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Best New Chefs 2009: Nate Appleman

Nate Appleman

A16 and SPQR, San Francisco


Born: Greenville, OH; 1979.

Education: Culinary Institute of America; Hyde Park, NY.

Experience: Brasa, Seattle; Ristorante Dulcamara, Florence, Italy; Campton Place, San Francisco; Tra Vigne, St. Helena, CA.

We loved: Berkshire pork shoulder roast and porchetta with lemon and wild arugula (A16); spaghetti amatriciana with guanciale, tomatoes, red onion, chile and pecorino (SPQR).

How he got into the restaurant business:
Working at Greenville Country Club. “I was 13 or 14. For my first job, they told me to be there at midnight to set up for a wedding with the staff. I said, ‘Hang out with 17-year-olds? At midnight? This is the best job ever!’ Then a dishwashing job came up. But I quickly realized that dishwashing was not in my future. So I became the best dishwasher ever so I could move up fast. I graduated to shredding carrots.”

Revelatory cooking experience:
Cooking at Brasa. “Until that point, most of my training had been very French. Then I went to Brasa and discovered a whole different way of cooking: a wood-fired grill, a wood-fired oven, spices like smoked paprika. It broke down the fine dining atmosphere. And it was the start of my love for wood fire.”

Preparing to go cook in Italy:
“A month before I was leaving, I put up a sign in my apartment building in Seattle that I was selling my things. By the next day, I’d sold everything. I had to live for a month with no TV, no couch, nothing.”

On cooking in Italy:
“I didn’t know Italian food, I didn’t know how to say anything in Italian beyond ‘water.’ But I immediately fell in love with the culture and the people and the food. Growing up, I had a problem with authority, so the French thing was not for me. The freedom of Italian food was really good for me. But I was so poor—I couldn’t afford a raincoat, so I wore trash bags on my scooter in the freezing cold.”

Ingredient obsession:
“Pickled vegetables.”

Favorite childhood dish:
His grandmother Libby’s skillet-fried chicken. “She also made hamburgers in the skillet with onions. Then she put the buns in the grease—it was awesome.”

Favorite kitchen tool:
A calculator. “I grab it more than anything else. We get in whole animals, and some weeks they’re smaller than others, so if I’m making sausages, or salami, I need to adapt the proportions. It’s also good for figuring out food costs, which is so important right now.”

Favorite food city:
Tokyo. “Those guys are obsessed with food. It’s a whole different level. They pick a specialty, and they perfect it. The have pork restaurants, chicken restaurants. I ate an 11-course meal at a tofu restaurant.”

What his next restaurants will be:
A16, in Tokyo (September 2009); Urbino, a restaurant featuring food from Italy’s Marche region in San Francisco’s Dogpatch neighborhood (2010).

What he’d be if he weren’t a chef:
A butcher or a glass blower. “I’ve never blown glass before, but it looks so interesting, and you get to play with fire all day.”

How he got into butchering:
“When I was very young, my grandfather was a butcher, and I remember seeing large pieces of meat hanging in his grocery store. Then things changed—meat went from hanging to packaged. Then, when I was at cooking school, I butchered a cow; it triggered memories and I was hooked. It’s what I look forward to every single day, butchering.”

Favorite cooking shows:
Julia Child and The Frugal Gourmet. “Growing up in Ohio, there were whole weekends when you couldn’t go outside because there was three feet of snow. I watched those shows all day long. It’s why I do what I do now.”

Cute story:
“I didn’t do well in school until I got to the CIA. Then I started getting Bs in culinary math, and I said, ‘B, that’s great!’ And I started reading trade magazines. I picked up F&W’s Best New Chefs issue [1998] with Michael Symon and Anne Kearney on the cover, and I became obsessed with it. I said, ‘That’s my goal right there.’ I still have that issue at home.”

Best New Chef Recipes & More:

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