Nate Appleman was bent on becoming a chef from an early age, and so after high school, he packed his knives off to the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park to learn the craft. When he graduated, he spent the tail end of the ’90s and the first few years of this millennium learning butchery in Italy and working his way through restaurants in Seattle and Napa Valley. In 2003, he landed a sous chef job at San Francisco’s prolific A16, and he climbed the ranks quickly at the pizza restaurant, eventually becoming a partner and executive chef, a trajectory that earned him the coveted Rising Star Chef award from the James Beard Foundation in 2009.
After a long run on the west coast, Appleman decided it was time to come to New York, and he put his pizza knowledge to work the kitchen at Pulino’s Bar & Pizzeria, the Nolita joint from Keith McNally that shuttered earlier this year. It wasn’t a great match for the chef, and when his son was diagnosed with a heart condition in the middle of his tenure, he started thinking about lifestyle changes.
Around the same time, he met Steve Ells, the CEO of massive burrito chain Chipotle, who he connected with over a conversation about grass-fed beef. “I left and thought, it’s crazy that a company like that is talking about grass-fed beef,” Appleman says. His initial intrigue deepened, and a few months later, he was back in a meeting with Ells, asking if there was a spot for him at the company.
Ells put him behind the line at a restaurant, and Appleman quickly worked his way up to culinary manager, a position that allows him to develop new recipes and techniques for not just Chipotle but also for Shophouse, the Southeast Asian restaurant the Chipotle team launched in DC in 2011.
One of Appleman’s projects just came to fruition with the roll-out of Chipotle’s new sofritas, a braised tofu that officially went on the menu this week, and so we checked in with the chef, who is still New York-based, to chat about his role at the company, what’s surprised him about transitioning into the fast casual space, and, of course, his burrito order.
What did you come on board here at Chipotle to do?
There was no clear definition. When Steve and I met again, I asked him if there was a place for someone like me, and he said, “I don’t know, but we get along, and I think you should come work with us. Why don’t you take over a Chipotle, be a general manager, and if you do a really good job, then you’ll get to do other cool shit. But if you come on and don’t do a good job, then we don’t have a need for you.” In the month leading up to me starting, I kept asking myself, “What am I doing? Was this the right choice?” I knew I just needed to walk through the door and then I would know it would be okay — I know how to run a restaurant. Steve put me in a position where I had to either face that, accept it, and excel, or I’d know it wasn’t for me. Something happened in that time — I went from being a typical egotistical maniac chef to someone who has compassion, drive, and care for people around me. I took a hold of that — it changed me as a person, and then it allowed me to do a bunch of cool shit. I got to develop Shophouse. Train new crews. Hire new crews. If I don’t work for this company a month or year from now, I still take that philosophy with me.
What attracted you to Chipotle and made you pull the trigger?
From a culinary point of view, we had the same philosophy. That’s where it started — I thought, here are people who are actually doing it. I was doing it at a small level, making an impact, but not at a level where I was serving a million people a day using the same philosophies I’d developed. Would I have gone to another fast food company? Absolutely not. No one’s doing what Chipotle’s doing now. I’ve also never been one to do what’s expected. I’d have to see a doctor about that, I think.
What’s the menu development process like here?
Organic. It’s hard to capture, because we don’t write projects that say, hey, let’s cook tofu today. Sofritas started as a conversation with Steve and [CMO] Mark Crumpacker. We asked, “Would it be cool for a company of this size to serve tofu?” Yeah, it would be. So let’s try hundreds of different things and land on one. That process is tedious, and it takes a long time. I ate so much tofu in that first year that I don’t think I’ve had it since. Except when we launch in a new city — then I eat a burrito.
How does that change your process in the kitchen, knowing that everything you develop is going to take forever to hit the restaurant?
In a restaurant, you can do a dish where you do asparagus and the next day you use carrots with the same preparation, and you know it’s going to work. But would it have been better if you’d taken a week to work on an asparagus dish? Yes. You would have involved people around you. Here, we never have a deadline. But because the whole process takes longer, it allows you to understand the whole thing. It’s going to take awhile, and that’s going to pay off down the road.
How do you deal with the challenges of seasonality?
We have restaurants all over, and there are different seasons in different places. During certain parts of the year, we’re more local than other parts of the year. In Ohio, for instance, during the spring and summer, we’re getting all the cilantro and oregano right there. But in the fall, we’re getting it from California. For us, seasonality is more of an allover thing than an individual restaurant thing. But we’re asking those questions now with Shophouse — we have six restaurants, so we can make changes and look at it from a different point of view. At Chipotle, it’s not like we can take the corn off tomorrow and replace it with something else. Our customers order the same thing every time they go through the line — I’m the chef of the company and I order the same thing every time. So I don’t know that it would be a smart thing to change that. But at Shophouse, we’re asking questions like, “Can we change broccoli to pumpkin in the winter?” It’s much easier to do it from the onset than 20 years in.
Has developing Shophouse fueled the creative process at Chipotle?
Yes, in everything from kitchen design to philosophy of training to tofu. Tim [Wildin, Shophouse’s brand director] and I looked at everything from a different point of view. Chipotle is a beast — it’s been trucking along for 20 years, and we’re opening three to four a week. When you throw a wrench into that system, it’s massive — it affects every department. At Shophouse, we can make changes — we have six restaurants. And Chipotle isn’t one to rest on its laurels. A lot of the stuff we do at Shophouse could work at Chipotle.
What do you see in the fast casual space as a whole?
If we don’t keep pushing and striving to get better every day, we’ll get passed by — there’s always someone younger, faster, and stronger. We set the bar high. More people are using better ingredients, more people want to eat better ingredients, so more people are getting into the game.
When a restaurateur says, “I want my concept to be the next Chipotle,” what do you think that means?
I think it means a lot of things. For some people, that’s at face value — they want to make a lot of money. Others want to make a lot of impact through farming, the environment, through hiring great people. Overall, people see it as a strong brand and a concept that is the leader. But that’s superficial, because Chipotle is not just food or just people or just ingredients — it’s all the things combined that make it so strong and special. Most restaurant companies race to the bottom, bringing on cheap ingredients and going for big profits. That’s very short-sighted.
What was your biggest surprise in this transition?
Going from where I was to where I am and still being respected as a chef by my peers, the media, my friends, everyone. That was the biggest surprise. I didn’t do it for anyone other than myself or my family, but it was surprising to find that I still have some respect and relevance.
What’s been your most exciting moment here?
My most exciting moment had nothing to do with food. Tim and I work on Shophouse together, and a year ago, we looked at the year and said, “We have one Shophouse open, and we have to open five more. How are we going to do this?” We’ve opened restaurants before, but Shophouse was still a little baby. How are we going to have five more babies in a year? We went to a Chipotle opening and worked it. It didn’t match our philosophies — it was a machine, but there’s a difference between a big machine and a little baby. So we left scratching our heads like, okay, now what? Something didn’t ring true to how we think about Shophouse.
Prep, cooking, and serving are the three main things at Chipotle [and at Shophouse] — so how do we train so everyone respects everyone else and functions at their greatest? At a Chipotle, everyone does everything, but to get there, it takes a long time. At Shophouse, we decided to teach everyone to prep every single item. So we taught everyone prep. Then we taught every single person how to cook. That allowed us to identify who needed the most help, give them the help they needed, and turn them into a leader on day one. It also allowed us to identify the strong people — if you’re great at talking to people, maybe we’ll put you front and center. We didn’t want to guess. And we gave them the respect of the ingredients and of the hard work that goes into it. At Shophouse, the front of the house and back of the house respect each other. You don’t get that in all restaurants. We built this amazing team, and we’re looking at that as a way to open Chipotles. That’s my proudest moment. We created something great, had this team working together and singing the same song — and now, we’re able to do it at Chipotle.
What’s your order?
Burrito, small portion of brown rice, black beans, chicken (although recently I’ve been exploring steak), half green salsa, half red salsa, a little cheese, guacamole.
Best place in the city for a coffee:
Best place to go unwind:
Run on the East River.
Best special occasion restaurant:
Blanca is the best restaurant I’ve been to in the last two years.
Goat Town and Empire Diner.
Quintessential NYC restaurant:
Peasant. The menu doesn’t change, and they’re still using great products. Or Gramercy Tavern.
Person you’d like to cook for:
I would like to cook a giant banquet for every cook who has ever passed through one of my kitchens to show my appreciation for making me the chef that I am.
Person you’d like to have cook for you:
David Thompson from Nahm; no one cooks Thai food as well as he does.
Person you’d be nervous about cooking for:
Same as the person I would like to cook for.
Dish you could eat forever:
Eggs. Pizza from Lucali.
Underrated NYC restaurant:
Best Pizza in Williamsburg.
Something you wish you could tel people coming into the restaurant:
Go easy on the portions. There’s something about having that food in front of you that turns people into animals.
Pressing industry issue:
This doesn’t affect Chipotle, but tipping. I’ve heard a lot of arguments on both sides — I really like the system of no tipping. Not that people shouldn’t get paid well, but I’m sure this is going to change in the next few years.
Something you love about the NYC restaurant industry:
How good it is.
Something you wish you could change:
The sense of entitlement that certain operators have — that you’re lucky to be eating my food in my restaurant. I’ve been guilty of that myself as a young chef, but now being out of restaurants, I’ve seen the error of my ways.
Anything else you’d like to talk about?
The belief that food should be extremely cheap should change as a whole. We think food should be cheap — in other places in the world, people spend a larger percentage of earnings on food. If we did that, I believe that obesity, diabetes, and food related issues would decrease.