Let’s be clear: Anyone who had a cheap little laugh when Nate Appleman — a “Best New Chef,” James Beard winner, and Food Network Star — transformed himself from a culinary warrior to a Chipotle cook is an idiot. “It was the best decision of my life,” he told Grub, without one kernel of confliction, last night at the Smart Chefs Stay Slim party inside Chelsea Market.
Sheepishly, Grub asked if he wants to elaborate. After years of observing Appleman’s unapproachable and, okay, totally off-putting ways — like the time he looked so pissed off at his restaurant, the so-so Pulino’s, that it ruined our pizza (we’ll get to that) — we assumed the answer would be NO. And then it happened. “Yeah, of course, very cool, let’s talk,” he answered warmly, with a lightness to his being and a kindness to his eyes that was almost … alarming. “I’m just really happy,” he began, opening up about his life, his son, and his work with the introspection of a Buddhist, or a born-again, but certainly not a big-swinging-dick chef. But, wait. Suddenly he’s a beautiful person because of … burritos? YES.
Major life change isn’t new to Appleman, who spent the first quarter of his life as “obese” (250 pounds at five-foot-five) and now is known as a heartthrob to many Food Network fans. “Five years ago, I had a kid and didn’t want to be sitting on the couch all day, too fat to take him to the park. So I got rid of my TV, and I got up, and started running one block at a time. Literally, I was so fat, I could only run one block.” Today, a perfectly fit Appleman runs marathons. “My son is the reason I lost weight; he’s the reason I got a new job; he’s the reason I get up in the morning.”
His son’s health condition is also the reason Nate will “never ever regret” leaving Keith McNally’s Pulino’s, a job he deplored, and the first high-profile gig he took in New York (after wild success at A16 and SPQR in San Fransisco, winning him a James Beard and Best New Chef 2009). He resented Pulino’s for many reasons: “When my son was 2, he was diagnosed with Kawasaki Disease, and because of that he now has a heart condition … it’s easy to justify seventeen hours a day, telling yourself ‘Okay, my son will be there tomorrow,’ but when there’s a medical condition … you don’t know if tomorrow will come.” When things get a little heavy, an ultrapositive Nate smiles and says, “Sorry, I know that sounds messed up.”
Grub recalls him pouting around Pulino’s, and can’t help but ask Is that why you were such a jerk to everybody? “I hated my life during that time, at that restaurant. I wish everything was roses at Pulino’s. But it wasn’t.” New York Magazine once said that getting a job offer from Keith McNally was the equivalent of being asked to duet with Tony Bennett. But for Appleman, the McNally touch was toxic. “I was coming from California where it’s only about the food, not the scene,” he says. “Maybe it was the person I teamed up with when I opened the restaurant, and that’s just the crowd he draws, and that was my mistake. But it exposed me to something I did not like.”
Part of that unpleasantness entailed, of course, the gossip, the judgements, the un-fun stuff for a private person. Appleman certainly felt that when news broke that he was “leaving the restaurant business” for a corporate gig at Chipotle. “I’m sure at one point I would have bashed the person that did what I did, too. But it made sense for me.”
With that, Appleman enthusiastically explained his “lofty goals” for Chipotle and ShopHouse, which include “making really huge changes in the chicken this country eats.” He refers to Steve Ells as a “genius,” and an “iconoclast,” asserting that “some time in our lives he will be looked at like Steve Jobs is looked at, in the food world.” To some chef who recently tweeted “Fuck Chipotle and their bullshit sustainability claims,” Nate playfully raises his hands in the air and hollers, “Ahhh! It’s not bullshit! This is what we do and we live by it. Food first on everything. Everything!”
These days, Nate has no desire to change a thing. “I want to stay at Chipotle forever.” There is no part of him that misses the intoxication of the restaurant world. “In my twenties, I won awards and achieved goals. That gave me comfort and clarity, and I was like ‘I’m good now.’”
“Part of me feels bad because I’m so happy. I was at State Bird Provisions in San Fransisco yesterday, probably the coolest restaurant I’ve been to in a long time, and I was talking to them; they have a 1 1/2 year old. I felt bad telling them how much time I spend with my kid. Here they are working so hard, trying their best, with a kid … I mean, everybody has their own path. This is mine.”