surreal to you to have all of these things coming at you — free of charge — from the culinary world? This happened to you pretty fast!

Honestly, it's been a very fun ride so far. There's definitely lots left to do in terms of ... like you say, experiences. I've definitely had the opportunity to have some very wonderful culinary experiences, whether it is the fast-casual or it's the creative desserts, or the fine dining. I've definitely had my fair share of exchange-for-coverage experiences. Those have been absolutely wonderful. 

It's opened lots of different doors to exploring different avenues in the culinary industry. For example, we were just in the south of France and we went to a restaurant called Chez Bruno. It's a Michelin-star restaurant that serves everything with truffle. Imagine this, and I'm actually going to post a video of that very soon. It's the restaurant that's located inside of the chef's great grandma's house.

The house has been in the family for a hundred years, and they've been cooking with truffle for all this time, and now they have this restaurant that's called Chez Bruno. It's five or six different courses, where everything comes with shaved truffle on top infused with truffle oils. It's absolutely delicious. 

That plays and ties back into what you're asking about different experiences that I've had with stuff because of what I've created, that have absolutely been a blessing and something wonderful. [They're things] that I would not have been exposed otherwise or have been exposed in a different way or with different eyes before.

Nico Norena's favorite fast food

In the opposite direction of Michelin-starred experiences — what is your favorite fast food order and from which restaurant?

To be honest with you, the one that comes to mind right now [is the ] Taco Bell Crunchwrap Supreme, Doritos Locos Tacos, Gordita Supreme. It's phenomenal. That would be my go-to. When I splurge on late-night cravings, it's either that or McDonald's. The McGriddle is phenomenal. 

Ariana, my fiancé, is the one who actually involved me or exposed me to the McGriddle. It's a game changer. [The] pancake-flavored bun and then the burger in the middle is fantastic. My go-to, my "cheat meal," if you will — when I say "Whatever, I'm going to go splurge on the drive-thru, I'm just going to go," — I personally find Mexican food [delicious]. That's why Taco Bell is my go-to — that Crunchwrap Supreme with the Doritos Locos and the Gordita. Solid.

You're in an industry where you have to indulge a lot. That's the name of the game. You've also said you have to find a balance. Do you have a favorite detox food or foods to come down from eating tons of high-sugar foods?

100%. I'm very transparent about this with my audiences. I always [have to answer the question of], "How do you stay fit eating desserts all day and baking all day?" It's a very good question because the answer to that is it's a lot of discipline and balance, like you mentioned. For example, I'm very transparent with this, I always tell them my diet consists of very healthy food and yes, I take a bite or two out of everything I post. 

Out of principle, I want to make sure that what I'm showing is something that's worth showing. However, obviously, if I'm doing this every single day, I can't be consuming full portions of everything. Because [if I did], it would affect my health.

Nico Norena's favorite local joints

What do you really eat?

In order to be able to maintain a balance, I like to order a lot of greens, a lot of vegetables, a lot of salads, [and] lean proteins. If you want names of restaurants, for example, in Miami that we order from a lot Carrot Express and Pura Vida, there are two of them that we order from all the time. There's another one called Flyfuel Food Co, which is another restaurant here in Miami that does all these super healthy, different dishes. It's very cool because it allows you to have even some plant-based options to offset the high input of other components that you have in your diet.

The sweets, the fast foods, the going out to restaurants and eating everything from delicious juicy steaks and pastas and creamy sauces — you have to compensate [for that] at night or at lunch and make sure you have the greens. These three spots for sure are the ones that we usually order from. We also like to indulge and stay fish-healthy at the same time. Sushi is a big component [of our diets]. Ceviche is a big component packed with flavor, but it allows you to have more of a balance and healthier diet if you do it properly.

You started baking at home during the pandemic, and showcasing that seriously as part of your business. What was that like for you?

It allowed me to connect with my audience in a different way. Being able to bake during the pandemic forced me to showcase a different side of me. It forced me to showcase different kinds of content. It was invaluable, by the way — it was absolutely a game-changer. It's because I was able to add value to my audience in a different way than I was already adding value before. When I showcase restaurants — when I showcase experiences at different places or dishes that different places are creating — that's really fun to watch and for the locals, it's great.

For the people who are traveling to the city, it's fantastic as well. However, to appeal to a more global audience, for instance, being able to cook on camera is one thing that allows me to connect, on an uncapped level. I'm providing things that people can try out at home and that's what I always say, at the end of the videos, "Try it at home and let me know how it goes."

Nico Norena's biggest baking flops

What were your biggest learning curves in baking when you started out?

Learning to bake as professionally as possible and making sure that I was able to put up recipes that not only work, but work for everybody, and that they were well thought-out and curated. At the beginning, I started baking by following different trends, [like] the cookie cereal or those things that came out during pandemic — that everybody was doing when social media cooking started to gain some traction in the foodie-way. 

Moving past those trends, I actually start[ed] learning about cooking and about baking so that I could put out content that my audience would enjoy and that it was professional and that would add value to the viewers, and that would work for them at home, when they tried.

On your TikTok, one of your most popular videos shows you saving really dry vanilla cake that you made for Ariana by making it a tres leches. I'm wondering what are your biggest baking flops?

Fortunately, I haven't had many ... I don't recall the exact recipe, but I will tell you this. I've had situations in which I'm baking bundt cakes or mug cakes, and they don't rise, or they stay a mass at the bottom of the mug or they overflow and they spill. I have to start the recipe all over again because if not, it's going to happen to the people at home and it really isn't going to yield the product that's supposed to yield. 

Especially at the beginning, it was a lot of trial and error in the sense that if it didn't work well, "Hey, guess what?" — You have to cut, erase and start over and make sure that you tweak the ingredients so that it yields an actual dessert that works right.

Baking is a lot of chemistry when it comes to cakes and things like that. If you add too much of something, then if it will affect the whole recipe. We might not have the outcome we're looking for. Flops have definitely been mug cakes. I had my fair share of having to do them all over again until I finally mastered them and nailed them, and [the same with] some of the bundt cakes as well. I learned from that and now, when I look at a recipe that I'm making, I have more of a keen eye and I can make sure to optimize the chances of it not working so that I don't have to start over again. I make sure that I tweak it.

Nico Norena's favorite fast food partnerships

What were you doing wrong with mug cakes? What's the secret to success?

I was adding too much baking soda to some of them, which caused them to completely overflow out of the mug. My microwave would be inundated with red velvet dough and chocolate dough all over the place. I had to break that down a little bit, and use a slightly bigger mug. I'd make sure that it rose nicely.

What has been your favorite or most interesting experience partnering with fast food?

Having the opportunity to partner with these global consumer brands, such as in the fast-food space specifically. I remember we did a campaign once with Papa John's. They sent over this massive Yeti cooler branded Papa John's, and filled with Papadilla. Imagine pizza dough filled with cheese and different toppings, this one specifically had pepperoni and cheese, and I'm not sure if it also has some veggies inside. It was folded over, almost as it was a sandwich, and then oven-baked. 

We're creating awareness about the launch of the new Papadilla and it was super cool because the creative behind that, they came up with a super cool swag outfit and the giant cooler box filled with those pizzas. The whole point of that campaign was to unbox it at home and showcase how it all comes to life and how you can get your Papadillas now and how we were showcasing the product. 

That was a campaign that I did a couple of years ago. The creative behind that on the agency side was really cool. Mailers like that are always a lot of fun. Other things that are very cool for example, is when we did a campaign with Burger King. We did once a campaign with Burger King where we were taste testing their different burgers that they were launching. I believe it was the Impossible Whopper that they were launching a couple of years ago and we were comparing and contrasting it against the rest of their menu items.

That was really fun because [I got] to do that on camera for a brand that I've known all my life, but now we get to work together and partner together because they see the value in generating awareness through self-debate. That's honestly a blessing and something that is a lot of fun to do. People love that. Everyone's like, "I'm sure the other one tastes better" and "Oh no, I'm going to go for The Impossible." Seeing people's reactions is very cool. [I love] having that conversation and engagement online.

Nico Norena is publishing his first cookbook

Congrats on your first cookbook.Can you share your biggest high and biggest low while making it with our readers?

I wouldn't call it a low. [One thing I would consider a challenge is that] it's my first time writing a book. It was a completely new experience. I had huge guidance from Page Street publishing. Honestly, they really held me by the hand and they helped me through the ropes. That was definitely a big aid. 

[It was difficult] going back through my recipes, selecting the ones that I wanted to put [in], figuring out where the photo shoot was going to be — I wasn't going to photograph the 60 recipes all by myself. I needed help for that because that would take, for me by myself, it would probably take weeks, whereas with a production company, it would probably take a day or two, which is what we ended up doing.

One of the challenging components was, "How do I put this together and make it look amazing and make sure that my voice and my recipes are coming out as close to perfect as possible?" If this is the first time that people are going to be able to have Succulent Bite at home, literally in a physical way, I want to make sure that it's 1000% what they're hoping for. I have one chance to launch my first product, and this is it. 

I wanted to make sure that it was as close to perfect as possible. That was one of the biggest challenges at the beginning — making sure everything was seamless and neat, and it all came out beautifully.

The recipe in Nico Norena's cookbook you should definitely try

And your biggest high?

One of the moments I enjoyed the most out of the book was photographing the cover that book cover. I'll post a reel about that down the line when I have a physical copy of the book, which should be in a couple of weeks, of the behind-the-scenes of photographing that book cover. For that, I used my dear friend, Kevin, who owns a company called Baco Studio. They're the ones who designed my logo, the Succulent Bite logo. Now, they're the ones who are photographing my first book cover.

There's a lot of emotional ties and emotional connections there that I found to be very gratifying because we're coming full circle in the sense of, "Hey, you help me start the brand." They're helping me launch my first book by photographing the cover, which is what everybody's going to see. 

I remember I baked four or five different desserts for that book launch or for the book cover. We went to a house ... and we photographed. It was such a really cool moment. Ariana, my fiancée, was there helping with creative direction. It was a very team effort. We were all hands on deck and it came out super cool. Honestly, that's one of the parts I'm most excited about is being able to showcase that to the world. 

When people were trying your recipes for this book, what were your taste-testers' favorite recipes?

We photographed at a bakery in Miami that had the equipment necessary to be able to put out all these desserts and fast production. They loved all the recipes because as they were filming, they were trying. They were like, "This is honestly incredible." Having constructed positive feedback from other experts in the industry, who have bakeries and bake for a living every single day and sell to consumers every single day — that was really cool because I was like, wow, "Nice, I'm receiving validation." 

I know my stuff is great, but receiving validation from other fellow bakers that sell these to a consumer was really great. Honestly, they love the cheesecakes.

I'm telling you the cheesecakes are the banger. I think I'm going to have a second book. Hopefully, that's just on cheesecakes, because I've developed so many other flavor variations after the ones I selected for the book that I feel like we could create a whole new book just on cheesecakes. They could be called, "Succulent Bite's Passion for Cheesecakes Volume 2." Some of their favorites were the no-bake Kinder cheesecake — that was one of the popular ones, and the Oreo basque-style cheesecake. That one was very good too.

Nico Norena's favorite ingredients

When you're cooking, is there one ingredient you cannot live without?

In baking, it's usually baking powder or baking soda. When I'm cooking, my spices. I have a collection of spices that I like to explore and create with. It has to be those two.

Which spices particularly?

I like to use herbs, starting there. For example, I like to cook a lot with rosemary [and] bay leaves. I love cooking with thyme [and] fresh basil, depending on what I'm doing and if it's savory or sweet. There's also the dry mixes or the dry spices, which I love – cumin, flaky Maldon salts, fresh ground pepper, black pepper. Those are ones that I try to incorporate as much as possible. 

[I love] spices that are used in Indian cuisine — coriander and turmeric and all these colorful, bold [spices] ... Paprika. Spices that blend together to form these delicious dishes. Those are all things that I personally love cooking with. Baking-wise, if you ask me, chocolate is my all-time favorite. Dutch process cocoa is my go-to when it comes to baking with dry chocolate or dry cocoa. Baking powder, and baking soda are [my] best friends in order to make anything rise how it's supposed to.

You can pre-order Nico Norena's first cookbook, "The Succulent Bite: 60+ Easy recipes for Over-the-Top Desserts," here. In the meantime, make sure to follow Nico on Instagram & TikTok for daily content fixes and recipe inspiration.