If the past year or two have belonged to David Chang, 2009 is the year of Nate Appleman. It’s easy to draw comparisons between the two: Like Chang before him, Appleman won both the James Beard Rising Star award and was named one of Food & Wine’s Best New Chefs this year, and he scored the accolades cooking for himself at his own critically and commercially successful restaurants. But that’s where the similarities end. Unlike Chang’s envelope-pushing global fusion, Appleman’s A16 and SPQR in San Francisco are stunningly simple Italian joints, championing straightforward, ingredient-driven dishes. In this regard, Appleman just might be the chef who saves American casual food from becoming the exclusive terrain of bacon and burgers (but read on: The dude does like his burgers).
A few days after the Food & Wine Classic in Aspen, we had a chance to sit down with Chef Nate to talk about surviving the recession, his latest project, and a guy named Mario Batali.
Let’s start in San Francisco. How’s business?
Things are going great out here, especially for middle-range restaurants like us. Higher-end restaurants? There are a few that are suffering, I would say. But we’re just strolling right along.
Do you think the recent awards have helped your situation?
Just last night, some lady leaned over and asked one of my cooks if she was intimidated because I was there. And the cook was like, “No, he’s here all the time.” So, you know, I think the perception [of how I run my business] has changed.
With business holding and the accolades on the mantle, do you find any new license to experiment or take risks with your cooking?
I don’t think of it that way. I’m happy getting recognized for what I do and I’m extremely happy doing what I’m doing. I mean, yes, we are opening another restaurant, and it’s in a part of town that’s “up and coming,” as you’d call it. It’s an unproven area, and hopefully [the recent recognition] helps with that.
… The new restaurant being Urbino. How’s it coming?
Progress is fine. We’re going to open next year, probably spring. That’s what we’re shooting for.
Will the new space be along the lines of A16 or SPQR, just for a new neighborhood? Or will it add something new to your repertoire?
It’s completely different cuisine. It’s based on the Marche [region of Italy]. It’s a different way of cooking. The Marche as a region has always been a bit more affluent and so it’s — I hate saying “more refined” — it’s a step up. But not a step up in price.
What are you eating these days?
I love burgers. It is the hottest thing going right now, but I love burgers. I will eat burgers until the end … When I was in New York, I went to the Burger Joint. That was outstanding. I don’t like the restaurant-style burger. You know: the thick patty, like that Father’s Office thing? It’s arugula, it’s caramelized onions — I hate it. I like a good American burger. Give me In-N-Out.
Speaking of food both more refined and less: At the Food & Wine Best New Chefs dinner, many of your fellow honorees were cooking far more ambitious food than you were. Chris Kostow was cooking a layered roasted-corn custard, for example. But there you were serving meatballs. Is this a testament to what we’re eating today?
Food & Wine picked the meatballs from a couple of options I sent them, but I was more than happy to serve them. They kind of put us on the map five years ago. But I feel like it’s a testament to what we’re going to be eating for a long time. Look at the Cheesecake Factory: That place prints money. Why? Because people like cheesecake. People are going to be eating cheesecake until the end of time. I can’t necessarily say that people are going to be eating foams till the end of time. But I do know for certain that taste in America, and the eating habits of Americans, are for the most part simple. I’m serving just a meatball on a plate.
But you’re serving meatballs on one of the more rarified cooking stages in the country, often a place from which broad trends trickle down. Do you think you’re saving casual food, then?
I don’t know if we’re single-handedly saving it, but it’s definitely the way I like to cook and the way I like to eat. A16 was been open for five and a half years, and there’s been a tripe dish on the menu since the beginning. We sell twenty tripe a week. But also, it’s food that anyone can eat. We’ve been introducing diners to stuff like that. Our menu has Italian words on it and maybe some of the stuff wasn’t so familiar five years ago, but we’re staying the course and just doing it.
Looking at your menus, Mario Batali comes to mind. And looking at your awards, you’re following in the footsteps of David Chang. Do you want to be as famous as these chefs?
What Batali has done for for Italian food in America is like the greatest thing that’s ever happened. Batali opening Po and Babbo — that set everyone on the trend of Italian food, I think. [As for me,] I would love a small empire. Do I want to be hugely famous? Absolutely not. But I want to keep spreading the word about what we’re doing. It’s not only about food. It’s the way we treat our employees. I want to keep those same things intact as we grow. I don’t want to grow too big to the point where we can’t do that.
Speaking about growth and expansion, do you think your style translates in New York or L.A. or Chicago?
I think I’m very fortunate to be in San Francisco, where people are eating anything I put on the menu. In terms of how people think of food as to whether it’s weird — I mean, look at our menu at A16. We have four or five dishes — tongue, heart, tripe, — you know, all these things that people deem as weird. Would I be able to sell these things, in the same amount, in New York or L.A.? I don’t think so.
[In San Francisco], they know we’re using great ingredients, they know the heart is going to taste delicious, that it’s not going to have a funky flavor. As far as how that translates in New York, I doubt it would. I would say most of our cuisine would, but those certain elements would not. And also, we are so ingredient-driven. North California has the best ingredients and the best farmers. Even compared to L.A. You go to the farmers’ market here and they have 30 varieties of chicory. You go to L.A. and they have three. You go to New York and there are three. So I don’t know.
It sounds like you’ve given other cities a lot of thought …
I’ve definitely given the other cities some thought.
Will New York see you anytime soon?
I would love that. The only thing that scares me is that, from what I can tell, there’s only one outside chef that has opened a restaurant, and, well, and that’s Masa.
If you’re true to yourself you can do okay. New Yorkers instinctively reject an inorganic concept.
But there’s nothing in the immediate plans for New York, is there?
Umm … no. No. [Laughter]