Thursday, July 7, 2011

The Beast Speaks

For the last few years, Nathaniel Zimet has cooked great food out of both a big purple truck and now a quaint purple hued restaurant on Jeannette St. In May, Zimet was shot outside of his house and his recovery is still ongoing. This Sunday over 30 restaurants, some brass bands, and more will gather to raise money to help Zimet cover his medical bills at Beasts and Brass. Let's put 20ish questions on the clock and speak with the chef known as The Beast.

Professional cooking is not a family trait, necessarily, but I come from a family who can cook. I've worked in kitchens my whole life. I always wanted to own a restaurant so it seemed to me working in kitchens was the best way to get into owning a restaurant.

Dropped out of college to attend culinary school. Started at Le Cordon Bleu in London and finished up in Sydney. Moved back home to North Carolina and started cooking at probably what is the best restaurant there, the Fearrington House. Everyone in that kitchen was British and it was a tightly run brigade. Then went to work with Shane Ingram of Four Square restaurant. Shane is my mentor. It was there that I developed my palate. Then I came to New Orleans, following a girl. 

Last restaurant I worked at before the purple truck, was Iris which I helped open. The most challenging aspect of going into the truck, wasn't so much having to do everything by myself, but the rogue nature of it. For instance to wash dishes, I originally had to rent an RV spot. Then it was a friend's driveway. Eventually, I wound up with a place in Gentilly where I turned a greenhouse into a dish pit. I installed a plastic pot sink, ran hot and cold water hoses...It was all pretty rogue, but the level of cooking always stayed the same.

I think about dishes a lot as I recover. We change the menu every month at Boucherie. Obviously since I was shot at the end of May, the May menu ran through June. We are currently switching out the menu. When I create, I am such a think about it, do it person  Right now my strength isn't 100%, which makes it tough to create. I'll go into the restaurant, but only be able to work for a few hours and then go home exhausted. Not being able to execute my ideas halts that process.

The July menu at Boucherie is going to have Summer Italian theme. One dish is going to be a warm polenta terrine where the polenta is surrounded by housemade Italian sausage, peppers, onions, and mozzarella pulled in house. This will be served with a salad of Creole tomatoes, mozzarella, and pesto. I am always trying to force a technique on my cooks in order to teach the technique to them. So with this menu, they are learning about making sausages, pulling mozzarella. 

James (Denio) has an interesting persepctive through all of this because I am so stuck in my own world. When I am able to eliminate the pain, I'm still very much stuck. It makes it very difficult for me to comprehend anything beyond me, right now. James has to work so much harder at Boucherie plus coordinate all these benefits and on top of all of that deal with the fact that his best friend got fucking shot. In a lot of ways, things are a lot easier on me than James. But he and the whole staff have excelled throughout this ordeal.

I couldn't be more proud of my kitchen staff. I've had many people call me and say, "I went to Boucherie tonight and it was awesome." This isn't an ego thing, but practically every chef in the city has called and offered to come in and work. And we've been able to tell them "Thanks, but we got it." I am just so proud of the way they have rallied around and come together to execute.

There is an impressive clique of us young chefs. This new crew, we all came up around the same time and pretty much all worked in at least one kitchen together. And now we all have our own restaurants and they are great. Chefs like Aaron Burgau, Justin Devillier, Dan Esses, we are all doing our own thing. Dan likes to tease me and say he taught me everything I know because I worked for him at the Bank Cafe.

I miss work a lot. Coming in here and only being able to work for a couple hours a day just isn't my style. Put it this way, if a stagiaire came in and worked like I am, I'd send his ass home. That is a very tough thing to deal with because cooking is the only thing I know how to do. I can't handle not doing it. My hands have been idle for what feels like forever. Also, I think one reason I was able to survive the shooting and go through this recovery is because I had begun doing Cross-Fit about five and a half months ago. I was in shape, losing weight, and really enjoying exercising. So I am looking forward to exercising again.

Knife. I have many, many knives. 3 weeks ago I got my new knives in. These are the first knives, I have ever had made especially for me. Guy named Alex Blue out of Seattle made them for me. They are true Damascus steel and have 412 layers of steel in each knife. Other knives, I use a lot, are made by Murray Carter in Oregon. Those are the thinnest, badest knives. I'm still getting used to the new ones though. I got my first knife at age 8. I became a chef in order to play with knives legitimately (laughs).

I did a soup once, more like a broth. The broth was kind of like pho, but not pho. I think on the menu I called it a kaffir lime fumet. I served it with a pork jowl dumpling. It was awesome but I couldn't sell it to save my life. Eventually ended up adding coconut milk and renaming it and then it sold. Fume just proved to hard to sell.

Picking a few cookbooks is tough because we change the menu a lot so I end up buying a lot of cookbooks. But two I really love are the Morimoto cookbook and Charcuterie. The Morimoto one, people say, "Ohh he is an Iron Chef, that is cool." But no, you read this guy's techniques and are in shock. It forever surprises me and impresses me. Charcuterie is a great book, very entry level, but an amazing resource for my cooks and I. 

Cooks going for the "Wow" factor. Strangely enough, because I'm so into it, cooks doing whole hog or nose to tail are some of the worst offenders. Sometimes people do whole hog or molecular stuff just to be extreme. When cooks do something hoping you say "Wow, look at that" instead of "Wow this tastes great" they are really forgetting about the act of eating. 

Most memorable meal was at Arzak in San Sebastien. That was the most badass meal ever because it was molecular gastronomy with bones. Things were fabulous but everything tasted fabulous also. I just love the way the Basque people rever their geography. At Mugaritz, I had a composed salad of 57 vegetables, 50 of which had been plucked off the mountain. They just care and are so proud about their land.

Dirtiness. Sloppy cooks, sloppy cuts, I don't deal with. When a stagiare comes in, I'll ask them to cut me some mirepoix. If not perfect, I tell them that I don't think we will match up well. Meticulous knife work is absolutely critical. Sloppy cooks make sloppy dishes.

Besides an alarm clock (laughs). My drive, I am always pumped and have a lot of energy. My mom had a friend who used to come stay with us over the summer. And she would always leave him lists of things to do. I remember being little and thinking that it must be awful to never be able to sit still. But now, I see that I am the same way.

Wine is traditionally the easiest to eat with. I love beer and sake as well. There are very few libations I won't drink. Last year we did a dinner with Don Julio tequila where each course had to be pared with a glass of straight tequila. It was difficult but I think we crushed it. In general though, wine with my food. This is because unlike beer, wine rarely offends. Sometimes beer and a dish can be polar opposites and wine has that wonderful quality of getting along with food.

I don't know why people call me The Beast. My cooks and I tend to work a lot and very hard. So maybe it comes from that. Or we have a roast beef sandwich on the menu called the Beast. So when they make a comment about the Beast in the kitchen, I never know if they are talking about me or the sandwich (laughs).

Pizza Delicious is awesome. Mike Friedmann. I love that kid to death. He worked for me for four months before I paid him. When he told me he wanted to cook, I sat him down and said everyone wants to be a chef. But you got to think about why you are doing it. You have to get to point of being exhausted and still wanna work. When people ask me if they can stage, I tell them they can't just agree to do it for one day, have to sign up for two. 

This is not a fun job, I work more hours than anyone I know. I am saddened by the things I have lost because of my lifestyle. Brittany, the girl I followed down here, and I aren't together anymore but she has been helping me recover. But cooking is what I want to do. Last week, my mentor came in town. Partly because I'd been shot and also because he had never been to my restaurant. So we went to eat at Boucherie, him, Brittany, and Mike. And that was a very cool thing to eat with my mentor and a kid who considers me his mentor.

Perfect day of eating in New Orleans would begin with eggs at my house cooked by me. Than a po-boy and some sushi. I refuse to name names (laughs). 


Robert said...

Great interview.

Michael G. said...

Very interesting interview. Hope Nathaniel is back in his kitchen fulltime soon. One gripe with the interview: From his responses I can guess the questions, but including them would be helpful.

Blathering said...

I had a great meal @ Boucherie a couple of weeks ago and the place was packed. I may have to go back and sample the July menu...

Rene said...


I leave out the questions on purpose and as you figured out, they aren't really necessary. Plus, including questions does two things: 1) It makes article very long 2) It makes half the article about the interviewer.

thomas cook said...

Crossfit's Motto: "Stronger people are harder to kill and more useful in general."

I'd say thats quite fitting.

Anonymous said...

another vote for including the questions. length isn't a problem because the web scrolls. have never thought of QA questions being writer ego or whatever.