Cooking was probably an inevitability for Nathanial Zimet. Before he became a young New Orleans star (with a monopoly on the color purple), Zimet was a kid growing up in North Carolina, raised by a mother who made her own stocks. From those "from scratch" origins, Zimet went on to work his way through restaurant kitchens, even as a student on the pre-law track at Wake Forest University. And while he briefly left the south—studying abroad in the United Kingdom and Australia—once Zimet returned home, his culinary destiny became clear.
Zimet gained his first glow of Crescent City recognition in 2006, when he rolled out an indigo-paneled food truck (a.k.a. "the purple truck"), Que Crawl. With its outpouring of high-quality, carnivorous delicacies, the truck was an instant hit on the streets of New Orleans. And with such a strong showing of local support, Zimet put his confidence—and his cash—into the opening of his own brick and mortar space, Boucherie, where house-cured, -smoked, and -aged meats gave Zimet's contemporary Southern menu that "from scratch" feel he learned at home.
Boucherie quickly became as successful as its mobile predecessor, but fate hasn't been entirely kind to Zimet. In May of 2011, the chef was shot three times in an attempted robbery, an attack that left him hospitalized with a blood infection and damage to his internal organs. Like many Americans, Zimet had no health insurance to pay the hospital bills. But in a demonstration of the strength of the NOLA industry, the local culinary and beer communities (Zimet is a beer enthusiast, and well-known among craft beer artisans) held several fundraisers on his behalf. And after a miraculous recovery, Zimet—chef to the bone—returned to the line only months later, returning the favor by feeding his city sophisticated Southern fare that somehow always has the flavor of home.
Interview with Rising Star Chef Nathanial Zimet of Boucherie - New Orleans, LA
Emily Bell: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Nathanial Zimet: Beyond stupidity? I don’t know. I think I’ve always wanted to own restaurants for some reason. Being somewhat of a control freak, I’ve always kind of seen the only way to appropriately do that is to be the chef.
EB: What advice would you give to young chefs just getting started?
NZ: Keep your head down and shut up. I think people tend to think that there’s something else going on. A lot of people coming into industry really have an expectation. I was actually talking to my father about it recently. He’s certainly not in this profession. He said in a lot of professions, people get out of college thinking they’re going to have a job straight away, be somebody’s boss. You can’t do that. You have to earn what you get. It’s not just in the culinary field. Though I think a lot of times in the culinary world, people think, “I’m going to be able to do whatever the hell I want because I’m great.” If everybody has that sentiment we’re all screwed. Somebody’s got to be mediocre.
EB: Consider these high expectations, do you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks? Do you hire chefs with or without a culinary background?
NZ: I definitely have employed both. I went to culinary school. I think it depends on what school you go to, what you’re looking to get out of it. I know a lot of people say you don’t need to go. I think that’s horrible advice. Why would you suggest to anybody that they should be less educated? Certainly I think it has it's merits. I don’t think that’s it. You don’t go and you’re automatically a chef. But you have a good basis, and I think it’s a valuable step in the process of becoming a chef.
EB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
NZ: First and foremost, I try to create an experience that I would appreciate and respect. I definitely cook things that personally I wouldn’t always be interested in eating. I think there’s a lack of respect for ingredients. Sometimes it’s because you don’t like it. I think that’s not an excuse. You’re not eating the food. You should be mindful of those who are. If that’s what they like, you should make it to best of your ability. It can be a humbling thing to realize that the world doesn’t revolve around you.
Here’s a great example. I was watching a show—it was one of those competitions. The magic ingredients was pattypan squash and every single person was like “It’s crap, I don’t know how you can cook with it.” I was thinking “I love pattypan squash! You just don’t know how to cook it right!” Disdain for product makes it insipid on plate.
EB: So clearly respect for your ingredients is key. What else goes into creating a dish for you?
NZ: It’s like that book, Ideas in Food. They have these cross sections, diagrams. I think with experience, which is not guaranteed from culinary school, you create that reference in your mind. Hopefully that works. I look at what’s in the market. I have this sort of tool in my mind which helps me see what would go well with what, then hopefully, with creativity, I’m able to make it a little bit more distinct.
EB: What’s the biggest challenge facing your restaurant?
NZ: I’m pretty happy. I would say I’m pretty happy. If there were a bigger challenge, it would be finding more hours in the day.
EB: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
NZ: Before I opened up a restaurant, I had a food truck in 2006. Having to do absolutely everything [is] definitely challenging. You can work 100 hours if all you’re doing is cooking is one thing. But if you have to be the one washing all the dishes, doing all the shopping, cleaning everything, cooking and selling the food, being a one man show is very difficult.
EB: Did you find it hard to step away from having personal, physical control over everything, once you left the food truck?
NZ: That is a very difficult thing. Learning that you don’t have to be the one to touch absolutely everything is a very hard and a somewhat humbling lesson to come to. To realize that if I make the recipe I can have somebody else make it, I have to trust they will be able to recreate it to the same degree I was able to. That’s an ongoing challenge, consistency. For most restaurants in my opinion.
EB: If you had one thing you could do over again, what would it be?
NZ: I kind of live with what I do. I think I’m okay. I wouldn’t say there’s anything. I think maybe I would learn to manage my minimal outside time a little better. That can be a little difficult I think. I don’t’ think I could or would necessarily want to change the way that I got to where I am or what I do.
EB: What’s your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
NZ: I’m pretty excited about the fact that it can take a couple weeks to get into my restaurant. That really means a lot to me.
EB: What does success mean for you?
NZ: Success to me is finding that perfect balance between being able to do and accomplish all that I would like to do in my professional career, and being able to find that comfort outside of it. Being able to give as much to my outside life as I can give to my job. Finding that comfort level. Not feeling like I’m missing out on something because of another thing.
EB: So with that in mind, where do you see yourself in five years?
NZ: In five years I think I will have probably opened up another restaurant. I would hope to be able to provide for my employees what I have for myself. If you can train people, have a great relationship such that you can keep your cooks—a mutually beneficial relationship—then responsibility is less. And the ability to maybe have more locations is greater because I can trust these people so I don’t have to be the one touching all the plates all the time. That’s what I have been struggling to find for a while. This ability to do all that I want to do while still being able to have some sort of life. That’s the American dream, right?