Interview with Chef Nathan Allen of Knife & Fork – Spruce Pine, NC
Dan Catinella: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Nathan Allen: Well, my family was always really food oriented. We were from North Carolina, and food was the basis of everything we did, whether it was supper after church on Sunday or cooking for people you knew to show your love.
CH: What year did you start your culinary career?
NA: I actually went to school for jazz composition in 1996, and I quickly realized that my friends were going to degrade in our quality of life if we were just going to get together and drink cheap beer and eat Doritos. So we started getting together on Sunday nights and putting together a meal. Before I knew it, I was completely over my head in credit card debt. My parents found out, obviously, but took it totally the opposite of what I expected. They were moved by my desire to, you know, create this community. They offered to bail me out of debt if I promised to make a career change. I heard about a program at Johnson & Wales, where you could take an exam at your house and they would put you on an accelerated program. I went to Providence to take it from there, and that was the kick start that made food my career.
DC: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
NA: While I was attending school, I worked for Jules Ramos at X.O. Café. He’s from Cape Verde. He really explored the culture with his menus. After school, I moved to Los Angeles, and the first job I got was at the Getty Center Museum, which was this beautiful architectural masterpiece. They were doing some really great locally sourced food, but it wasn’t really an industry leader there. That really let me get involved with the local scene. From there I went to AOC Wine Bar and was picked to be on the opening team. I got to work there for 2 years. After a year I was moved up to sous chef and stayed for a year, gaining an immeasurable amount of technique and experience. Suzanne Goin is definitely my mentor in her sensibility and passion and finesse. I really loved learning a woman’s touch in the kitchen. After I worked there I wanted to establish a stronger connection to the people who ate the food I made. I was feeding 200 plus people a night and never even saw the expressions on their faces so I wanted to go into private cooking so I could guide people through the entire process.
DC: What brought you to North Carolina?
NA: I wanted to move some place more rural and agrarian. My wife and I had a house in North Carolina in the mountains, and we decided to leave the city and move back to this area. We kind of thought we would do some gardening and stuff around the house but really just wanted to relax and get acquainted with the area. But within three days I had already signed a lease. We spent a month building the place out and then opened about a month later.
DC: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
NA: I don’t think its necessary, and oddly enough, I didn’t actually graduate with a degree. I left one credit shy of a degree, but that hasn’t stymied my progress. Depending on the individual, it could be great to go to a school or go to a big city and meet other people in the industry. But you can probably do it all yourself and take your tuition to move to a city, because ultimately, that’s going to be a part of the culinary program.
DC: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing them for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
NA: Do they like to clean? Are they capable of taking instructions? A lot of it is like questions like, what a certain sauce is, or a certain technique, but really you’ll find out in the first day. Sometimes I hire people with similar experience to mine, and I don’t know if they are going to take my instruction and trust my instinct or do I need to break them down and start them over. I need to know if I can stay close to them in cramped spaces.
DC: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
NA: Get the best products you can from people you know and trust. You need to do as little as possible to pristine product and serve it in a natural form and allow the ingredients to shine for themselves. It’s not so much about my technique.
DC: Which person in history would you most like to cook for? What would you serve?
NA: I think I’d probably want to cook for Jesus. Something so incredibly basic. A perfectly roasted fish and some fresh bread with some nice sauces and a light salad.
DC: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
NA: That the business will be continuing to run, that we will be looked at as a front runner in community support and agriculture and a business model where profit is not the main intent or goal but, fostering the relationships that would have been necessary to survive a hundred years ago. Knowing where your product is coming from.