Podcast Episode 57

How To Not Be The “Biggest Idiot” In The Kitchen – Chef André Natera’s Practical Guide

André Natera | 47 Minutes | August 30, 2022


In today’s episode, we bring back André Natera, a professional culinary consultant, author, and a chef with over 27 years of experience, working alongside Michelin-starred chefs.

André is the author of a new book, Chef’s PSA: How Not to Be the Biggest Idiot in the Kitchen, a comical guide for people just starting their culinary career. He has led culinary teams at some of Dallas’ most acclaimed restaurants, and became the regional executive chef for Omni Hotels. Since then, André has been inducted into the Epicurean World Master Chefs Society (WMCS) for almost a decade now, and he continues to serve as a culinary council member for the prestigious Ment’or BKB.

Listen as André talks about the challenges chefs face in the culinary industry, how to shorten the learning curve for new cooks, and practical tips for aspiring chefs to survive the kitchen.

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Notes & Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, I’m welcoming for a second time Andre Natera, a former chef who recently stepped away from the kitchen. His 27 years of experience includes working with Michelin-starred chefs, leading the culinary teams at some of Dallas’s most acclaimed restaurants, and spearheading the culinary programs at world-class hotels in Austin, Texas.

Andre was the executive chef at the Fairmont Dallas, which he guided from a two-star to four-star review from the “Dallas Morning News” and they also awarded him Best Chef, DFW Chef Honors. He was the chef partner of award-winning restaurants Marquee Grill, Village Kitchen, and Toko V. In 2014, Andre became the regional executive chef for Omni Hotels. In 2017, he then joined the Fairmont Austin Hotel, where he oversaw and designed the culinary program for their signature restaurants, Revue, Rules and Regs, and Garrison, the latter of which boasted a Forbes Travel Guide four-star and AAA four-diamond rating.

Andre has been inducted in the Epicurean World Master Chef Society for almost a decade now, and he continues to serve as a culinary council member for the prestigious Ment’or BKB.

Join us today as we chat with Andre about his role as a culinary consultant and his new book, “Chef’s PSAs: How Not to be the Biggest Idiot in the Kitchen.”

And there he is. How are you my friend? Good to see you. Thanks for being here, buddy.

Andre Natera: I’m doing great. You look good. It’s always good to see you.

A Bookworm Chef

Kirk Bachmann: Get some glasses on there, buddy. You look phenomenal. Here’s the thing I know about you and love about you: all those books, those aren’t for show. You’ve probably read those books twice. You’re a big reader, as I recall.

Andre Natera: I am a big reader. There is about three boxes of books in the garage. There’s another two shelves of books here. There are books under my bed. There are books on my coffee table. I have so many books, and there are probably hundreds of books on audio on my telephone. I think we’ve talked about this before, but I consume, on average, about a book a week. Sometimes more than a book a week. I’m definitely a bookworm.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s Bill Gates pace.

Andre Natera: That’s not true. Bill Gates can’t keep up with me.

Kirk Bachmann: He can’t! He can’t!

Here’s a delve your secrets. Chef’s love books. I like books that tell stories. We know the recipes and stuff, and we’re going to change them up anyway. But I love the books that tell a little bit of the story about the chef. Do you give books away after they’ve been on your shelf for quite a while, or do you keep everything?

Andre Natera: Throughout the course of time as a chef, I end up accumulating too many books. Then I go through them. “Wow! I have too many books.” I just show up one day at work. “I have 20 books in the trunk of my car. Who wants them? Come get them. First come, first serve.” I’ve probably had to do that several times throughout my career.

What’s interesting is there are certain books that I don’t ever give away, no matter what.

Kirk Bachmann: Right!

Andre Natera: Those are my favorite books. I’ll tell people, “Those are off limits.” I don’t even lend them out. I definitely give out books.

There’s a book hierarchy. There’s some world-class books for chefs. “Okay, these are untouchable.” They might have an autograph or they might be personalized. Or they might be – I’ll give you a good example. I have a book by Alain Ducasse. It’s like that thick, 500 pages. Pretty hard to find. You can’t find it anywhere. It’s the “Grand Livre De Cuisine”.

Kirk Bachmann: I have it. I have it.

Andre Natera: I think I bought it for 250 bucks ten years ago. I can’t find it anywhere. “No, you can’t borrow it. No, you can’t have it. It’s mine. It’s not going anywhere.”

Kirk Bachmann: 100 percent. I’m not even sure I’ll let you look at it at my house. That’s a big one. This is another one. We’re going to talk about it in a minute.

This one’s going nowhere.

Andre Natera: That’s probably the best book ever written, by the way.

Kirk Bachmann: 100 percent. We’re going to learn why in just a minute.

You know which one: Escoffier’s “Le Guide” will go to the grave with me. Mine is so beat up. Literally, it’s taped together with duct tape. It’s just been thrown around and opened up so many times. Students tearing at it.

Andre Natera: Was it gifted to you, or was it one that you purchased?

Kirk Bachmann: It was a gift. Thank you for that. It was a gift. Those who saw us chat the first time will figure this out the first time that we’ve met. I had the great honor of being in a kitchen with you – gosh! – three decades ago. You were a student at a school in the Northwest. Back then, classes were pretty tiny. I got everything from caricatures to really, really cool gifts from students that had good experiences. One year, it was Escoffier’s “Le Guide” which was really moving. 100 percent.

For me, I’ve probably cleaned house two or three times, because my wife insisted that I do. The library, like all my Art Culinaire over the years, it gets a little ridiculous when you have 50 of those. So those went to the library. They were fascinated. But right here at the school, I’ve done it twice: filled up the shelves twice. Students love it. I get a kick out of it, seeing them tear it up. Once in a while, I go back and I’m like, “Hey, that’s my original signed Martin Yan. I’m going to take that back home.” Then I sneak it back in.

So, so, so excited. We’re going to talk about a lot of stuff today. It’s a different world. You’ve put in the time. I’m going to say you’ve sort of retired. I don’t think you’re ever going to retire. You’ve stepped away from the kitchen. I hope we can talk about what you’re doing, what you’re thinking about. We can talk about your book. We can talk about what you want to do next.

Again, nearly three decades. You’ve made your mark on the culinary industry. You run in the circles. First and foremost – you’re going to get embarrassed, and I know you don’t want me to do this – I’m unbelievably proud of you. Unbelievably proud of you. I’ll never forget: this was maybe five or six years ago. I was working with a group. We were talking to Fairmont Hotels. Some of the C-suite folks were like, “ We’d like to introduce you to the young man that’s going to run our property in Austin, Texas.” Your voice comes on. I had no idea! It’s like, “Hello, Chef Bachmann. I’m Chef Andre. How are you?” I couldn’t believe it! We were reunited.

It’s a teacher’s, it’s a father’s greatest pride to see their children – their students – just take off and excel in the world. You’ve done that. Before we jump into so much, I just love how serendipitous this is. Your career’s been just crazy. So many memories.

We don’t have to go all the way back to the martial arts and all of that. We’ve talked about that. I just want to hear the first thing out of your mouth about Andre after three decades in the kitchen. He steps back. He looks. What does he see? What are the memories that come right to the top?

The Importance of the People

Andre Natera: It’s the people that I’ve crossed paths with. The mentors that I’ve had – yourself included. Thank you for the kind words. I had lots of chefs throughout my career. I’ve worked with many people that were my sous chefs and cooks that have gone on to become amazing chefs in their own right. All of the success and the accolades and the awards, all of that was through the team and the people that were around me. It was a product of team.

It was also a product of the people like yourself that brought me up into the industry. Any little bit of success that I’ve achieved is the culmination of my experience, the experience of the people that I’ve worked with, and the experience of the people that I’ve worked for.

And I would say, as I look back in retrospect, that’s what makes me the most proud of this industry. The relations, and the successes. Highs and lows, by the way, because you learn from the lows sometimes more than the successes. All of those moments in time played a significant part of building who I am now and the direction that I’m going now as a chef.

I would say the most proud I am is of those relationships and those opportunities to work with all these tremendous, wonderful people that work in the culinary food and beverage industry.

Things You Don’t Learn on the Cutting Board

Kirk Bachmann: Well said. I had hoped that you would say that, right? It’s so great to look back and have those memories. Today’s social media allows you to stay in touch. I happen to follow many of the chefs that worked for you in Austin and see what’s going on with them. It’s cool to watch.

As part of your new culinary endeavor – It sounds and feels like you’re still in the space. You’re on the outskirts of the space. You’re leveraging your many years of experience, those relationships, that networking, those friendships. As an executive chef, as a partner, as a team member, to help culinarians to grow their skills, and consequently their businesses. Mentorship, we said at the beginning, is really, really important.

You’ve written your first book already. You’re not even retired for a minute, and you’ve written a book. It’s hilarious by the way. I don’t know if it’s meant to be hilarious, but it’s really funny to someone who is in the kitchen every day. There’s a word or two that I’m going to have a word with you about. “If you have salt and pepper mixed on your station, you shouldn’t.” I don’t know why that’s so funny to me. It’s true, by the way. It’s true, but it’s funny.

Chef’s PSA: How Not to be the Biggest Idiot in the Kitchen.” Congratulations, first of all. Let’s just be as direct and straightforward and unapologetic as we possibly can. First of all, I want to talk about where the idea came from, why you did this. Why aren’t you in the Bahamas? What was the process like? A lot of people want to do this. It’s not easy. Where did the idea come from? Did it come to you a decade ago? “I’m going to write a book about this?” Or is this very recent?

Andre Natera: I’m going to stop. So, “Chef’s PSA.” On the back of the back of the book it says, “This book won’t make you a better cook, but at least you can look like you know what you’re doing.” The reason is it’s intentionally not a cookbook. It’s a book designed for people that are new in the industry or people that are seasoned in the industry to establish what the unwritten rules are of working in a culinary operation. It’s the dos and don’ts that you don’t necessarily know when you’re right out of culinary school or you’re on the job.

This is what you need to know when you’re walking into a kitchen and it’s Day One and you’re fresh. You’re green. You’re walking into the kitchen; this is what you need to know.

Some of it’s intended to be tongue-in-cheek, like the salt and pepper thing. That’s intended to be in the book so you recognize if you’re in the wrong kitchen. If you work in a kitchen and you’re aspiring to be a Michelin three-star chef and on your station you have table grind and iodized salt mixed in your port container, you’re working in the wrong kitchen. Because the best chefs in the world don’t do that. You might want to think about getting out.

A friend of mine – I won’t name him – works in a three-Michelin-star restaurant, mentioned to me that those are the best times, when you work in those kitchen where you mix the salt and pepper. He’s right. Those are some of the most fun kitchens to work in. Take what you can from it, throw away the rest.

But here’s how the book came to be, back to your original question. It really started during the pandemic. There were about two or three things that led to it. Where I was the chef, I had about 70 international students that worked for me. Every month, we’d put on culinary university where we’d teach them what they need to know on becoming a chef. In the kitchen, they’re learning the fundamentals of cooking and they’re working. I didn’t want to be redundant and teach them more about food. I wanted to teach them, When you go back and you move on, what are the things that you need to know about how to lead kitchens, how to manage kitchens. All the things that you don’t learn on the cutting board.

I would do these classes once a month for my employees. What ended up happening was covid hit and the world shuts down. The rest is history. During that time, I lost that connection with all these people that I was mentoring. I had so many people that looked to me as a mentor and I was helping develop their skill set. Once that opportunity didn’t present itself anymore, I needed to figure out a way that I could reach them.

I was in the grocery store one day, and I heard over the intercom a commercial for Taylor Swift’s cooking class. I thought, “Why does Taylor Swift have a cooking class? She should not have a cooking class. I should have a cooking class!” You know what? I should have a class, but I should have a class not on cooking, because – If anyone remembers back when covid first hit and you’d jump on any social media platform, every single chef you know and their wives and their friends and the influencer had a cooking channel. It was the thing to do. Scrolling, scrolling. “Oh my God, I can’t take another salmon on spinach salad at this point!” No offense to my chef friends who were making salmon on spinach salad.

“I can’t take it anymore. I need to do something different. What can we teach these young chefs? I’m going to teach them how to become chefs. Not the cooking part.” You could go on MasterClass and see Thomas Keller and Gordon Ramsey, or you could take any of these other platforms, Dominique Crenn whatever the case may be. There are some amazing chefs that can teach you how to cook. Not just in culinary school, but even online if you don’t have access to it.

But I recognized that there was a lack of teaching people kitchen culture, culinary management skills, leadership skills, all the things that you need to be a chef. I could teach you how to cook, but no one’s teaching you how to be a chef. That’s going to be my role. I’m going to help young chefs practice your craft of culinary in the kitchen. But when you’re with me and you’re on my time, I’m going to teach you how to go from cook to chef. That’s where the idea came from.

“Chef’s PSA” came from that. There’s another online class I have called, “How to Manage Like an Executive Chef.” People can find it online if they just search my name, “How to Manage Like an Executive Chef.” The class is for free. We take you through everything from how to build a team, how to negotiate with vendors, how to fire people, how to deal with difficult situations, how to market yourself. It’s all in there. That’s important stuff. Knowing how to manage food costs might not be sexy, but you need to know how to do that.

Those are the things that I wanted to help people with when they are out on their own.

Kirk Bachmann: I’m going to jump on that bandwagon right there. We mentioned the salt and pepper one. There’s a title around costs of good sales and how that all translates in the food costs. “There’s no such thing as Sunday traffic. Learn from your mistakes, but don’t feed them to your guests.”

You could probably sit down in one night and start jotting things down that have either irked you or you’ve trained people over the years. Subconsciously, was this a book that was in the making for a long time, or did you literally just sit down one day and out it comes? “These are all the things that drive me crazy.”

Andre Natera: It started as a joke.

Kirk Bachmann: I could tell.

Andre Natera: This is the true story. One day, I was annoyed with something and I put – I don’t remember what the first Chef’s PSA was, but for the sake of conversation, I think it was “Don’t call off on your birthday. We know you’re lying.” It was one of those things.

Kirk Bachmann: Cute, but funny, but real.

Andre Natera: Cute but funny. Something must have happened. I don’t know if that was it. Nonetheless, I put up a Chef’s PSA, and a lot of people started messaging me saying, “That’s hilarious.” This that and the other. I thought, “I’m kind of bored. I’ll do one every Saturday.”

I put one up every Saturday. “Chef’s PSA: Don’t mix your salt and pepper.” “Chef’s PSA: You can stop wearing chili pepper pants.” All these little things that were…

Kirk Bachmann: Oooh! We may have to edit that one!

Andre Natera: Chefs, if you’re listening, take the chili pepper pants and burn them. Stop wearing them. You can also stop putting parsley on the rim.

But anyway.

Kirk Bachmann: Yes. Yes. Yes.

Andre Natera: Long story short, I started putting up the PSAs weekly, and a lot of my friends would message me and say, “This is hilarious.” Blah, blah, blah. One of my friends, Fermin Nunez, a great chef based out of Austin here. Has the restaurant Suerte. People don’t know who he is. You should look him up. He’s really doing a lot of things with Mexican food. He messaged me and said, “Turn this into a book. I’ll buy it.”

Kirk Bachmann: No Way.

Andre Natera: So I thought to myself, how hard could it be to write a book? I don’t know. I just sat down one day and wrote it. “Well, how hard could it be to publish a book?”

That’s what it did. What I end up doing then – this is something I do to myself, so maybe people could learn from this – sometimes I’ll announce something before it’s actually developed because it puts pressure on me to do it. I told the world, “I’m writing a book. It’s called ‘Chef’s PSA.’ It will be out in two months.” Uh-oh. I better start writing the book.

Kirk Bachmann: I’ve got sixty days to get it together.

Andre Natera: I put a little false time pressure on myself to get it done. Lo and behold, you have this glorious 69-page book that is full of Chef’s PSAs. It’s short. It’s ten bucks. It’s intended to be hung on your clipboard in the kitchen. It’s intended to be in your knife roll. It’s not intended to be on your coffee table. It’s intended to be read in a couple of hours. It’s intended to be given to the new cook in the kitchen when you’re not sure what to get him for Christmas. This is the right Christmas gift to get him. When your classmate graduates and they’re about to get their first job, you slide that over to them and say, “Just so you don’t get wrecked, read this first.”

Shortening the Learning Curve

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I was going to ask. I bought it for all the chefs here in Boulder, but you kind of answered it. You said earlier, “Take what you want. Throw away the rest.” Literally, this is something that should be in the back pocket. This should be close by, referred to every once in a while. Daniel Boulud has written a few of those kinds of books. Don’t put it on the coffee table. Don’t put it on the shelf behind you. It should get dirty.

A year from now, two years from now, a generation from now – there’s meaningful stuff in here – what do you want people to walk away with? There are many lessons and everybody is going to have a different input or takeaway. What is it, if you had one sentence, what do you want people to take away?

Andre Natera: It’s right on the cover: How not to be the biggest idiot in the kitchen. Let me expand upon that, because I’m kind of cracking jokes, but here’s what I mean. When you start out cooking, you sometimes don’t understand what the person at the top [expects.] There are all sorts of age levels. When you’re in high school, everyone’s 18, 17, 16, 15. Everyone gets it. They all kind of have the same level of life experience.

But when you go into a kitchen, let’s say you’re 18. This is my case. I’m 18 years old. I’m in my first kitchen. I’m working with 40-year-old men, 50-year-old men, 35-year-old men, 18-year-olds just like me. All of us have different levels of experience in the kitchen. Some of them are hardened cooks who have been doing it for a very long time. Some of them of them are brand new. Some of those people who have been there for a long time, which is in most cases about 70 percent of most professional kitchens. About 30 percent are newbies, and about 70 percent are your veterans.

When you get in there and you’re the new person, you still have this young-person’s mentality, where you think you’re fooling them. It’s like your parents: “I did that, too. You’re not fooling me.” Going back to “Don’t call off on Valentine’s Day. Don’t request off on Valentine’s Day. That’s the busiest service.” But if you don’t know better, you’re going to walk into the chef’s office, you’re going to say, “Can I have Valentine’s Day off because I made plans with my significant other,” and the chef is going to say to you, “It’s the busiest day. We have 200 reservations. You can’t have it off.” You’re not going to understand why, but everyone in the rest of the kitchen is going to look at you like, “How do you not get it? What’s wrong with you? How do you not know this already?”

This book was intended to hasten your learning curve of the unwritten rules in the kitchen. It’s those things that you need to know because everyone else knows this. Everyone else has already experienced this, so if you’re new in the kitchen, this is what you need to know. However, also, if you’re experienced in the kitchen, this is a good tool for you to share with your team and say, “Hey. Just a reminder: I’m not crazy when I say, ‘Don’t call off on your birthday. I know you’re lying.’ By the way, it’s in the book.” There’s a lot of things like that, that are intentional for seasoned cooks to remind people and also to remind themselves. And also for new people in the kitchen.

The whole thing is, I would love to change kitchen culture for the better. I want better cooks. I want more professional cooks. I want people to be more successful. I want people to make more money. In order to do that, you need to be a better chef. You need to know things. If I could shorten your learning curve – even if I’ve shortened it by ten percent – you’ll get to your destination ten percent faster.

A Lesson from Chef Bachmann

Kirk Bachmann: It’s sort of – make sure I get it right – Chef’s_PSA. It’s sort of my calming app, right? What you’re saying right there – I saw today’s, but yesterday’s said, “Successfully avoiding difficult stations and positions in the kitchen is not an accomplishment to be proud of.”

Andre Natera: Yeah. The cool thing is you taught me that. You might not remember this, but I’ll share this story. For people that don’t know, I’m going to go back in time. We’re going to go back 29 years. You said I’ve been in the industry for 29 years. Exactly 29 years ago on Day One, I’m in Kirk Bachmann’s class. For people that don’t know, that’s the short version.

There I am in class, 17 years old. By the way, I know nothing about cooking. I didn’t even know it was called culinary school. I thought it was called chef school. Someone had to explain to me what the word “culinary” meant, that’s how green I am at this point. I’m in class. We’re marinating chicken. I’ve never really cooked before, real cooking. I think I made spaghetti, Ragu out of a jar. My cooking experience is very limited.

There I am, sitting across the table from you, Culinary 101. You’re my first instructor. I’m in your first class. There’s a big bowl of raw, disgusting chicken. I’ve never in my life touched raw, disgusting chicken. I’m appalled. I’m appalled that Chef Bachmann would want me to touch this disgusting, raw chicken. There I am, and I’m very timid. “Ewh! I don’t want to touch the chicken.” We’re marinating, or whatever. You get really close and you get really quiet and you say, “Chef, don’t be afraid to get your hands dirty. As soon as you get over that, you’ll start to see progress.”

It stayed with me forever, because it was analogous to so many other things in life and in the kitchen. If you’re afraid to work, if you’re afraid of the hard stuff, you’re going to be stuck. You’re not going to grow. To that Chef’s PSA, if you want to avoid difficult stations – you don’t want to work the grill, because it’s hot, which I don’t like working the grill, so I’m going to call myself out. I’ve worked the grill. I didn’t like it, but I did it. If you don’t like working the grill because it’s hot; or you don’t like working a certain station because the hours are longer; or you don’t want to go to be the breakfast chef because you’ve got to wake up at 4 a.m.; you’re doing yourself a disservice. Do the hard positions in the kitchen. Learn as much as you can. Don’t avoid the hard work, because you will be a better chef for it.

If you don’t push yourself, and you continue on with your normal routine, the good thing is probably nothing bad will happen to you. You’ll be nice and safe. But on the contrary, nothing good will happen to you either. You’re going to be stuck because at a certain point in your career you’re going to have to walk through fire to get to that coveted executive chef position.

A Challenge of People

Kirk Bachmann: Beautiful story. Just to echo or piggyback on that story, it’s the same thing. That was the first time I was a culinary educator as well. I walked out of the kitchen, and there was a lot of anxiety, a lot of nerves. But you just start doing it. You just start doing it and it becomes very natural for you. Such beautiful memories. I love it. 29 years ago. You think about it.

Now, fast forward, award-winning chef, unbelievable career. Now a culinary mentor. Love that. And author. I know you like to work with chefs to improve their kitchen operations. Very sincere aspiration. So many of the entrepreneurs that I speak with who are also chefs have spoken about the differences between being a chef and being a chef owner/operator. It’s different, as you know. Being a chef is so much more than just cooking. There’s so many more elements to owning or even running a successful business, call it a restaurant. As you step back now, what are some of the challenges, Chef, that you believe that chefs, operators, owners, are facing today in the industry? Pandemic aside, just in general.

Andre Natera: I think the biggest thing – and this isn’t just chef owners. This seems to be everywhere – is that there’s a shortage of culinary cooks. There’s a lack of cooks in the industry right now. We go back a couple of years ago, and the Food Network was popping. Everyone wanted to be a chef. Everyone was rushing to go to culinary school, everyone was coming out, and we had no shortage of demand for cooks in the kitchen. Wow! Ten applicants for one position.

Today, I think in restaurants, hotels, cruise ships, whatever industry it is, you might have a position open for a month before an applicant comes in. There’s going to be an effect due to that, and a lot of times that means we’re going to have to change the menus. Make the recipes easier, because we don’t have the labor to go along with it. We might need to simplify the food, change the concept, whatever the case may be.

But that lack of cooks in the kitchen causes a big issue down the road for every other aspect in the kitchen. Your kitchen’s not as clean. The morale is a little bit down. The food might not be as good. You might not be working to your full capability. All these other things are affected by the lack of the amount of cooks right now that are applying for jobs in the industry.

I’ll tell you what excites me. I haven’t seen it. They have a new Iron Chef on Netflix. I saw a trailer for it, and I thought, “That’s great.” I know there’s a new television show on Hulu called, “The Bear,” which everyone’s talking about also. I haven’t seen it. That excites me because, Okay. People are going to become excited about becoming chefs again, which is great. That’s usually Phase One. Once it’s cool again to be a chef, I think people will start going back to being a chef.

It’s a difficult thing for people that are restaurant operators, executive chefs. There is a big lack of people right now in the industry.

Three Pieces of Advice

Kirk Bachmann: From an advice or a mentorship perspective, your career was a career. It’s a long time to be in the industry. You reinvented yourself. You did a lot of different things. What advice do you have for up-and-coming cooks, let’s say, who want to have a similar ten, twenty, thirty year career, which then parlays into something cool where they impart knowledge to the next generation? What’s the secret sauce to keeping it going?

Andre Natera: I could talk about this at length, so I’ll try to keep it to three things, because I probably have a hundred going through my head right now. If I could go back and give myself the advice.

I would say the first thing is: Work in a kitchen where you’re not the best. Work in kitchens that are hard. Surround yourself with cooks that are much better than you. It’s a difficult thing, because a lot of times you’re insecure. You don’t want to be the worst cook in the kitchen. People might think of you a certain way. Whatever the case may be, ignore that. Try and cut through that noise. Be in a kitchen where there are a bunch of ninjas, samurais in the kitchen. People are focused and the food is just perfect and pristine. Those kitchens will make you better, by leaps and bounds. It’s very easy to be at a very top kitchen and work your way backwards. It’s very difficult to be at a low-end kitchen and work your way up.

If there’s a restaurant that’s on the world’s 50 best, they’re mostly likely not hiring the cook that’s working at the diner. However, the cook that’s at the world’s 50 best restaurant can easily get a job at a diner. Working at better restaurants creates much more opportunity for you. So I would say, Number One, be in a kitchen where everyone excels. It’s easy to find out which ones are those kitchens. Five minutes of research on Google and you’ll know what the top restaurants in the world are. That’s where you want to be.

Number Two, I would say, take care of yourself. Physically, mentally, spiritually. Whatever you’ve got to do. Make sure you are in good condition because the industry is tough. I say to people it’s like an athletic sport. You’re on your feet all day. You’re bending. You’re crouching. You’re opening and closing doors and ovens, and you’re lifting heavy stuff. It does take a toll on the body. Be mindful of what you eat. Eat healthy. Sleep. Don’t party every night, as much as you think that’s a good idea. Don’t party every night. Take care of yourself. Do what you’ve got to do because this industry is difficult. Work in difficult kitchens. Take care of yourself.

The third thing that I would say is most important is find mentors that will help you. I think it’s very difficult to find a good mentor when you’re young because sometimes you want to pick the guy…”I’m a line cook, and that guy’s been a line cook for two years, so he should be my mentor.” That’s probably the wrong way to look at it. Find a chef, someone who’s in the position that you want to be in. They’re really going to be the best person to tell you how to get their job. I’ll tell you, sometimes it drives me crazy. I’ve worked with these people before. There’s this one grouchy cook – and they’re in every kitchen. There’s a grouchy cook in every single kitchen in the world, and they have a bad attitude, and they know everything, and the chef is wrong, and “if I had their job, this place would be perfect.” Right? That person exists in almost every kitchen.

Because they talk so much, sometimes young chefs look up to this person because they think they are the authority on everything. They sit there and they say, “Well, I was passed over for this position. I’ve been passed over for that person. I’ll tell you, this is what you need to do to get that position.” Don’t listen to that person! Because that person does not know. They haven’t been in the position. They can’t tell you how to get to the position, because they keep getting overlooked for the position for a reason. Look at the person who is in the position that you aspire to be in. That’s the person that you need to listen to because they’ve done it. They know how to get there. They’ve been to the big game. They know how to win it.

I would say that would be the third thing. Find yourself a mentor, someone that’s going to coach you and help your career, and someone that you can build a long relationship with. A Kirk Bachmann, who I’ve known for 29 years. That’s the type of mentor that you need in your life.

Right Culture, Right Food

Kirk Bachmann: Great, great advice. I want to keep going on that theme. I appreciate the passion, because you’ve done it. Check. Check. Check.

Shift a little bit. We’re taking care of ourselves. We’re trying to find a mentor. We’re trying to create some longevity along the ride. At the same time, we also have to be very, very concerned – you said it earlier – about the culture. So now I’m progressing. I’m moving to those positions. I need to keep an eye on my culture. I want a culture of excitement. I want a culture of innovation. I want a culture of curiosity. I want a culture of respect. Not to steal the next book, but what’s the advice for either an up-and-coming chef, an older chef, a career-changing chef, to get that culture just right? It’s going to be different in different kitchens. You mentioned “The Bear.” There’s some examples of a kitchen culture in “The Bear” that we probably don’t want, which then dictates the theme of the movie. The star trying to create the right culture in a crazy environment. You’ll see it when you watch it. Talk about culture a little bit in the kitchen, professional kitchen.

Andre Natera: When you walk into a kitchen and the culture is of the highest, there’s commonalities across all the great kitchens. When you reach a certain point in your career and you say, “Okay, I’m running a great kitchen.” Whether it’s a three-Michelin star, or world’s 50 best, or James Beard Award-winning restaurant, usually you start to see the same things that are common across those kitchens.

Developing a good kitchen culture is maybe the most important thing. If the culture’s right, the food will be right. You create the environment where people can succeed. A lot of these kitchen cultures – sometimes it’s literal things, like take the tape that you used for a label off the container before you send it to the dish station. That is a literal example of a high-kitchen culture. But another example would be to treat everyone with respect. That’s kind of a statement that’s very broad and general, but people aren’t stupid. You know what respect is when you see it. You know when you feel like you’re being treated with respect. If you have half a brain, you know when you’re also treating someone disrespectfully. You need to put some of these things that are not tangible – the respect, the ethics, the morals – in the kitchen, but you also need to have some of the tangible. Don’t mix your salt and pepper. Take the tape off the container before you send it to the dish station. Don’t put half-sheet pans on speed racks because someone’s going to pull it out and it’s going to fall all over because they think it’s a full sheet pan.

These are the things that are also the culture. Some of it is literal, and some of it is more of the idea. The more that you establish a culture and what those expectations – and outline it! I think it’s really critical to outline what your culture is and the standards that you’re trying to establish in your establishment. What they are. What do they look like? Everyone should be able to recite them back to you and know them. Because if they don’t, then it’s not real. It has to be real. If no one knows that but one person, then it doesn’t exist.

Whatever is in your kitchen right now, if you’re a chef right now or you’re a cook in the kitchen, look around. Whether it’s written down or whether it’s not, there will be certain things that everyone does in your kitchen that’s different from everyone else. That’s the culture. Whether it’s documented or not, that’s the culture. Ask yourself: is this something that we’re proud of? If it’s not, then you need to be taking the necessary steps to change it into something that you are proud of. We need to improve kitchen culture because that is going to fix so many other things. People are going to call off less. People are going to stay in your kitchen longer. You’re going to deal with less arguments on the line. People are going to want to cook better food. People are going to be more creative. When the culture is right, all these other things have room to blossom.

The Best Investment

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. Really well said. I’m going to keep on this. We’re on a roller coaster now, and I’m going to keep going. We’ve talked about the longevity/success, and everything that goes with that. Next is culture. So, so important. It’s kind of like the bread and butter. Next, I want to ask you about leadership. My trilogy there. Be in it to win it. Have an incredible culture. Be an incredible leader. Let me phrase it this way. How can an experienced chef – by saying “chef,” I’ve already suggested that this person’s been around for a while – from a leadership perspective, how can that experienced chef help the next generation?

Andre Natera: So I put up a Chef’s PSA the other day. I’m paraphrasing; I don’t remember exactly what it said. It said something along the lines: “If you know how to cook, you’ll always have a job. But if you know how to lead, you’ll always be their boss.” I think it’s important that people understand there is a distinction between a cook and a chef. The old express of, “A chef can cook, but a cook can’t chef.”

It’s really important that people build leadership skills early on in their career. Cooking is only going to get you to sous chef. If you’re a good cook, probably you’re going to be a decent sous chef. Once you get into sous chef, it’s going to be very difficult to move beyond sous chef without leadership skills. If you’re at the top and you’re the executive chef, culinary director, chef de cuisine, whatever it is that you are, you need to be thinking about the longevity of the operation. If I want to grow. A lot of chefs want to grow. They want to have multiple restaurants. They want a bigger job in a shinier building, more cooks and more kitchens. The only way that you’re going to be able to grow is that you have to grow people beneath you. When you go to the next place, you’re going to take people with you.

It is THE most important thing that is your job, as a chef, to be developing the people that work beneath you into chefs. Hopefully, you have a program already in place that’s developing them into great cooks. But let’s make sure there is a clear distinction here. There is a difference between a cook a and a chef. The cook is on the line. The chef is leading people. The chef manages costs. The chef orders food. The chef writes schedules. The chef mediates arguments. The chef negotiates with vendors. The chef goes on podcasts and interviews with Kirk Bachmann. That’s the difference between the cook and the chef.

Those are very different skills. You might be a great cook, but have a fear of public speaking and you’re going to clam up as soon as someone sticks a microphone in your face. That’s the thing they don’t tell you that is part of the job. It’s not just cooking. Cooking makes sure that the food is going out, but there is so much else going on in the kitchen. If you don’t know these things, you’re going to struggle. The sooner that you learn them, the quicker that you’ll be closer to your dream job.

And it’s the experienced chef’s job to make sure he is developing the people beneath him so he can continue to grow, she can continue to grow up the ladder. So he can get a bigger kitchen, more restaurants, more money. It starts compounding the return. If you’re investing in people, you can not go wrong. There’s never been a time in my career – and I’ll say this right now – there’s never been a time in my career that I’ve invested my knowledge and my time into someone that I regretted it. If they were better from that experience, I’ve never sat there and said, “That was a waste of my time.” No! If they are better, that’s the best investment you can do. It’s good for you. It’s good for them. How can you not be happy about that?

Cooking is important. I don’t want to diminish this. I was a chef for 29 years, as are you and as are many people listening to this. There’s a different satisfaction when someone eats your food and says, “Wow! That’s good,” versus you’ve watched someone go from cook to executive chef. It’s a different level of satisfaction. Like you said earlier: proud moment when you watch someone that you’ve worked with for years, that on Day One they mixed their salt and pepper, and a couple of years later they’re running their own kitchens and getting awards. Wow! You played a part of that. You’ve helped someone reach their potential. It’s the greatest thing ever in life, as a parent, as a chef. When you’re the chef, you’re kind of the parent as well. It’s the greatest thing ever, and if you haven’t experienced that because you haven’t taken the time in your own kitchen to develop your time, I would challenge you: Push yourself to do that and you’ll notice infinite returns on your investment.

The Best Parts of the Kitchen

Kirk Bachmann: Do you miss the kitchen?

Andre Natera: Do I miss the kitchen? I have a kitchen at home.

Kirk Bachmann: Not a good answer.

Andre Natera: No. I’m kidding. I would say that the biggest thing I miss about the kitchen is the people. That’s it. Cooking is cooking, and towards the end of my culinary career running kitchens, I wasn’t cooking as much. I now people are going to be shocked. “What? You’re the executive chef. You don’t make all the food?”

Kirk Bachmann: You’re not there every day? Hey, I came to the restaurant and you weren’t there! Where were you?

Andre Natera: I didn’t make every meal in all seven restaurants. That’s the truth. I’m sorry to disappoint some people. I didn’t make every single dish. But I had a team of amazing chefs around me who I care about dearly, and I miss them every day. We pushed each other. I helped them and they helped me. I would say that is what I miss the most about the kitchen, just the atmosphere. There is something about a kitchen atmosphere that you just get excited when you go in there and you’re ready for service. It’s like, “Okay. There’s a full rail of tickets. Are you guys ready to bring it? Let’s go!” There’s just something magical about that intensity that you can only experience in kitchens and some other stressful situations. You feel alive when you’re in the kitchen. Sometimes when you have a mountain of prep and you think, “There’s no way I’m going to get this done in X amount of time.” And then you get it done. “How did I do that?”

Kirk Bachmann: It’s our runner’s high. There’s no other feeling like it. Have I told you that I’m proud of you?

Andre Natera: Thank you. I’ll tell you a funny story, and maybe you’ll relate. When you ask if I miss the kitchen. Here’s something that people don’t think about when you’re the executive chef.

You might be dealing with problems all day. You might not even lift a knife. You might be dealing with a vendor, writing a schedule, mitigating an issue, and your whole day you’ve been dealing with problems, or things that are difficult, stressful mental issue. Every now and again, someone says, “Hey, can you help me cut some onions?” I’m like, “Yeah. I can.”

I’ll just stand there and I’ll just lift my knife all day and cut onions. Keep me here as long as you need. It was almost meditative to just stand there on a cutting board and chop things. Wow. This feels so awesome. You just zone out with a knife and board. Best feeling ever. Skimming stock. Whatever it is. Every chef has one of those things. I know chef’s who will say, “No, it’s skimming stock for me. Or making demi-glace.” Other people, “No. Slicing mushrooms.” Whatever the case may be. Butchering. It just puts you in the zone and it’s the best feeling ever, especially when you’ve been removed from it for a little bit. Just sitting over a cutting board or over the stove, it’s like, “Ah!”

Kirk Bachmann: But you’re still on stage. You’re still onstage. When you’re back there chopping mirepoix or onions or whatever, they’re watching you.

Andre Natera: Oh yeah, they are.

Kirk Bachmann: The old man’s got some knife skills. Yeah.

Andre Natera: Here’s a funny story. I went to go help a friend out recently in a kitchen. I’ll tell you this story. It’s hilarious. I haven’t cooked in six months. I retired in January. I haven’t really been in a kitchen, and I went to go help someone out. I’m in the kitchen, and they said, “Hey, can you make this?”

I said, “Yeah!” Little croquettes. “Alright. Just make a roux.” Keep in mind, I’ve been on the couch for six months and I haven’t been a line cook in a very long time. I’m making the roux, and this is the first time it’s every happened to me in 29 years. I don’t know how I did it. I broke the roux. The butter and the flour separated. I was like, “How did I…?” I still don’t know what I did! I broke the roux.

One of the sous chefs comes up to me. Here I am, 29 years, all these awards, chef. Comes up to me and says, “You want me to show you how to make that?” “I know how to make a roux! Go away! I know how to make a roux!” I just stood there all day.

Kirk Bachmann: Did you knock it out? Did you get it done?

Andre Natera: It was probably the best croquettes anyone’s ever had after that. I was angry. “I’m going to prove a point. How dare they question my roux-making ability.” I thought it was funny, because here I was kind of rusty. “How did that happen? How did I break this roux?” And here I’m getting lectured, this sous chef looking at me. “Do you know how to make a roux?” “Yes!”

Chef Natera’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it. You know, the most stressful ones are those when there’s a separation of sorts. Walking by the kitchen, the thing I dread every single day, “Hey, Chef, can you come in here and make a hollandaise?” “Oh, I gotta meeting! I gotta run.”

Hey, buddy. We’re almost out of time. We’re almost out of time. Unbelievable fun. I don’t know how this went so fast. This was number two. I think there’s a number three. I can’t wait. Before I let you go today, the name of the podcast is the Ultimate Dish. So here you are. You’re retired. I don’t care if you go back 29 years or one year or one minute, what is – maybe it’s the croquettes – in your mind, what’s the ultimate dish?

Andre Natera: I’m glad you asked this question. I’ll try to keep this story short. I was watching something the other day. Gordon Ramsey was on TV and he was making this prime rib, and Yorkshire puddings, and pomme puree, whatever. I remember looking, “That looks great. That’s what I want to eat every day.”

As a chef, most recently in my career, I was in high-end places. Like you said earlier, four-star type places, pushing to be the best restaurants in the city. We were definitely on that level. We’d make pretty food. We’d make beautiful food with flowers and herbs and garnishes and tweezers, all that. I’d look at that beautiful food, and it was absolutely stunning. It should probably be in a magazine. But I’d rather eat the prime rib.

Kirk Bachmann: Medium rare or end cut?

Andre Natera: Oh. Ah. Geez, that’s a tough question. You know what? Center cut, medium rare, covered in au jus, pomme puree on the size, a Yorkshire pudding. You know what? You can put a big rosemary sprig on there, too. I’ll be happy. It’ll be delicious.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s again, another story. I should wrap it up, but we were in London before Gordon Ramsay had the Connaught Hotel. That was their jam for years. They cooked for the Royal Family. Prime rib with the au jus. I mean, prime rib, right? 12-, 14-ouncer, right in the middle of the plate. Beautiful. There’s something special about that. I appreciate that.

Andre Natera: The classics are going to be just as good 20 years ago as they are 20 years in the future.

Kirk Bachmann: It requires unbelievable technique, perfection in many ways. Great story, buddy. Great chat as always. I love you, man. Thank you for being here.

Andre Natera: You, too.

Kirk Bachmann: I’ll get you back again.

And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.

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