"I'm not joking when I say that I eat a Chipotle vegetarian burrito every single day."
Some of you became familiar with chef Nate Appleman during his intense stint on The Next Iron Chef. Appleman was known for his nose-to-tail style of cooking, not to mention being ultra competitive. Quite a bit has changed since his appearance on the show. He's now focusing on vegetarian food and recently made a career move that's left many scratching their heads.
Named a Rising Star Chef by the James Beard Foundation and a Food & Wine magazine Best New Chef, Appleman has worked in critically acclaimed kitchens in California and New York but recently took a job working for the chain Chipotle Mexican Grill and currently can be seen working the line at its Manhattan test kitchen in Chelsea.
Appleman broke from burrito-making for a bit to chat with us about his new job and upcoming appearance on Chopped All-Stars this Sunday, March 20.
What exactly is your new gig with Chipotle?
I can't get into too many specifics, but I'm doing research development. I've been with the company three months and am currently working the line at the Chelsea location, making burritos.
What has the reaction from people in the culinary industry been like?
To be honest, I don't really care. I did this for me and for the people who eat Chipotle's food. I believe in the company and their practices. I didn't do this for other chefs or food people, this isn't a PR thing. It is; however, the craziest thing I've ever done in my life. It's also sort of my way out of the spotlight. I'm not bashing the celebrity thing. I'm a part of it, but I was getting a little overwhelmed.
Why do you think more fast food chains haven't followed suit with natural, organic ingredients?
Most people start chains to make money. Steve Ells started Chipotle as a restaurant and turned it into a chain. Quality wise, things have only gotten better for Chipotle since restaurant number one because the company now has more resources. This model can be used elsewhere, but each Chipotle is independently run. Many fast food places are franchised and Chipotle isn't, which allows them to have more control over the quality of the food they're putting out.
Before joining Chipotle, had you ever cooked Mexican food before?
I'd never cooked Mexican food. We're not serving authentic regional food. We're just scratching the surface of what Mexican food is, but the food is light, crisp, and refreshing.
What's your usual order?
I'm not joking when I say that I eat a Chipotle vegetarian burrito every single day. It's rice, black beans, peppers, onions, and guacamole. I'm thinking a lot about vegetarian food these days, which is kind of funny when you consider what I'm known for. Right now I'm experimenting with something called Garden Blend for Chipotle, which is a soy and protein combo. I'm going for vegetarian food more often and now it's my goal to only eat very good meat, which means eating it much more rarely than I used to. I'm treating meat as something special.
When can we expect to see some of your Chipotle creations?
I'm running a special this week at the Chelsea location; it's a chicken and pork chorizo I developed. I think it tastes really good and it fits into our system, meaning that it will hold up well on the line. Working in this industry doesn't present a lot of constraints necessarily, but you have to take more into account when developing recipes and thankfully, my mindset has always been total carcass utilization. I don't know if people know this, but Chipotle's don't have freezers. Chipotle is the first restaurant I've worked in since I started at 14 that doesn't have a freezer. I've really found a home at Chipotle. I know a lot of people think it's crazy, but I feel like I've landed on a great thing here and I'm really excited about the food.
How'd you get involved with Chopped All-Stars?
I'd only seen one episode because my friend Amanda (Freitag) was a judge. I was happy to do it for charity, but the ingredients were so weird and you don't really have time to think. You start cooking and then think of your dish.
Has your focus in the kitchen changed since having a son?
My focus is constantly changing and still evolving now. I did start making more conscious decisions about where my son and I ate. When I was living in California, there were amazing taquerias, but you never know the source of the ingredients. That's when I started going to Chipotle with my son. It was organic, natural food that I could trust.
Have you gotten used to all the media attention?
I treat media as just another aspect of my job. I'm finally at a point in my life where work doesn't consume me; what I do doesn't define who I am. It still feels weird getting out of a taxi with my son and have strangers come up and talk to me. When I see Rosario Dawson in the East Village do I want to walk up to her and ask her to have my children? Yes. But would I actually approach her? No. Celebrity is a weird thing. I don't know how very famous people do it.