Interview with Chef Nate Appleman of A16 - San Francisco

June, 2007

Antoinette Bruno: When and why did you start cooking? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Nate Appleman:I remember watching cooking shows like The Frugal Gourmet and Julia Child on television when I was young. My parents weren’t great cooks but I always wanted to be a chef. When I was 17 I enrolled in the CIA, Hyde Park, and my career basically took off from there.

AB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
NA: I got my very first job at age 14 at a country club in Ohio, where I grew up, washing dishes and manning the salad bar. My first real restaurant experience was an internship at Cincinnati's Maisonette under Chef Jean Robert de Cavel. In 1999 I moved to Seattle to work at a French-Portuguese restaurant, Brasa, where I developed my skills with a wood fire oven. I lived in Italy for 6 months to study charcuterie, then I got a job in San Francisco overseeing the meat station at Campton Place under Laurent Manrique. I moved to Napa in 2003 and took a position as Executive Sous Chef at St. Helena’s Tra Vigne for a year. In December of 2003, Christophe Hille called and proposed partnership and the Executive Sous Chef position at his new restaurant, A16. I became Chef de Cuisine there in July 2005 and Executive Chef in April 2006.

AB: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
NA: Yes, I would recommend culinary school, but it’s not essential to a successful career as a chef. It really depends on the person.

AB: Who are some of your mentors? What have you learned from them?
NA: Almost every chef I worked for at Maisonette in Cincinati was a mentor. When I worked at Campton Place, Chef Laurent Manrique taught me that food is food, and I should accept it for what it is. He told me not to take it too seriously.

AB: 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: I don’t have a set test for when I interview people. I try to tailor interviews to the individual. But most of the time I want to see them make a pizza. They have to rise to the occasion and do it all by hand, not using pins.

AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
NA: Don’t think about becoming a chef or sous chef until you have at least seven years of experience in the kitchen. Instead of partying, spend your money on food.

AB: Is there any ingredient that you feel is particularly under appreciated or under utilized?
NA: Senise Peppers. I import them from southern Italy and grind them into a powder that I add to sausages that I quick fry in oil.

AB: What are a few of your favorite flavor combinations?
NA: I love pistachio and orange together.

AB: What’s your most indispensable kitchen tool?
NA: A calculator. We try to use the best ingredients, and to keep prices down everything has to be precise.

AB: Is there a technique that you have either created or borrowed and used in an unusual way?
NA: My butchering technique. I consider myself a butcher above all else. We buy whole animals and butcher them ourselves, so we have to work out how we’re going to use the different parts.

AB: What are your favorite cookbooks?
NA: The River Cottage Meat Book by Hugh Whittingstall-Fearny for all the meat recipes.

AB: Where to you like to go for culinary travel? Why?
NA: I would like to go to Morocco. People say it’s the Switzerland of North Africa, and I’ve been putting it off for three years.

AB: What are your favorite restaurants off-the-beaten-path in your city?
NA: Spices restaurant for Schezwan, Mandarin, Islamic, and Chinese cuisine. Their cumin lamb, pickled cucumbers and twice-cooked bacon are all great. I think Thai House Express is the best Thai food outside of Thailand. I get the pork leg stew and pickled turnip greens. Shinto Bui is good Korean for their fried chicken and pickled turnips.

AB: Which person from history would you most like to have dinner with?
NA: My wife, easily. We’re getting ready to have a baby boy, so I’d say my future son as well.

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
NA: Simple food done well is all I need.

AB: If you weren’t a chef what do you think you’d be doing?
NA: A butcher, but I guess I already am one, so my second choice would be a glass blower.

AB: What are some of your favorite food-related charities?
NA: La Cocina is a non-profit organization which helps low-income entrepreneurs start or expand their food businesses by providing them with a shared-use commercial kitchen. I think they do really good work.

AB: What does success mean for you? What will it look like for you?
NA: I’d like to open another Italian restaurant in San Francisco which focuses on a different region – maybe Lazio.