December 11, 2020

Executive Chef Andre Natera recently took time out of his busy schedule to chat candidly with Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts staff and students. And when we say busy, we mean it. Chef Andre is not only Executive Chef but also Culinary Director at the Fairmont Hotel in Austin, TX. He manages 7 kitchens, over 100 employees and more than 140k square feet of banquet space.

His esteemed career launched as a student of our own Escoffier Boulder Campus President, Chef Kirk Bachmann. Back in 1995, he was Chef Instructor Kirk’s first student and Kirk was Chef Andre’s first instructor. Fast forward 25 years and the two have remained steadfast friends.

During our hour+ Zoom event, there were both serious and funny moments…and true to form, and his underlying overall message, make the most of who you are, Chef Andre didn’t shy away from any of them.

Why Become a Chef?

Chef Andre confessed that he does not have a romantic story about becoming a chef. As a matter of fact, originally his dream job was to be a professional mixed martial arts fighter. However, after discovering that the pay wasn’t worth the physical risks, he was forced to rethink his options. It was a high school friend who suggested that he find a girlfriend and that girls love chefs….so, off he went to culinary school…to become a chef and meet a girl! By the time he graduated from culinary school he had fallen in love..not only with his now wife, but also with cooking. And wouldn’t you know it, right when he was offered his first Executive Chef position, he was also informed by his fighting coach that he wanted him to turn pro. Lucky for everyone in Austin that he stuck with cooking!

Why Land in Austin?

In school, he longed to be a pastry chef, so outside of the classroom, he took as many jobs as he could in hotel pastry shops. At one point he was asked to join the savory line and that was it…he found his calling. He moved toward the savory side working a variety of jobs from line cook to executive chef and literally everything in between. All in all, he says he’s probably had over 10 EC positions starting at Fairmont Hotels in Dallas, transitioning to Omni Hotels there and then back to Fairmont Hotels only this time in Austin. He loves the Fairmont hospitality group and says that they’ve treated him as a true chef; allowing him the most autonomy over his menus and development of his staff.

Hearing his background students were curious about a few things:

Is It Common for Chefs to Move Around So Much?

Chef Andre feels that it’s important for students and culinary school graduates to build their fundamentals of classic techniques and cuisines. He suggests working in a variety of specialty restaurants. He admits that students don’t have to move around as much as he did, but also emphasized that you only get out of it what you are willing to put in. So, the answers are within each student to find what works best for developing yourself to the best of your ability.

What Do You Look for When Hiring a Cook or Chef?

“A cook and a chef are different.”
When I’m hiring a cook, I look for strong character, integrity, work ethic. I want someone who will show up and not be afraid of hard work. Someone who realizes that the needs of the kitchen are greater than his or her individual needs. This is because in the long run, if the team is successful then individuals will be successful. It’s an important thing to learn that “it’s not a ME thing; it’s a WE thing”

When I’m hiring a chef, it’s a prerequisite that they know how to cook. What I look for most are leadership skills. I feel that these are THE most highly under-rated skills. If it were up to me, I would tell everyone to develop these skills earlier in their education and career and they will ascend faster. This goes back to being a team player. It’s about uplifting the team; a Chef who leads and understands the dynamics of a team.

How Does a Chef Create Their Own Brand?

Chef Andre led this discussion off with a very important note, “You Are Your Own Brand”! He loves using social media for self promotion. His favorite platform is Instagram and advised every student to use social media to promote themselves–and their brand. He expressed that there are two types of people on social media; Content Creators and Content Consumers–and he urged everyone to become Content Creators–if they aren’t already.

Then it was time for some fun.

Q: Most Overrated Food Trend?

A: All trends are overrated. If it’s a trend that means that it will go away. He recommends staying with classical training-focus on techniques-they’re timeless; knife skills, butchery, dishes like roasted chicken and braised beef. These dishes were delicious 100 years ago and will be 100 years from now.

Q: What is your recommendation for a food/food history book?

A: During our quarantine time I decided to read more. My goal was one book per week for the year…I’ve already read 53 books and my two favorites are Ritz and Escoffier and The French Laundry, Per Se.

Ritz and Escoffier explains the use of “luxury language” and how ‘The King of Chefs’ applied it in the kitchen to elevate professionalism. “It’s not a dish pit (no one will want to work it), it’s a dish station; we don’t use rags, we use towels–as they are treated with more respect.” He also loves how the book explains Escoffier’s intent as an influencer-to change the way people perceive food. He named his dishes after famous people so they would encourage others to dine on their signature meals. Word of mouth, I suppose..and he laughed.

Thomas Keller’s book taps into the idea that dishes can be revisited. In this book he revised some of his original recipes and points to the notion that one should never stop learning and creating. “I truly believe that Thomas Keller is the Escoffier of today.”

Some Strong Closing Advice

When asked what advice he would give his younger self, 5-10 years ago, he had this to say:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for things. If you want something (a particular station, position, promotion, transfer) ask for it, as they might think you don’t want it.
  • Get over thinking you have to be the best – Don’t be afraid to engage, it’s ok if you don’t know something – ASK!
  • Surround yourself with the best, insead of being the best – you will become better for it.
  • When you remove the fear of failure, hard work, etc, is when you start succeeding.
  • Get your hands dirty! – a raw chicken metaphor that he describes as one of his first interactions with Chef Instructor Kirk Bachmann…you’ll have to watch the video.