From martial arts to memory competitions, in this episode we speak with the rockstar Executive Chef André Natera of the Fairmont Hotel in Austin, Texas, board member of the Texas Food & Wine Alliance, and host of the Run the Pass podcast & web series.
Chef André is an active individual – a former mixed martial artist and a culinary industry veteran who has held over 10 executive chef positions from Fairmont Hotels to Omni Hotels. A big proponent of education and mentorship, he has a progressive learning environment in his kitchen designed for culinary professionals to be creative.
Listen as we chat with André about work ethic, starting a restaurant, martial arts, culinary mentorship, and how to create a strong team culture in the kitchen.
Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann and welcome back to Escoffier’s podcast. In today’s episode we are featuring Chef André Natera, Executive Chef of the Fairmont Hotel in Austin, Texas, and host of the “Run The Pass” podcast and web series, and also a former mixed martial arts artist. Join us as we chat with Chef André about making good career decisions, and his method for hiring and creating a progressive learning environment in the kitchen.
Chef, welcome. I am so excited that you’re here today. How’s everything?
André Natera: Chef, today is a good day – it’s always a good day if I get to see you.
Kirk Bachmann: Hey, I have to say, I want to catch our listeners up really, really fast. You’re a high profile chef, and you don’t know how proud I am to say that, people will know in a minute why. Your hotel is beautiful, your food is amazing, you’re super active on social media. You’re what I like to call a “culinary rockstar.” And by the way, my wife, Gretchen, said, “You gotta thank Chef André again.” She had such a good time in Austin with her bestie this past weekend. Thanks so much for treating them so well.
André Natera: You’re welcome. It was my pleasure. Tell her the pleasure was all mine, and it was an honor to serve your wife and her guests.
Kirk Bachmann: Hey, it helps me in the long run, buddy, it helps me in the long run. So thank you.
André Natera: I was trying to make you look good.
Kirk Bachmann: (Laughter) That you did, that you did! So let me ask you about that. Friends, colleagues – you run in some pretty high profile circles – the Thomas Kellers of the world, right? And do you have a lot of colleagues, let’s say in the industry, that reach out looking for help or for guidance, social media direction, or want to do their own podcast? Do you get a lot of that?
André Natera: I would say I do get a lot of friends that reach out, and we talk. I wouldn’t necessarily say for help on what they’re doing. Sometimes they just need to bounce an idea off, and we sit around, we have a quick discussion, then I would say that’s more the peer level. But chefs that have worked for me always reach out all the time and say, “What would you do in this situation? How would you handle that situation?” And that relationship is more of a mentor relationship that I have with ex-chefs that used to be my sous chef, or something like that, that are now at the helm of their own kitchen. So I would say the relationship is different if we work together versus if we’re industry peers, industry colleagues, or industry friends.
Kirk Bachmann: Is that a point of pride for you? When you were just mentioning that, I thought to myself, “I’m a successful college football coach. Every year I’m winning national championships, right? And every year, my crew is getting bigger jobs, right? Because they’re getting exposure.” Is that a place of pride for you, when you lose a sous chef that moves on to an executive chef position?
André Natera: That’s a good question. Because when they leave, and it’s not for something better, it’s a hard conversation to explain to them, “Hey, maybe you’re not making the right career decision right now.” And they don’t want to always hear that because when you’re ready for a promotion, you’re ready for promotion – by any means necessary. So it’s a tougher conversation when they’re not ready. But when they are ready, and they get that dream job – that’s a source of pride.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah.
André Natera: When they pass me, when they become more successful, when they open their hotel, their restaurant, when they get their accolades and their awards, I love it. Nothing makes me more proud than that. On the flip side, though, someone that has left that’s not ready – I always worry about them a little bit. Because I know in my years of experience, I might see what they have coming.
Kirk Bachmann: Got it. I wasn’t gonna go here, but the last time we chatted, we talked about books, and I thought it was amazing. It was a fun fact that I didn’t know. I didn’t realize what a reader you were – kind of Bill Gates-type – a book-a-week type of thing. And I’ll bring up the one that we both read not too long ago, as the pandemic was raging, but what’s the most recent book that you read?
André Natera: So today I just wrapped up Octaphilosophy.
Kirk Bachmann: Tell me about it.
André Natera: It’s André Chang. It’s great, it’s his philosophy on cooking. You know, a lot of people buy cookbooks, and they don’t read them. I read the cookbook page to page. I read every single recipe. So I just finished up Octaphilosophy today, and I started reading Animal Farm.
Kirk Bachmann: No way! Really? Really…old school.
André Natera: That was the transition – ending Octaphilosophy going into Animal Farm.
Kirk Bachmann: Brilliant, brilliant (laughter). So, we’ve known each other for a while, and I’m going to give my age away here, but what folks might not know is that many, many moons ago, as I just got started teaching in the culinary education space, you were one of my first students, and probably my best (laughter). And I cannot tell you how proud of you I am. And again, shamelessly plugging one of our favorite books, Matthew McConaughey’s Greenlights, I would say you had a lot of green lights, right? I mean, I’m sure some yellows and some reds, but what do you attribute the green lights to?
André Natera: I think the green lights started early when I was young. My father instilled a great work ethic in me. True story – he would take me to work when I was six years old, he was a carpenter, built furniture. On Saturdays, when I wanted to play, he was like, “No, let’s go to work.” And so from a very young age, I’ve never been afraid of hard work. I just always assumed, “Hey, you just gotta work hard.”
So that was instilled in me very young. I was never afraid of hard work, and I’m extremely competitive – in anything, by the way. If someone says, “Hey, you want to compete in this?” I’ll say “Sure.” Even if I don’t have a chance in hell to win, I’ll still compete with you. I think that competitive mindset and being unafraid of hard work, it just opened up a lot of doors for me. Because it allowed people to recognize – and you know this from working in kitchens – if you have an employee that works hard, he’s not afraid of hard work, and he’s trying to get better every day, you invest your time in that person. As a young person, as a young cook, as a young sous chef, every single chef that I’ve worked for always invested in me because they saw that I wanted to come in early, they saw that I was reading all these cookbooks all the time and always come in with ideas. They saw that I was motivated.
So every chef along the way took me under their wing – which again, made me better by having these chef mentors. I would say those were the green lights. It was creating opportunity and then saying “Yes” when opportunities presented themselves to me.
Kirk Bachmann: Really, really good advice. So before culinary school, before working in the industry, before Fairmont, tell us about how that competitive streak brought you into the martial arts field. And where did you go with that?
André Natera: When I was young, boxing and wrestling and doing martial arts – people don’t know this – but my mom was a martial arts instructor. She used to teach T’ai chi ch’üan, which is a Chinese-style derivative of Kung Fu. So I was always into the martial arts as a kid, and then when I became a little bit older, living in Portland, Oregon, mixed martial arts was on the scene. Going to culinary school by night, training whenever I had a free day, and kickboxing or wrestling or whatever the case may be.
Kirk Bachmann: You were doing it while you were a student?
André Natera: Yeah.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, I didn’t know that! Okay, cool.
André Natera: Yeah, that was the real dream. The real dream was that I wanted to be a professional fighter, and so I started to pursue that. The environments in professional fighting gyms, boxing gyms, and wrestling gyms is very similar to the environment of kitchens – there’s an order of hierarchy. There might be the coach at the top of the hierarchy, where in the kitchen it’s the chef, but there’s kind of this mentality of performance gets rewarded and recognized. The same way it does in a fight is the same way it does in a kitchen. So you start to build this competitive mindset that translates very well to a kitchen environment. And I wanted to be a fighter.
There was a point in time in my career when I was offered my first executive chef role. At the same time, I was also offered to turn pro as a fighter, and I had to sit back and think, “Should I become a professional fighter? Should I become an executive chef?” in speaking with my friends that were pro fighters at the time, and asking them how much money they made, and then knowing how much money I would make as a chef. This was before the UFC was on ESPN, and you could see it every Saturday night. This is when it was more of a fringe sport. It’s like you’re gonna make $6,000 a fight and maybe fight three times a year – so $18,000 a year. I was like, with the chance of getting my leg broken…I think I’ll take cooking where I cannot break my legs.
Kirk Bachmann: (Laughter) Yeah, the economics didn’t work out. Do you still train or…?
André Natera: I stopped training in about 2017, the last time I stepped foot in a boxing gym or martial arts gym. I had taken a little break, and when I got back into it, it’s funny because I put on weight – I’m not as limber, I’m not as fast. And I jumped right back in thinking, “Oh, I still got it. I think I can still fight like I could 10 years ago.” Boy, was I wrong. I got my butt kicked when I went back to the gym. It took me a good six months to knock the rust off and be competitive.
But I’ll tell you what, I’m not to brag, but by the end of the time, 2017, when I stopped training again, I was relatively competitive with the pro fighters again. So I felt pretty good. It’s like riding a bike. Well, the thing is, it’s like riding a bike when you were five years old, and thinking that you’re still that same size, and all of a sudden you get on the same tricycle as an adult. And you’re like, “I don’t feel the same.”
Kirk Bachmann: (Laughter) I love it. I guess I didn’t realize it, and I do remember that Portland was one of those cities where it was big. It was super, super popular, and I did not realize that it was while you were going to school because you were a good student. You were a good student…you didn’t miss school!
Hey, so let’s talk about the industry. I’ve got all kinds of questions, but just some general statements. We’re coming out of a long year, you just recently kind of got your restaurants going again, they’re in Austin. What are some of your general thoughts on the industry going forward?
André Natera: My general thoughts right now on the industry going forward really are around the next generation of cooks and chefs coming into it right now. There’s a supply and demand issue, probably across the nation, when it comes to cook jobs versus cooks, to getting people in, getting them trained, and then getting them to fall in love with this business, is probably the biggest challenge that we’re facing as an industry. It’s that there’s a big cook shortage across the nation. So cooks who’ve come in and work their way up relatively quickly into a sous chef role and then a head chef role, probably in about a quarter of the time as they used to when you and I were coming up in the kitchen, right?
There are more resources now for a cook to become better at what they do. You can look at YouTube, there’s what you’re doing with Escoffier, there’s programs for online learning. Now a cook could become just better at what they do versus when you and I were coming up: You looked at a cookbook and you wait until the next cookbook came out before you would upgrade your skills. You had to wait for Charlie Trotter’s next book to come out before you saw what was the new-new. Where now people in the industry, they get it quickly, instantly on Instagram, on Facebook, whatever social media platform that they’re using. So because of that, that hastens their career trajectory. You’re no longer a line cook for five or ten years before you ever get promoted, you’re maybe a line cook one or two years before you’re ready for sous chef.
I think that’s a big difference right now in the industry, from when you and I were coming up versus what it is now. And so we have to figure out a way to incentivize people to remain in position a little bit longer than they probably want to. So we gotta look at pay rates, we gotta look at opportunities for growth, there’s a lot to look at. And I’m not saying I have the answers, but I’m saying that this is probably one of the biggest problems that we’re facing as an industry currently.
Kirk Bachmann: So for you specifically, with that as a backdrop, what are you looking for specifically? Maybe even today in a young culinarian that was something you didn’t look for ten years ago?
André Natera: What I’m looking for in a young culinarian is first of all work ethic, because the one thing that hasn’t changed forever in a kitchen, from the time of [Auguste] Escoffier to now, is that you do need to cook, you do need to work, and there’s still that requirement that hasn’t changed. So number one, you got to have the work ethic. And number two, you got to be able to work within the team and listen. As long as you have those things, then we can start building upon those skills.
Number one, do you have the work ethic? Because it is the culinary industry, this is the one thing that we have that’s different from a lot of other industries – it is a meritocracy. It doesn’t matter how much money you make, it doesn’t matter what kind of car you drive, it doesn’t matter who your boyfriend or who your girlfriend is, it doesn’t matter what your parents do. The only thing that matters is how did you do today during servicing. That’s it. That’s the only thing the rest of your team cares about. It’s the great equalizer. Understanding that and being able to tone down any of that other noise from the outside world, understanding that “when I’m in the kitchen, the only currency I have, the only value I bring is my culinary skill set, and my ability to work with others, and my ability to work on the line or handle the pressure.” So you focus on those things.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. Take us back a little bit. The kitchen has changed over the years, and you’ve held many different positions, and we’ll get to the restaurant in a minute, too. What would you say, for you anyway, was the most difficult, where you needed to be unbelievably patient? And conversely, the position that you enjoyed the most? You should probably say your current one. (laughter)
André Natera: It’s true, my current one is the one I do enjoy the most.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s great, yeah.
André Natera: Throughout my career from when I was your student in 1995, in Portland, Oregon, at the Western Culinary Institute / Le Cordon Bleu.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, we just gave my age away! (laughter)
André Natera: I think you were like 21. I don’t know…
Kirk Bachmann: Atta boy, I love it. (laughter)
André Natera: But if I think back to that point in time, in my career, to where I am now, I’ve progressively become better as a chef. In this linear line moving upwards, I’ve progressively gotten better from my culinary skill set. But I wasn’t always successful. The success was highs and lows across the board. If I’m becoming a better cook with every job and every year, why am I not becoming more successful with every job and every year? It took some soul searching for me to understand the “why.” And the reason is because the places where I was very successful were places that there was a great workplace environment. The places that I was least successful were places that the workplace culture was toxic, or not conducive to a healthy kitchen.
And so the reason I would say I’m most happy in the current role is because what I did when I took this job was I put culture at the top of the hierarchy and said, “If we can make sure that kitchen culture is correct, and you want to be here, and we build a foundation with the culture, all the other things will take care of themselves.” The cooks will be happy, the standards will be in place, the discipline will be there, and then we can produce great food as a byproduct of this environment. But if you work in chaos, and people are angry, and it’s not fun to be at work, it doesn’t matter how talented you are – people don’t want to be there, and you’re not going to be successful.
So again, the reason I think that this is my favorite job is because I put culture and workplace first. And the place that I would say that I was the least successful, I might have been doing great food, but the culture wasn’t there. So it doesn’t matter how good the food was, I wasn’t happy going to work, and neither was the team.
Kirk Bachmann: Great response. Great advice. Should young culinarians aspire to open up their own restaurant?
André Natera: Um, no. Next question. (laughter) I’m just kidding.
Kirk Bachmann: Well, I mean you worked hard, right? And you worked for a great company, a big company, with hotels all around the world. And I’ve been to your hotel – it’s absolutely beautiful. It’s only a couple of years old, the food space there is really contemporary, it’s really relevant, kind of that food hall sort of vibe. There’s nothing that a guest would want for when they’re at your hotel. But I imagine young culinarians – I was the same – just couldn’t wait to open up our own place. But speak to that a little bit. Because I think you went down that path for a minute, right?
André Natera: I did. It’s really the unknown-unknown. It sounds like a good idea. You want to have your own restaurant, but you don’t take into consideration of how expensive that is. We could probably end the conversation just with the expense that goes into a restaurant. And in today’s terms, you’re talking a million, maybe millions of dollars to open up a restaurant. In order to raise the capital to do that, that’s a big investment. When we’re talking millions of dollars, or a million dollars to open something up – something decent, right? There’s a big cost associated with opening up a restaurant, and then you factor in what’s the lifespan of a restaurant. A lot of people say, two, three, four years. What are the chances that you’ve captured lightning in a bottle, and that your restaurant’s going to be around maybe ten years to repay back that initial $1 million investment?
So it’s a high price to pay for a small reward, there’s a risk that your restaurant might not make it – most restaurants don’t. But there’s a risk that you’re not going to ever get your money back. You’re going to risk potentially losing everything that you’ve ever worked for and saved for. Opening up a restaurant…it’s not a huge financial incentive to open up a restaurant. Now, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t chefs that have done it very well, and they’re very successful. I think here in Austin, the Uchi group. They are the business model to scale or mimic. I mean, look at what Thomas Keller has done with the Thomas Keller restaurant group, Michael Mina, so on, and so forth. So there are chefs that have figured it out and become very successful.
But in Austin, I could probably count three or four groups that have done that. We’re becoming a primary market, where if you think about other cities like New York, or L.A., there’s probably five to ten chefs that have done it successfully in those bigger markets. The odds of it happening are very low, when you think about how many people want to open up a restaurant, and then how many people succeed at the restaurant.
So the financial incentive is not there when you could do it in a hotel, or you could do it in a country club, or you could do it working for Facebook, or Apple, or Google, or whatever the case may be. Or even working in a restaurant that someone successful owns. Like, go work for the Michael Mina group and learn how to how to run a good restaurant before you go and open up your own. It’s a dangerous game, to open up your own restaurant, and I think if you go in blindly and thinking – you have this romantic notion of what it is – you’re going to be in for a big surprise.
Kirk Bachmann: And there’s so many incredible other opportunities for young culinarians today, all culinarians today. Chef, I know that training and education is really important to you. I’ve seen it in action at your hotel. In your opinion, what environment do you believe is the most conducive to learning for young culinarians?
André Natera: You need to be okay with making mistakes, I would say first and foremost. You have to celebrate innovation, you have to celebrate creativity, and you have to allow that to flourish. You can’t shut it down. But you need to control it, you need to put it in a in a controlled setting where the creativity is going to be allowed to flourish.
So I’ll give you an example of some of the things that we do in my kitchen. We have a lot of standards around very simple things, like the way we greet each other to how we fold towels, the way we roll our apron to the way we set up a work station, and those things are not changeable. The reason that we do that is because we want to turn down the noise of having to think about those things. If you’re thinking about “Where do I put my knife?” and “How should I put my apron?” and “What color’s my shirt today?” and “What kind of socks am I wearing?” – you end up getting what’s called decision fatigue, because you’re thinking about all these things that don’t really make an impact to what’s important.
If we could tone down the noise by creating standards around all these things, then we could really just focus on the food. I think you need to create an environment where you have some parameters which people can work in. And then you have to tell people, okay, your job is to make everything better. But don’t just change it for the sake of changing it – communicate that. So if someone has a new way to peel asparagus, they will show me: “Chef, I have a way to peel asparagus that’s more efficient than the way that you’re doing it.” I’ll say, “That’s great, show me.” And once they show me, if I like it, great, let’s do that. And then I’ll teach everyone else in the kitchen, and we’ll communicate to the rest of the staff. This is the new way that we’re peeling asparagus because this is what Johnny showed us. This is much better and much more practical than the way that we were doing it.
So create an environment like that, that allows people to flourish and be creative – I think this is important number one. But the other thing is mistakes are gonna happen along the way. I love to use the saying, “You can make as many mistakes as you want, but just don’t make the same one twice,” because then it becomes a choice. You’re either choosing to do it wrong because you’re not learning…so make mistakes, encourage people to make mistakes. If you’re not making enough mistakes, then you’re not trying enough different things. Having that type of discussion amongst the team I think is very important to creating that environment where people could really flourish.
Kirk Bachmann: I love the standards. And you gotta remind me…for example, kitchen rags that everyone uses, you don’t call them kitchen rags. Do you?
André Natera: No, we call them towels.
Kirk Bachmann: Towels, very respectful.
André Natera: We call them towels, yeah. We don’t call it the dish pit either. We call it the dish station.
Kirk Bachmann: I love that. [Auguste] Escoffier would have loved that, yeah. We’ve only got a few minutes left. I’ve got to touch on the spelling bee piece. Sometimes you call yourself a nerd, but I think this is the coolest thing in the world. Can you just give us a brief summary on this? You took eighth place in this National Spelling Bee? Is that what it was?
André Natera: No (laughter). So you’re getting two things confused by the way.
Kirk Bachmann: Uh-oh. (laughter)
André Natera: So my name on Instagram right now is Spelling Bee Champ 2021, misspelled by the way.
Kirk Bachmann: (Laughter) Of course it is!
André Natera: I just want to say…I’m glad someone’s paid attention. No, I was in the United States Memory Championship.
Kirk Bachmann: Memory championship. That’s what it was.
André Natera: Yeah, last year. There was about 200 competitors – I placed eighth. It was put on by MIT. Honestly, I just entered it because I wanted to say, “Who else do you know that’s in the memory competition?” Like, I’ve never met anyone in a memory competition. I was like, I’ll do that. That sounds fun.
Kirk Bachmann: You’re competitive.
André Natera: I’m competitive. So like a competition…sure I’m in. I honestly didn’t really prepare for it very much. You know, once I got the gist of how the memory competition works, I practiced for about a week. And then I placed eighth out of 200 people, but if you could believe that, I don’t know how I did it. I actually forgot how I did it. If that makes sense.
Kirk Bachmann: So knock, knock.
André Natera: Yeah. Who’s there?
Kirk Bachmann: Memory’s fading buddy…memory’s fading already! (laughter) Come on now. My wife calls you an influencer? Do you hear that term a lot? Because we watch “Run the Pass,” and we talk about it, and she’s big on Instagram. Do you consider yourself an influencer out there?
André Natera: You know, I’ve never really thought about that. I actually I don’t consider myself an influencer. I consider myself a cheerleader more than anything.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, I like that.
André Natera: I’m always out there trying to promote my team, what they’re doing. We just recently reopened our restaurant garrison. We have an amazing Chef de Cuisine, named Jacob. I can’t pronounce his name, he’s got three Z’s in it. So we just call him Triple Z. But I’m always out there promoting what we’re doing in garrison and promoting him. We have amazing chefs on the team, and when any of them are doing something particularly amazing, I like to be out there screaming, “Look over here! We have an amazing chef, and everyone should be paying attention to what this person is doing.” Even the podcast that I do, it’s about celebrating the other chefs that I’m interviewing, and what they’re doing, and what their successes are. I don’t know if I’m an influencer or more of a cheerleader.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. I like that, I like that. And so in the few seconds we have left, what’s next? Are you working on something super special? Can you give us a little peek into what’s next for Chef André?
André Natera: I really love mentoring people. So if I could figure out a way to mentor more people, I would love to do that. And I’ve actually been thinking about…more to come – I’ll reveal that later. But I’ve actually been thinking about how I can get more one-on-one time with kids that are coming into the industry, and spend some time with them mentoring and being a coach for them in the industry. They don’t even have to be particularly people that work for me. Of course, the people that work for me, it’s much easier for them because they have access to me. But I kind of want to see how I could do that. Now that we have technology, we just meet over Zoom like we are right now. How can we get a greater audience just to help young culinarians and mentor them along the way? So I’m working on something like that.
Kirk Bachmann: I’m not surprised at all. I’m so unbelievably proud of you. Thank you. I owe you one. I need to be a guest on your podcast. I know I delayed that a little bit ago, so I’m going to jump back on – we have so much to talk about. Let’s do this again soon, okay?
André Natera: Anytime. It’s always a pleasure.
Kirk Bachmann: All right. Thank you so much.
André Natera: Thank you.