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Restaurants: Rustic Canyon, Huckleberry Café & Bakery, Sweet Rose Creamery, Milo and Olive (Los Angeles)
Education: Institute of Culinary Education (New York City)
Chef Zoe Nathan is known for the baked goods and pastries she creates for the compact restaurant empire she owns with her husband, Josh Loeb. But the Santa Monica native actually got her start in the savory kitchen: While attending the Institute of Culinary Education in New York she worked the butcher station at Lupa. Back in her native California, she netted crucial experience at Jardinière and Tartine Bakery in San Francisco. “The atmosphere at Tartine was so inspirational,” Nathan remembers. “I learned all the basic core principles of baking there.” Nathan’s and Loeb’s mothers—book club buddies—arranged their fateful meet-cute at Loeb’s Rustic Canyon restaurant. Nathan became the restaurant’s pastry chef and soon the two were dating. In 2009 the pair opened Huckleberry Café & Bakery nearby, followed by their ice cream shop, Sweet Rose Creamery, and wood-fired kitchen, Milo and Olive, in 2011.
As she put the finishing touches on her first cookbook, based on the breakfast foods of Huckleberry, Nathan sat down with Food & Wine to talk wedding cakes, Jewish delis and her taste for “crunchy fat.”
What dish are you most famous for?
During the summer people go crazy for our blueberry-corn cornmeal cake and they’re very, very sad when it’s gone. It’s slightly sweetened, full of ricotta and yogurt, and it has a touch of salt that you can actually taste. It’s really soft and it has tons of fresh corn in it. Before we bake it, we top it with a thick layer of fresh blueberries and sugar.
What two dishes really tell us your story as a chef?
I feel like I’m a lot more than just a baker and a pastry chef, so the brisket hash at Huckleberry comes to mind. We braise brisket overnight and then we chop it up, toss it with fresh, roasted potatoes and top it with eggs and a big handful of arugula. It’s something that I grew up eating, and to me, it’s just comfort food at its best. It’s also a very abundant dish and I love the idea of waking people up in the morning with pure abundance.
The other one is our maple bacon biscuits. Growing up, I knew that the only way to eat bacon was to dip it in maple syrup. For this dish we make a very traditional biscuit filled with tons of chopped bacon and syrup and topped with fleur de sel. It has that salty-sweet thing going on that I try to put into all of my pastries.
Who are your food mentors? What is the most important thing you learned from them?
I would say Chad Robertson and Elisabeth Prueitt at Tartine were my food mentors. They taught me that color can be a flavor and that salt is the most important thing in a recipe.
What was the first dish you ever cooked yourself?
I cooked Sloppy Joes for my older brother, with fresh alphabet soup. I was really excited because I found the dried alphabets and I made the soup from scratch, not from a can.
What is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
Just go to the farmers’ market and find the thing that looks the prettiest to you. If it’s a green, just sauté it with garlic, salt and chile flakes. If you see amazing apples, just sauté them and eat them with yogurt. It doesn’t have to be complicated, it doesn’t have to contain a huge amount of ingredients. Just find something beautiful, cook it quickly and eat it.
Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
I wish I was better with chocolate. I think it’s an art form, and I don’t know if I have the patience for it. I also want to learn how to make the best wedding cakes in the world! I would love to make somebody’s wedding the best day of their life and the best meal of their life, and have their dessert be the best piece of cake they’ve ever had.
Name one indispensable store-bought ingredient.
Almonds are just the perfect crunchy fat. So many baked goods are much improved with some crushed toasted almonds on top. Yogurt’s better with almonds; pancakes are better with almond meal. I make almond butter and almond milk at home—that’s all we drink.
You’re planning a budget-friendly food trip—where would you go and why?
Portland, Oregon, is hands down the best food scene in America right now. They use the best ingredients. They’re so unpretentious. The kitchens are all open and so amazing, and it’s not crazy-expensive to go there. I just think Portland is where it’s at. I would move there in a minute if I wasn’t so tethered to Los Angeles.
If you could invest in a dream project, what would it be?
I would probably build the best Jewish deli in the world. I know my grandparents would be incredibly proud. We’d do the best pastrami and corned beef, the best rugelach, bagels and bagel chips, blintzes, stuffed cabbage and matzo ball soup. All the things I grew up eating.
What is your current food obsession?
It’s probably toasted sesame seeds, I put that on everything. It’s just delicious—a little toasty, extra bit of fat. Sometimes I’ll get white sesame seeds, and I’ll toast them and crush them in the mortar and pestle with a little bit of fleur de sel. I’ll use that to top things like roasted vegetables and rice.
Who are some of your favorite people to follow on Instagram?
I’m really into Instagram, I’m kind of obsessed. I like this girl Floriole who I used to work with at Tartine. She’s doing the same thing I’m doing, but in Chicago. She just has a bakery, she’s got a six-year-old, she just works hard and she’s always recipe testing. I also like Katherinebont, she’s really cool. She works at Noma and takes the raddest pictures in the kitchen there. Also there’s chefjeremyfox, my new chef at Rustic Canyon, he takes really cool pictures.