Five Minutes with Nate Appleman
They called it fig-gate. A year ago, when Momofuku chef David Chang publicly proclaimed that “every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate with nothing on it,” he set off an East Coast-West Coast war of the words to rival Biggie vs. Tupac. (One headline from that time: SAN FRANCISCO TO DAVID CHANG: GO MOMOFUKU YOURSELF.) Now, the food fight has given way to an old-fashioned cook-off. This weekend at New York’s P.S. 1, the second annual Le Grand Fooding festival pits Chang and six other Big Apple chefs against six major San Francisco toques. Nate Appleman, now the chef at Pulino’s, is in a unique position, having arrived in Manhattan just last year after a very successful nine-year-stint in San Francisco. Appleman chatted with W about where his loyalty truly lies.
What are the biggest differences you notice cooking in New York?
First, the clientele is very different. San Francisco diners are just really food-focused. In New York, the atmosphere and the scene are just as important as the food. It’s frustrating at times, but I’m adjusting.
What do you miss most about San Francisco?
Overall, the produce is much, much better there. It takes a whole bunch of East Coast carrots to equal the flavor of one California carrot. There’d be times in California when I’d add just a little parsley to a dish and be like, “Holy shit, now the whole thing tastes like parsley!” Everything is just so much more flavorful.
Does that force chefs in New York to be more creative?
Definitely. When we first opened Pulino’s I tried to make everything ingredient-driven, kind of like what I was doing in California, but it didn’t necessarily work out. It’s been a huge challenge.
So do you think there’s truth to David Chang’s “figs on a plate” claim?
Yes, that’s San Francisco cooking, but I don’t necessarily think it’s a negative thing. That’s how I cooked in San Francisco. I would put figs on a plate. I would celebrate that fig. Things are changing though–ten years from now it will be different.
Different how? Less ingredient-driven?
Not at all. Even more ingredient driven but, whereas before it was very rustic, now there are these guys who’ve worked in many different realms and didn’t necessarily come up through the Chez Panisse way of thinking. They’re still using the best ingredients but they’re also pushing the envelope creatively and that’s going to lead to a resurgence of people looking to the Bay Area for inspiration.
What will you be making for Le Fooding?
I’m slow-cooking beef in its own fat and then serving it room temp with anchovy butter and fried garlic on crostini. Though Pulino’s is a pizzeria, we’re very meat-centric. We only bring in whole animals so we look for ways to use all the parts, even the fat.
What else are you working on now?
I’m concentrating on Pulino’s and in the process of writing a children’s book. I read to my three-and-a-half-year-old son all the time and these books are just so boring. Mine will to be food-focused and one of my sous chefs is doing the illustrations.