Features Mr. Bates Goes to Washington: A New Zealand Chef’s Global Career Path
Mr. Bates Goes to Washington: A New Zealand Chef’s Global Career Path
June 2009

Award-winning New Zealand chef Nathan Bates came to Washington, DC not for politics, but for cuisine. Bates has over 15 years of kitchen experience, most notably from his tenure as executive chef for restaurants Pescatore and 50 On Park at the George Hotel in Christchurch, New Zealand. To stay abreast of the latest culinary trends and standards, Bates has taken every opportunity to travel and learn new techniques and net new culinary experience. His international travels have given him new culinary perspective—working with Heston Blumenthal at the Fat Duck and fellow New Zealander Josh Emmet at the Savoy Grill—and have now landed him on DC’s Embassy Row as chef to New Zealand Ambassador Roy Ferguson.

Through his travels and trials, Bates has developed a strong personal style that focuses on high-quality New Zealand ingredients and lets the flavors of the food shine through. Though he’s an old hand at running restaurants, as a solo chef Bates faces new challenges and rewards in cooking for the same audience night after night. Recently, Bates took the time to share his thoughts on the New Zealand culinary scene, some of his favorite ingredients, how he adjusted to working in another country, and his long-term career plans.

Moriah Simmons: When did you first know you wanted to be a chef? How did you pursue that goal?

Nathan Bates: Probably when I was about 14 or 15. My mum worked in a bakery and she used to bring home fresh goodies. I got a part-time job in the bakery as I had a bit of a sweet tooth back then. But then I started getting more interested in the savory side of things and wanted to learn more.  I enrolled in the Christchurch Polytechnic culinary program, which was 3 years part-time.

While I was in school, I decided to get some restaurant experience and went to the George Hotel in Christchurch and worked free of charge to get my foot in the door. I eventually got a job as a kitchen hand, did that 3 months, then got a job as a chef. I worked all the sections, worked my way up the brigade. Then I took over as executive chef in 2004 for the two restaurants, Pescatore and 50 On Park.

MS: How long were you at the George Hotel? What did you like most about it?

NB: I was at the George Hotel for 12 years. It was a great culture, and the owners were very focused on the food & beverage department. Every year, we entered the New Zealand South Island Salon Culinaire competition which included all sort of practical tests, and had different categories for chef of the year, depending on experience level. For the competitions, either all chefs had the same ingredients or you got a mystery box or you could do your own 3 course menu. I actually won chef of the year in 2005.

MS: Where else did you work?

NB: In 2006, I took a 4 month sabbatical and went to the UK. I worked at the Fat Duck for 6 weeks on a stage, then worked 3 months at the Savoy Grill. It was good to get out to Europe and see what was going on there as well. It’s quite different from New Zealand.

MS: How did you get your current job?

NB: I saw the position advertised and decided to give it a go. The process was pretty straightforward; I applied via email, got a couple of phone interviews. Then I was flown out to Wellington and cooked a 3 course dinner for 6 people as sort of a trial. They offered me the position, and 2 weeks later I was flown over to DC and got straight into it. That was in 2007. I’m on a 2 year contract for this job that’s being renewed for 2 more. I have a 4 year visa sponsored through the embassy.

MS: What you do on a typical day at work? How many days per week you work, what are your usual hours, and which meals do you cook?

NB: There really isn't really a "typical" day at work as I am always cooking for a different event, e.g. a wine tasting, morning tea, small formal plated dinner, or large buffet dinner, and I always try to personalize them for whoever the guests are. Most days normally involve planning menus for future events, some shopping and ordering of produce, then I cook lunch and prep for whatever I have going on. Some weeks might be very busy with a couple of events on each day and others I might only have a few events. Then I do costings for each event, organize any extra staff for large events coming up, kitchen cleaning, stock rotation etc. I also work when requested for other departments in the embassy such as Defense, Trade and Enterprise, and Education. 

I typically work Monday to Friday which is a nice change from working in a hotel or restaurant. However, when we have guests staying at the Residence, or if we have an important event, I am required to work weekends. The hours are very variable; I would say in between 35 - 65 depending on what’s happening.

MS: What helped you transition into a new job in a foreign country? Do you like living here so far?

NB: I was fortunate enough to be working in the embassy, so I could talk to the Australian chef Claudia Servis and other embassy chefs. I could go out and get their thoughts on producers and ingredients available. Aside from that, just eating out and getting ideas from chefs was helpful.

It’s great living in DC. I’ve had lots of opportunities to travel, to meet people and see the diversions. I’ve traveled down to South Carolina through Virginia; I’ve been to New York which is very interesting. I’ve also traveled to Chicago and Las Vegas. And I’m hoping to get to Florida later this year and also Texas, which should be fun.

MS: How is your current position, cooking for an ambassador, different from working in a hotel or restaurant? Do you have any permanent kitchen staff?

NB: There’s no other kitchen staff, and that’s probably one of the main differences from working in a hotel. For this position, it’s just me doing all the purchasing, menu planning, prep, cooking, and cleaning. I can’t make any excuses if something’s not done. I have to be conscious of that when planning menus, and I can’t get too intricate with the garnishes.

Obviously, it can be a bit of guesswork in a hotel or restaurant with how many people will show up. Here, it can be anywhere from an intimate meal for 2 or a big buffet, but I know in advance. This way there’s no waste, it’s more precise. Then we get casual help in for large events.

MS: So it sounds like you have quite a bit of menu control. Are you ever asked to make special dishes or use particular ingredients for holidays and parties?

NB: Most definitely. We have Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners here, and we keep to the traditional menu, all the favorite foods. If we have New Zealanders coming in we try to highlight New Zealand’s great produce and seafood. We serve lots of New Zealand lamb and beef and there’s some great venison that we use quite often.

MS: What are some of Ambassador Ferguson’s favorite dishes?

NB: He likes all food, and he gets quite a bit of New Zealand produce. Fresh fish he loves, but he’s not so big on spicy foods or rich foods. One of his favorite desserts is a black rice pudding I make. It’s very simple, just rice, coconut cream, and palm sugar. I try to mix it up so he gets a variety, nothing the same too often.

MS: Can you tell us a bit about the New Zealand culinary scene?

NB: Basically when I was in London, it was very formal. There’s the traditional kitchen hierarchy, and chefs are trained in one area, mostly. In New Zealand, kitchens aren’t as big, so cooks always multi-task. You learn everything and learn it well because you have to be fast and efficient.

It’s still developing to be honest. It’s a young country, with young chefs. When they get enough money to travel, they go out to Europe, South America, and the United States. They it influences their food.

In New Zealand, there’s a great diversity of food, and quite a bit of fusion food. The style is mostly fresh, clean food that’s not too complicated, concentrating on local New Zealand ingredients. For example, if you get a beautiful piece of fish, you cook it simply, concentrating on its flavors and keeping it uncomplicated.

MS: What other cuisines are its strongest influences?

NB: Definitely the traditional French technique is an influence. One of New Zealand’s celebrity chefs Peter Gordon has the fusion thing going with lots of ingredients from different cuisines—Thai, Chinese, Japanese—he mixes it up quite well.

There’s a little of the molecular gastronomy thing becoming more popular, but that’s not really my area. I’m trying to keep it simple with great flavors and food.

MS: Who are some of your favorite New Zealand chefs?

NB: Peter Gordon, who I mentioned before, is great. Also Al Brown, I worked with him at NRA last month. He’s the chef and co-owner of Logan Brown in Wellington, and he’s really good at letting the natural flavors speak for themselves. I’ve also worked with Graham Brown, he does a lot of travelling promoting New Zealand food and he’s a very innovative chef. There’s a great number of young up-and-coming chefs in New Zealand as well.

MS: What are some of your favorite New Zealand ingredients? How do you find them in the United States?

NB: I love abalone, and New Zealand dairy--great butter and cheese. New Zealand is starting to produce great olive oil, too. There’s manuka honey, kiwifruit, passionfruit, greenshell mussels, lamb, beef, venison, and seafood. And of course New Zealand Sauvion Blanc, which is well-renowned, goes well with the seafood, so that’s sort of a bonus. They’re all pretty commonly available through most suppliers.

MS: Where do you order your product? Do you have a set budget for each week or event?

NB: My main suppliers are Anzco Foods, Am Briggs, Cannon Seafoods, and Oceanz Blue. I normally just source my fruit and vege from Whole Foods. They also have some other great New Zealand products such as Village Press Olive Oil, manuka honey, and pavlovas, as well as lamb and Cervena Venison.

In terms of budgets, if it’s a small dinner or reception I normally don't have to watch too much but I try to just be sensible—not using caviar and lobsters very often unless it's a very important dinner. For large receptions the budget is always different and I work with whatever I have available.

MS: Which New Zealand foods do you miss the most?

NB: Oysters from the south of New Zealand—they have a very short season and they don’t ship very far. And New Zealand white bait, which is mostly caught by recreational fisherman in rivers. It’s all wild caught, not farmed.
MS: Which American foods have you discovered during your time here?

NB: In January when the inauguration was going on, we had a Maine delegation here and it was the first time I tasted Maine lobster and Maine diver scallops. I also like Maryland crabs, and plantains which you don’t see so much of in New Zealand. Just the variety of the fruit and vege in season is quite impressive. The mushrooms, especially the chanterelles and bluefoot are great. Also there’s a great variety of cheese over here as well.

MS: You really seem to enjoy working with seafood. Do you consider that your specialty?

NB: Yes, I’d say so. At the George Hotel I worked at the seafood restaurant Pescatore. It’s very well regarded and I learned a great deal there. Living in New Zealand surrounded by coastline, you would be a fool not to use the great resources at your door.

MS: Are there any new techniques you’ve been working on lately?

NB: I’m just trying out different recipes and different ideas. Obviously, working in the embassy and trying to keep things different, and working on portioning and yield. Actually, at the NRA show, there was a lamb butchering demonstration and I got tips on how to portion lamb to get better yield from it. It’s quite hard to describe how it’s done, more of a seeing rather than describing thing.

MS: What are some of your plans for the future? Do you see yourself living in the US long-term?

NB: I’m enjoying it so much here, and I would like to stay as long as I can. Long-term, I would like to open my own restaurant in New Zealand. It’ll be a sort of a casual restaurant, maybe a 40-seater, and I’ll concentrate on getting the best seafood & cooking it simply.

MS: What advice would you give to someone who wants to become a chef?

NB: Find a good mentor to work under and concentrate on learning as much as possible. Learn techniques and don’t be afraid to ask questions. The more work you put in the greater reward you get out of it. Put in your time & the rewards will come later. I’ve been doing it 15 years and I’m still learning new stuff every day.