Podcast Episode 93

Chad White’s Voyage from the U.S. Navy to Top Chef

Chad White | 50 Minutes | October 10, 2023

In this episode, we’re thrilled to chat with Chad White—a Navy veteran, award-winning chef, and restaurateur.

Chef Chad shares his journey from the United States Navy to becoming a Top Chef contender. His dedication led to opening successful restaurants, including Zona Blanca Ceviche Bar (2016), winning Best New Restaurant and Chef of the Year awards for an impressive five consecutive years. He was also a two-time semi-finalist for the James Beard “Best Chef” award in 2020 and 2022.

Join us as Chad discusses chef collaboration, the valuable contributions of military personnel in the culinary world, and his distinction as the “Sea Maverick of San Diego.”

Watch the podcast episode:

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Notes & Transcript


Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. Today, I’m speaking with Chad White, an award-winning chef who started his bright culinary journey in the United States Navy and worked his way to Top Chef.

After his naval career, White dove head-first into the prestigious kitchens of Prince of Whales and 1500 OCEAN. He also earned the title of Seafood Maverick of San Diego while partnering with Sea Rocket Bistro. In no time, he gained tremendous recognition for his distinct innovation and was featured on Travel Channel’s “Bizarre Foods.”

Chef Chad also founded La Justina in Tijuana, Mexico, and Craft Pizza Company in San Diego before competing on Bravo TV’s “Top Chef Season 13.” Since then, he’s opened several acclaimed restaurants, like Zona Blanca Ceviche Bar, where he’s received the award of Best New Restaurant and Chef of the Year for five years running.

He also launched High Tide Lobster Bar and TT’s Old Iron Brewery and Barbecue, which was named Best New Restaurant, and Best Barbecue by the “Inlander Magazine,” as well as Uno Mas Taco Shop. Chef Chad has also received a semi-finalist nomination for James Beard Best Chef – Northwest Region award spring of 2020 and 2022.

Listen as we chat about food service careers for military personnel, what it takes to be a reputable restaurateur and how collaboration can unlock success.

And there he is. Good morning!

Chad White: Good morning. How are you?

Background and Balance

Kirk Bachmann: I’m doing great. You can tell, I’m a little exhausted. What a bio! What a resume! How are you doing?

Chad White: I’m doing great. I’m doing really good. My days have been filled with a lot lately, with our son and trying to get him home from the hospital. Juggling restaurants and trying to find time to be at crib-side with him has been a challenge, but it’s been one that I’ve been excited to face.

Kirk Bachmann: As you should. That’s beautiful, man. I want to say, first, thank you for your service to our country. Huge congratulations from Escoffier and myself on your new baby boy. Based on everything I’ve read over the last couple of days, you are one busy individual.

Chad White: I don’t like too much free time.

Kirk Bachmann: So you’re in Spokane. Kind of my old stomping grounds, went to the University of Oregon, so I was up there a couple of times. Watched the Zags play a couple of times. Children of the Sun, native name for Spokane. A little bigger than Boulder. I think you’ve got about 200,000 people. Beautiful part of the country. Not too far from Sandpoint and Coeur d’Alene as well.

Chad White: Yep, about an hour away from Sand Point and about 35 minutes from Coeur d’Alene.

Kirk Bachmann: You spend much time over there? You get some recreation?

Chad White: As much as I can. I tend to, during my free time, if I’m not traveling, I’m definitely in the outdoors camping.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. One other thing that I read about, which was just crazy. I had no idea. We have Father’s Day coming up. I’m pretty sure that the first Father’s Day ever was in Spokane, right?

Chad White: It was.

Kirk Bachmann: Is that true fact?

Chad White: That’s a true fact. Father’s Day was founded in Spokane, Washington.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s unbelievable. I’m also a huge sports fan. We talked a little bit before the show. I’m a Zags fan. I’m a Mark Few fan, but I had no idea that Spokane was Hooptown USA. Because of the big tournament. Have you been to that?

Chad White: We do a thing called Hoopfest every year, and it is the largest four-on-four basketball tournament in the world. I know China has a very large one, but it’s not like ours. It’s pretty cool to have that here in Spokane.

Kirk Bachmann: So I’m not even going to ask, WASU or U of W. You’re Gonzaga all the way.

Let’s come back to the work-life balance. How’s it changed since the little one came along?

Chad White: I feel well. Work-life balance has always been an interesting thing for me to hear. I pour my heart and soul into the things that I love. I love my career, and I love my family, so finding time to spend with them and focus on work, there’s always going to be a challenge. It doesn’t matter if it’s a nine-to-five, or if you’re like me and you get up at four o’clock in the morning and start my day early and get home late at night. I just find pockets of time to spend with my family throughout the day. It works great for me.

I don’t need a lot of sleep. Five hours a night is about as much as I can handle. If I’m on my back any longer than that, I start to hurt. I like to be very active. I’m up and going whether I need to be anywhere or not. My internal alarm clock goes off.

Food as Art

Kirk Bachmann: Makes total sense. I find your story so intriguing because I read in an article somewhere that you actually hated working in the industry, in the kitchen. Now you can’t get enough of it. Now you love it. What was the trigger? What changed?

Chad White: Part of it was the situation where I had made that comment, it was my first naval vessel that I was on. The kitchen environment – I didn’t have a great introduction to it. I had worked in food service before I joined the military. I was a dishwasher, which is not the most glamorous job, but I did it very well. I was the best dishwasher. I made sure I was the best dishwasher there.

But I had this conversation with my mother. I was on the focsle of the USS Benfold. I was just like, “Man! This is nothing like cooking that I’ve ever seen before.” A lot of it – and not to bash on the military at all – but we are reheating food. There wasn’t this gourmet experience. I had walked into a kitchen, and they were like, “Hey, we need you to peel all these potatoes.” And there were nine cases of potatoes. So I’m peeling it with a peeler. I get to the last case, and my hands are bleeding, and I’m bandaging myself up and putting gloves on and all this stuff.

This petty officer walks in and goes, “Hey, moron! That thing right next to you that looks like R2D2 is a peeler. There’s a sandpaper inside. You would have been done hours ago.”

I was like, “They handed me a peeler and I went to work.” I wasn’t enjoying myself in that first part.

But my mom had said something very remarkable. She recognized that I was an artist, and said, “Hey, listen. I’m not sure what you don’t get about food and how it relates to things that you love, but food is art. A round white plate is a canvas. Paint on it with food.” I kind of had a few more conversations back and forth. “Mom, you’re crazy. You don’t know what you’re talking about.” And then she followed through by sending me a bunch of books: Bobby Flay was one of them with his Mesa Grill. Jose Andres, which both of those guys have very eclectic plating and the least amount of words in a cookbook. She knew what to send me and followed through.

I listened to her and then I started cooking on the weekends and really studying food techniques and whatnot. Then I really started to fall in love with it. The more I fell in love with it, the more opportunity I got within the military to go on and cook in better kitchens rather than just cooking for the general mess. I was now cooking in the Ward Room and cooking for chiefs, which, then I could be creative.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s a beautiful story. In terms of coming back to the artistry, what were you interested in back then other than cooking? Were you painting? Were you doing music?

Chad White: I was painting. I did a lot of illustration, charcoal. My grandmother is an oil painter, a very accomplished oil painter. We would spend a lot of our time either in the kitchen, or we’d spend it behind an easel painting to Bob Ross or whatever.

Kirk Bachmann: No way! I love that. I love that.

Chad White: Painting pretty little trees.

From Enlisting to the Kitchen

Kirk Bachmann: That’s a great story. Let’s go back a little further, then. What was the catalyst at the time for enlisting in the military?

Chad White: Well, I was working at the DoubleTree Golf Resort and The Buckle at the same time. I’d woken up, and my brother was watching the news, and I took a look at what was going on. This was during 9/11. It definitely filled me with a bit of fear and anger and frustration, and I decided just to go down to the recruiters office and sign up. My first thought was, “I’m joining the Marines, and I’m going to fight.” Then the line was really long, so I knew I’d talk myself out of it. So I got in the short line, and that was the Navy. I shipped out January of 2002 and then went to culinary school at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas after boot camp. It was pretty quick.

Kirk Bachmann: Was that serendipitous, or were you like, “Hey, I can cook?”

Chad White: No. Not at all. That was the only job that had an actual trade school attached to it. If you go in as an undesignated service member, you have to wait almost two years before you can take a test to then apply for a position. The test, depending on how well you do on it, will put you in these different areas on what job you can actually do. Well, I scored the lowest possible score to earn a position as a cook. It was either going to be an airman, seaman, or fireman, and have to wait two years to become anything. Which would have kept me in the military quite a bit longer. Or I could be a cook.

Part of the thing that got me to be a cook was I was working at a hotel at the time. They said that M.S.s, which are called Mess Specialists, now they call them Culinary Specialists, are in charge of the barracks. I stopped listening to anything that said anything about cooking and only listened to the part where they were talking about hotels. “Oh yeah, I want to work in hotels.” So I signed up, and I think I worked in the barracks for a total of six months while I was going through a reconstruction on my left knee, because I couldn’t be on a ship. It’s nothing like working in a hotel.

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. Is that where Hotel Coronado comes in?

Chad White: Yeah! After being in the Navy for around almost four years, I got an opportunity due to my performance in the military to do an externship at the Hotel Del Coronado. While I was there, they had us work in different departments. They put me in garde manger for banquets. I was carving twelve to fifteen cases of fruit. At the end of the day, at the end of the eight hours, they were like, “All right, you can go home.”

I was like, “No, I typically work from five to six.”

They said, “Well, this is the state of California. You can’t do that.”

I said, “I’m government property. I pretty much can work as much as you guys wanna work me. Can you at least take me down into the fine dining kitchen so that way I can experience what a real kitchen is like?”

They agreed to it, so I got to work at the Prince of Whales. The next day I came in for the externship, the chef de cuisine there offered me a job. The executive chef of the hotel agreed. I put in my application for an early exit from the military, and took a position as a chef de partie.

Kirk Bachmann: I love the story, because it kind of just fell together perfectly.

Chad White: It really did.

A Military Work Ethic

Kirk Bachmann: Why fight it? Chef, are you an advocate for that sort of path, given your access to other military personnel, or anyone who is entertaining joining the military and trying to find their path? Do you have a good story to tell? Is it inspirational? It certainly worked out well for you.

Chad White: Here’s the thing, I think. Utilize your resources. What the military provided me was an extreme level of discipline and work ethic. That’s really where I shined when I got to the hotel. There were cooks who were arguably already burnt out. They weren’t performing the way I was performing, so I was able to climb the ranks.

The same thing in the military. You’re either willing to work hard or you’re not willing to work hard. If you’re not willing to work hard for something, then you should probably go and do something that you are willing to work hard for. If people are in the military already, they have tools and they have work ethic and discipline that a lot of people don’t have already in the workplace. If they stay focused and they don’t get into the B.S., they can really go a long ways, and in a very short period of time.

One hundred percent, I think that military personnel in the workplace, especially in restaurants – if I could hire more of them, I would.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s interesting; everything I’ve read, people obviously in our industry commend you specifically for your work ethic and your discipline. Of course, your charisma as well. I’m interested. I have several friends and we have several students that are vets. A big piece of our student body. One of my best friends in the world, a Certified Master Chef, his name is Ron DeSantis. He’s a marine. He’s one of the most disciplined and structured individuals that I’ve ever met. It’s kind of a loaded question: is that the foundation that the military provides? It seems like it goes hand-in-hand, because the industry, the kitchen, requires – all the way back to the days of Escoffier – it requires that sort of discipline. Command of your station. Understanding who’s in charge. “Yes, Chef.” That kind of thing. It really seems that the military sets a person up, almost serendipitously, for a great career in this particular craft.

Chad White: Yeah. I think the kitchen in general runs parallel with the military. From a brigade standpoint, a rank standpoint, discipline. You’re in a high-stress environment, a high-stress environment where things are happening around you rapidly. There are obstacles or opportunities, however you want to look at it, that have to be solved in a moment’s notice. Great training, discipline, loyalty, following instructions, those are all very important things.

In the military, if you have an enemy that is charging, you can’t have somebody that just decides to go do their own thing. There’s a part where you can’t think too much. There’s a [reason] you were trained a certain way. You use the best of your training to handle the situation, and your training has been specific for the situation. I feel like that aligns. In the kitchen, I’ve trained my staff a certain way. They all work the line, they communicate a certain way. Even from abbreviating food things. For instance, we make sure everyone cuts tape in our kitchen.

Kirk Bachmann: Instead of tearing it.

Chad White: What’s the problem with tearing tape? Well, one, it’s not clean. But it’s not about how it looks. It’s about a standard. If I can trust that you’ll cut the tape properly, I can trust that you won’t mess up a recipe that has fifteen steps to it, or a pick-up on the foie gras, which is a very delicate thing to prepare. If I know you have the attention to detail for the tape, I know you have attention to detail to either work a position in my kitchen, or manage the team that works in our kitchen. There’s a bit of the military.

I will tell you, crossing decks from military to civilian life was a learning curve. It took me about four or five years to change how I led. Because I led from a place of command. Now I lead from a place of mentorship and guidance in a very different way. But there was a period where I was a hot one.

Fish Scraps = Bizarre Foods

Kirk Bachmann: But I love that, though. You’re self-aware. The mentor and the guidance still allows you to find the standards, the end result you’re looking for, without lowering your standards. You’re just approaching it in a different way. I love that analogy.

Let’s fast-forward and have some fun with the Seafood Maverick of San Diego. I absolutely love this. How did you develop your love for eclectic, this Baja-influenced food? I know it’s a culture down in San Diego. My brother-in-law is from San Diego. There’s definitely a cool culture down there. How did food resonate with you?

Chad White: The Seafood Maverick thing, where that really came about was I was working hand-in-hand with a fishmonger named Tommy Gomes. He has his own TV show now called “The Fishmonger.” He was really adamant about finding uses for the scraps of fish that were unwanted by the chefs in our community, or just people who were buying seafood.

So he started giving me things like cod semen sacs, or the broken pieces of umi, or black cod liver, the spines of swordfish, so on and so forth. I started to play with these things. Hey, you’re giving me free products. I’ll do some R&D on them.

I found out that I could take cod liver and dry it out a little bit with some salt, rinse it, pat it dry, and pan-sear it just like foie gras. I could serve it the exact same way as I could seared foie gras. I could do it on a piece of brioche with some sort of candied nut crumble, a gastrique, some pickled fruit and whatnot. A lot of people couldn’t even tell the difference. It was pretty exciting.

The broken pieces of sea urchin, I would make pasta out of it. I would make sauces out of it. I would blend it with vanilla and sugar and make ice cream out of it. Actually, at one point, I was making enough to be sold to Japan from a Catalina offshore, which is a seafood purveyor in San Diego that ships a lot of umi to Japan. I was making it by the five-gallon batch at a time. I was also serving it in restaurants.

Then the swordfish spine, if you cut between the knuckles of the spine, there’s jelly in there. We would take a demitasse spoon, scoop that out, and put it on a salt rock with a lime wedge and some Espelette. It was really exciting.

I often find ways to serve live fish to people as well, which freaks some people out, but it was exciting for others. It was very exciting for Andrew Zimmern. He thought it was a lot of fun. So we ended up –

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, no way!

Chad White: Little feature on “Bizarre Foods.”

Resourcefulness and Creativity

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. So as I hear you talk, it’s pretty clear to me, but if you had an elevator speech, I’d love to hear you explain, in your words, what’s your approach to seafood? Maybe all food. How does it differ from other chefs?

Chad White: I think there’s plenty of chefs out there that are just like me. I think my approach comes from “How do I best utilize this product that grows on our earth or that is harvested by our ranchers to the best of its use?”

Opening a restaurant in Mexico taught me a lot of things about not being wasteful. In American kitchens, we tend to purchase the perfectly cut tenderloin that’s already been peeled, or having a fillet come in instead of breaking down a whole fish. A lot of that is due to our cost of labor and cost of goods and trying to streamline our stuff, which many culinary students will learn down the road. Being a business owner and being a chef often intersect. They can definitely run parallel, but they often intersect. There are some decisions you have to make as a business owner to make sure your business thrives. Then there are decisions that you make as a chef in trying to uphold the integrity of your craft.

But I think where I learned the most in Mexico was that almost every bit of our vegetables can be utilized for something. So if we’re peeling our carrots, what can I do with all the carrot peels? Can I make carrot vinegar? Can I make an ash? Can I make a shrub for cocktails? I guess the best way to put this, I really geeked out on finding the most amount of uses for an ingredient possible. It took me down some rabbit holes that were pretty wild. I think the resourcefulness is really what has allowed me to stand out.

From a business owner and a chef perspective, I’m always just trying to find a new way to improve, or a new technique that I could use. I went from following people that were doing advanced techniques and molecular gastronomy to going and spending time in Mayan villages and learning old school techniques and then applying them to new ways of cooking.

Kirk Bachmann: It’s funny how you comment on geeking out. I’m geeking out on you just listening to – God! – the passion behind your words. We talk to a lot of people, but often days we don’t get into the deep conversations about waste not. Turning leftover veggies into ash. I can just really, really appreciate where you’re coming from as a practitioner of the craft. Escoffier would be proud.

That leads me to an interesting question. If you had to put a tag on yourself, if you had to define yourself by a technique, or an ingredient, or a method, what would that be? Tough one.

Chad White: Yeah.

Kirk Bachmann: Because you’re a little deeper in it. We can’t cover what you’re talking about with classifications of “yeah, I’m a seafood chef. I’m Mediterranean. I’m molecular gastronomy.” This is pretty deep. I’m pretty fascinated.

Chad White: I don’t know if there’s an ingredient or there is a technique. I’m eclectic. My mind wanders. I try a lot of new things. People ask me all the time, “What’s your favorite dish?” It’s such a hard question to answer. The best answer I feel like I’ve given people – in my perspective. I don’t think they like this answer – but it’s the dish I haven’t created yet.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s a great answer. You’re pushing forward. You’re looking into the future. It’s a great answer.

Chad White: It’s exciting. It’s like if you drive down a new road. Let’s say you like to wander. You like to go off-roading or hiking. The new trail is always the most exciting. It’s the unknown that’s ahead of you. I’ve been in this industry long enough that I can’t guarantee that everything that I cook is going to be amazing. Right? But I can guarantee that I’m going to learn something through the process of cooking something I’ve never cooked before, or using a technique that I’ve used on something else that I didn’t think to use on this specific ingredient and learning something from it. Those are the things that are exciting for me. The unknown is where I get stoked.

Working with Brian Malarkey

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. We talked about it a little bit earlier. Being the San Diego chef, do you hang [with] or talk to Malarkey much any more? He was on the show not too long ago.

Chad White: Brian and I have a funny relationship. I like Brian a lot. I respect him. He’s a great chef. He’s done very well for himself through not only his culinary career and his expertise, but just his ability to pivot and do very well in showbiz. He’s a very exuberant young fellow. But he’s from Oregon.

Kirk Bachmann: Yeah, he’s from Eastern Oregon.

Chad White: He and I were kind of neck-and-neck for seafood chefs in San Diego for a really long time. I started getting a bunch of accolades and arguably being called the best seafood chef in San Diego. He and his entire team from corporate had come in and had dinner at The Sea Rocket Bistro with us. He had given me a proposition and said, “I’m opening this restaurant called Gabardine. It’s a Portuguese seafood restaurant in Point Loma, which is a Portuguese fishing village. Since I’m number one seafood chef, that makes you number two seafood chef. I think the two of us could open up a great restaurant.”

I had made a comment, “I think people are calling me number one there, Brian.” I said, “But this opportunity sounds intriguing, and I’d love to have another conversation.”

Fast forward a few months down the road, we went to work and partnered as business partners on the project. It was a lot of fun. Then I ended up heading to Mexico and really putting my focus on my restaurant in Tijuana. I think he’s great. I get to catch up with him every once in a while when I’m in San Diego visiting.

A Tiny Restaurant

Kirk Bachmann: I love the network of chefs and relationships and friendships.

So after spending time in San Diego, you came back to Spokane, and you opened up Zona, 2016 I believe it was. I read a quote. You said, “It was the smallest restaurant I’d ever opened, but I didn’t have any money. Chris Batten actually gave me a note to open up the restaurant because it was his building. He took a chance on me.” Take us back to Zona, someone giving you a chance. How did that all come together? Our students love these entrepreneurial stories.

Chad White: I was humbled that year. Granted, being on “Top Chef” was an incredible opportunity, but leaving San Diego was bittersweet. I have lots of connections there. My daughters live there. I had crashed and burned a restaurant that opened up as “Best New Restaurant,” “Best New Bar Program.” I won Eater Chef of the Year that year.

Then went on “Top Chef” and my partners decided that they didn’t want to wait for what could come from “Top Chef.” They decided to close the restaurant early. It was tough, man. It was really tough. Being in my mid-30s and not sure what I wanted to do. I had this crossroad. Do I go and live full-time in Mexico? My restaurant in Tijuana is doing absolutely amazing. I love Mexico. I was thinking about maybe going to Mexico City or Guadalajara because I had great friends there and a lot of mentors and people I looked up to in the culinary industry.

But my family was like, “You should really just come home for a couple years. We’ll see what the culinary scene is like up here. There’s not a lot of well-known chefs, and you could make a really good mark for yourself.” I ended up coming up, visiting, and decided not to leave.

I had met Chris Batten who was a real estate broker. He owned a few buildings downtown. At first, he started showing me other people’s buildings and sitting through a lot of meetings with me and other real estate brokers. After a while, he just said, “Hey, I’ve got this space available. It’s only 700 square-foot. We’re putting in an incubator brewery and a tap room in this space. I think you could be a good fit.”

I said, “I don’t know. Craft beer and ceviche. I don’t know if this is going to work.”

But he said, “Hey, your rent will be $700 a month. I’ll loan you the cash to build it out. You can pay me back over the term of the lease at five percent.”

I was like-

Kirk Bachmann: I’m in. I’m in.

Chad White: Better than the bank. I was going through a divorce at the time, so that made things even more difficult from a financial standpoint. He was just very generous. He did exactly what he said he would day. He helped me, and he’s still to this day my landlord, and ended up investing in the company as a partner when we reopened after the pandemic in a new location, a much larger location. Now we’re in a 3000-square-foot space.

I was able to pay the restaurant off in a matter of one year.

Kirk Bachmann: Wow!

Chad White: I was completely debt free. I was able to turn my financial situation completely around, but there was a point where I was just like, “Man, this really sucks. I’m opening up a tiny little restaurant. I just closed a $2 million restaurant, and I’m opening up a restaurant that costs less than twenty grand to open.”

I put my head down and I focused, and that one little small concept turned into now five different restaurants, multiple opportunities where ski resorts and wineries ask me to come and consult. I’m able to generate other sources of income. I’ve been invited to lots of TV shows. I’ve been in the magazines, the newspaper, all that stuff, just like I was in San Diego. It all started with a little itty bitty restaurant serving five ceviches, a torta, and a street food snack to then receiving nominations for James Beard Awards.

My advice to culinary students is you don’t have to start big. Start small.

Kirk Bachmann: Great advice. What was the theme at Zona? What did you want to accomplish there, given everything you just shared? Just serve great food and get people excited?

Chad White: Ultimately, I didn’t want to go in that space. What I wanted was another big restaurant. Going into that space wasn’t where I needed to be – it wasn’t where I wanted to be; it was where I needed to be.

Kirk Bachmann: Got it. Yeah.

Chad White: The result of that hyper-focusing on something small, which is what quick service restaurants do. You have a small menu, you become an expert at it, and you execute those flawlessly every single time. I didn’t need to have twelve cooks. I needed a dishwasher on the busy nights. Otherwise, it was myself. I could make the food, I could run the food, I could bus the food, I could wash the dishes all on my own. It kept my overhead low. It meant that if I wanted a day off, I didn’t have to pay somebody else; I could close the restaurant. I had complete freedom. If I needed money, I worked more hours. Working for someone else, that’s very difficult to do.

Kirk Bachmann: Great model.

Chad White: It’s a great model. Every single restaurant that I’ve opened up since then has all been counter-service, with the exception of our new Zona Blanca. It’s a sit-down restaurant, but it is still that very loud environment. It’s exciting. It should remind you of Baja. We’re trying to throw a party every single day, and we want people to feel like they’re on a food vacation.

Brisket, Lobster Rolls, and Tacos

Kirk Bachmann: I love that.

Talk about when you brought lobster rolls to Spokane. That’s incredible. High Tide Lobster Bar, right? A few locations. Then you worked with Travis, brewmaster. I love TT’s website, by the way. You guys look like brothers on that landing page.

Chad White: Yeah. His beard’s a little longer than mine. Travis and I actually met at Zona Blanca. He was one of the breweries inside the incubator. We got to know each other quite a bit while he was brewing beer because the entrance to my ceviche joint was through a dive bar in the back. Then you have to go through my little ceviche counter to get to the brewery. Mind you, we were on a very interesting street. On the left-hand side of us was a homeless shelter, and on the right-hand side of us was a chop shop for Lithia. And we had a railroad that was running right along our building. It was a pretty seedy area.

He said, “I want to open up my own brewery. My lease for the incubator is up. Would you be interested in consulting?”

I said, “Yeah, I’ll take a look. We can find something.” He started looking around at different places. We started talking about what the menu could be like. Then he asked me if I just wanted to be his partner. So we went fifty-fifty on the concept.

We built out a six-thousand square foot brewery and barbecue joint. We had no idea what we were doing. I knew how to make barbecue, but if I’m being honest, I’d probably cooked a total of ten briskets my entire life – well, smoked ten briskets. I’ve cooked lots of briskets for corned beef and pastrami, but I’d never smoked it barbecue-style more than ten ever.

We opened up on Father’s Day, and there was a line that was over a quarter-mile long.

Kirk Bachmann: Wow.

Chad White: It was game on. We were running like crazy. Then later that summer, I opened up High Tide Lobster Bar. High Tide Lobster Bar was kind of the craze of the town. There was nothing like it here in Spokane. It’s funny; people here don’t even think that they can get lobster. If Vegas can get any ingredient in the world, so can Spokane. Our airport is literally fourteen minutes away, and I can fly anything in here at any time.

I opened it up in an even smaller space. It was 296 square feet.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh my Lord!

Chad White: It used to be a coffee shop in the sky-walk. We’re in a town where the weather gets really bad during the fall, winter, and spring. There’s all these bridges that connect buildings throughout the entire part of downtown. Those bridges are called sky-walks. Right at the base of the sky-walk is where I have this inside of a bank building. It was hard to get to.

I opened this thing up really quickly, and for the first 30 days, every single day, we ran out of lobster. We ran out of lobster within two to three hours. It was absolutely insane. We could not keep up. Our space wasn’t big enough. We didn’t have a walk-in cooler. The amount of lobster that you need to sell as many rolls as we were selling, I needed a lot of space, and I couldn’t find any.

So I ended up working with a purveyor out of Canada that would bring lobster from the East Coast, which is the same as Maine lobster, just within X amount of miles across the border in Canada. He took my recipe, mass produced it, packaged it for me, and shipped it over fully-cooked. So I was able to mass produce. We were probably selling between five and six hundred rolls a day. When we first opened up, there were lines that went from building to building to building to get to our place. Then we opened a second location in an old Wonder Bread factory, which we have now turned into a food hall with Ethan Stowell. That’s when we really got crazy. We were just moving close to a thousand lobster rolls a day, which was absolutely wild.

Then that all came to a close when the first year of Covid went. We weren’t allowed to work. Prices went through the roof. We went from paying almost $300 a case for our lobster to over $1200 a case. We decided to close the doors.

It took about a year, and reopened in those locations Uno Mas Taco Shop.
Kirk Bachmann: You’ve said it was born out of necessity, as a reaction to the pandemic and the desire.

Chad White: We had a lease we had to cover. Our landlord is from Denver. Not that he’s a bad landlord, but he’s a lawyer. He wrote his contract, and his contract was very adamant about, You’re going to pay your rent. He was helpful in some ways, but we needed to make sure that we reopened and honored our obligations.

So we did, and now we have Uno Mas. It’s a campestre-style taco shop. Really focusing on flavors from Guadalajara and Jalisco. It’s been absolutely great. We have street tacos, but we have what we called the Big Ass Taco. It’s a quarter-pound of meat per taco, and it’s a pretty big taco.

Growth Through Collaboration

Kirk Bachmann: It’s enough to get me up to Spokane. You’re going to be in Aspen soon, right? Food and Wine [Classic]?

Chad White: I leave tomorrow afternoon.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh my gosh!

Chad White: To fly up there and prepare for a dinner that I’m doing with Chef Byron Gomez, who was on season 18 of “Top Chef.”

Kirk Bachmann: Congratulations, buddy. That’s amazing.

The weather has been nuts. I got to warn you. There’s been a lot of rain in Colorado.

Chad White: Fine with it. I was doing a dinner for somebody who works for Microsoft there. Their son was graduating high school, so I drove over to Seattle for them. In their backyard, it was raining on us the whole time. We were trying to flip tomahawk steaks in the rain.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, gosh. That’s the Northwest, man. That’s the Northwest.

I wanted to talk a little bit about collaboration. This is another quote from you. I quote, “I love collaborating and camaraderie among chefs.” Beautifully said, by the way. “We all cook on different levels. I guarantee that there is someone in this city that can do something better than me, and the exciting thing about collaborating is growth.” Great, great lesson. How does collaboration continue to help you grow? You’re doing it tomorrow. You’re doing it this week.

Chad White: Exactly. Without being said, you’re around other people who work in the same industry as you who arguably know more or know less than you know. You’re coming together and cooking, and you’re sharing moments. You’re sharing ideas. You’re sharing techniques. Even if you’re just in a room full of a bunch of chefs and you’re watching them cook, there are likely things that you’re going to pick up, whether it’s tricks. Not all of us have worked for Rene Redzepi, right? Not all of us have worked for Rohan or Daniel Boulud. Every single one of these chefs had different styles of how they do the same thing.

Even in my kitchens when I hire a chef and they come and they say, “This is how we’ve done this specific thing for many years. I’d like to show you it, and you tell me what you think.” It’s exciting. I learn from my dishwashers. I learn from my line cooks. I learn from my servers. But to be able to go into a kitchen and work next to other chefs – I try to work in as many kitchens as I can or collaborate with as many chefs as I can that have done better than I have in my career. Forward growth, movement, that’s all very important to me. It seems to be that any time I’m cooking with other chefs, there’s a lot more that comes out of that kitchen than just cooking.

Kirk Bachmann: Life lessons, too.

Chad White: Friendship. There’s the opportunity to support a community or support each other, or them supporting [me]. Having my son in the hospital, I can’t tell you how many chefs have reached out to send me their blessing and love, and send me little gifts for future little chef. It’s pretty cool. Rene Redzepi reached out to me. I’ve never even met him face-to-face.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh, that’s beautiful. I just got a chill. Wow.

Chad White: [He just] said, “I hope your little boy is doing great. Congratulations on such an amazing blessing. The ladies in the NICU are angels. Everything’s going to be okay.” He had no reason to reach out to me whatsoever.

Opportunity and Perspective

Kirk Bachmann: What a beautiful, beautiful thing.

And you said support. It’s near and dear to you to give back as well.

Chad White: It is.

Kirk Bachmann: Charity is important.

Chad White: I’ve been awarded incredible opportunities. I take as much time as I can to give back to my community or give back to those in need. A lot of it started with helping out with No Kid Hungry and whatnot. I focused some of my attention on cancer and supporting women who are in need and things like that. It’s amazing what us chefs can do, and it costs us very little at all but our time.

Kirk Bachmann: Just your time.

Chad White: It’s pretty remarkable. Even when I lived in San Diego, I worked with Olivewood Gardens. I’d go out there, and I’d teach kids about nutrition. Instead of drinking a Red Bull, eat an apple. You don’t think that sticks with any of them, but it does. Then you get the opportunity to teach their parents the same thing and show them how to grow vegetables in a garden, and how it can be this bonding moment for you and your kid, but also provide a healthier way of living. Those are the things that warm my heart: seeing people thrive and be healthy and be happy.

Kirk Bachmann: Well said, and meaningful. You’ve also said, “There’s an opportunity to do something, and there’s a far greater responsibility as a restaurateur in this city. It’s all about training. It’s about love, and it’s about support.” That sort of punctuates everything you’ve been sharing with us. Thanks for that work.

I’ve just a couple more questions for you. I’m just fascinated. What’s a great mindset mean to you?

Chad White: Mindset is perspective, right? We can both look at the same situation, and one of us could see it as a problem, and one of us could see it as an opportunity. It’s really all about how you talk to yourself. I can’t tell you how many people in the kitchen I hear degrade themselves. “Oh, I’m so stupid. Oh my God! I’ll never learn.” You’re telling yourself exactly what’s going to happen.

You’ve got to start saying, “Hey, I can do better next time. I can do this better. I’m better than this. I can solve this problem. It may take me a little bit longer.” We’re all reactive, but how we react to hard situations is really how we’re going to move forward.

A Top Chef Avocado Mishap

Kirk Bachmann: It’s how we define ourselves. It’s our legacy, ultimately.

Before we wind down, any cool secrets or funny stories that you can share from Season 13?

Chad White: I’ll tell you this. I’m very happy I got the opportunity. It was an incredible opportunity. It was definitely filled with a lot of unreasonable expectations, which is life, in all reality. No one hands you the perfect hand, if you will, in a card game. You’ve got to work with what you have. “Top Chef” definitely showed me that. You can make lemonade, or you can let the lemons spoil. Figure it out. Somebody else will figure it out if you don’t.

But the relationships that I got from that show are incredible. I don’t know if you follow any of the guys that were from my season, but Jeremy Ford got a Michelin star. Phillip Frankland Lee – by the way, they played clown music when they were talking to him on the season. He has a Michelin star for a sushi bar and another Michelin star for a pasta bar in his L.A. restaurant. He’s got, I think, five sushi bars between L.A., Austin, Seattle. One’s in Canada and one’s in Miami. Then he has multiple pasta bars. Just absolutely crushed it.

Kwame was my roommate. Kwame Onwuachi in New York right now. Tatiana by Kwame is just getting every accolade you could imagine. He got the nod from 50 Best. He was in the “New York Times.” He got a couple stars there. He’s just absolutely crushing it right now.

Even Karen in Boston. Our season was just stacked…

Kirk Bachmann: Your season was insane. Your season was insane. You’re in that group. Congratulations, Chef. It’s about those relationships which will continue forever, really.

Chad White: It’s great. I can’t tell you any crazy stories that you didn’t see. I guess there is one. I’m allergic to avocados.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh my gosh! Baja cuisine, allergic to avocados.

Chad White: I’ve never tasted my own guacamole. Thank God for recipes, right?

What they do at the end of a show or a day of shooting, they will do some recap questioning. Everyone’s doing whatever, and there will be somebody sitting in a room just talking about an experience in that moment. That’s where that comes from. I’m in the Roosevelt Hotel in Los Angeles right along the Hollywood [Walk of Fame] whatever it is. Sofia Vergara is getting her star – from “Modern Family.” We all know, she has a pretty distinct voice, and very loud.

We’re having to stop so many times because she’s like, “Oh my God! Thank you so much! Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” That’s my worst Sofia Vergara impersonation ever. We were having to stop because she’s too loud. The mics are picking up what’s happening. They’re trying to keep me awake. It’s later in the evening. I’m trying to drink Red Bulls and just stay awake. We finish. I think it was two or three hours of interviewing.

I go up to the board room where the other chefs are dining. I’m so hungry, I just start filling my plate with stuff. I pick up this one container. “Everyone done with this?” They’re like, “Yeah!” I just start eating out of the container, and I don’t realize until six bites in –

Kirk Bachmann: Oh no!

Chad White: I got really sick. I passed out and started throwing up. I begged them not to send me to the hospital. “I think I got it all out. We’re fine. Please, please, please, do not send me to the hospital. I do not want to get kicked off the show.”

Sure enough, they let me stay. I think some people got in trouble for it. I almost didn’t make it during that show. It was pretty wild.

Kirk Bachmann: That’s a great story. A thankful story, too. A lot of chefs I talk to – most chefs I talk to – towards the end, I have to ask: motorcycles, music, or both?

Chad White: I would say both, because I don’t ride a road bike. I ride dirt bikes. Music, I love music, in general. I feel like there’s always music playing in my life. There’s always a memory attached to almost every song, or there is a feeling that you’re having that applies to the song that you’re listening to. It’s remarkable.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. My podium changes all the time. U2 is usually on it somewhere. If I had to ask you your quick podium, what would be number one, two and three greatest bands of all time?

Chad White: Oh, greatest bands of all time?! That is –

Kirk Bachmann: I’m not going to hold you to it. You’re a Washington boy.

Chad White: Yeah. Nirvana. Obviously short-lived. Rolling Stones. Queen.

Chad White’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: Oh my gosh! We’ve got two of the same. My podium’s U2, Nirvana, and Queen. Saw Queen in Seattle on their first tour. I’m not going to tell you the year, because then you’ll get my age. One of the few people I know that saw Freddie Mercury live back in the day. Great, great music. Great list.

One more question for you, Chef. The name of the show is The Ultimate Dish. We’ve already talked about ingredients and technique. In your mind, at least today, in this moment, what is the ultimate dish?

Chad White: I said it before; it’s the one I’ve never made.

Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I knew you were going to say that, but I had to ask. What have you not made? If you had to, because I’m not going to let you off the hook –

Chad White: If it’s something that I’ve made, the ultimate thing I like to eat.

Kirk Bachmann: Even better.

Chad White: Is anything raw with lime, salt, and chilies.

Kirk Bachmann: We’re more alike than we’re not. Unbelievable. We haven’t had that one yet. I love it.

What are you going to make in Aspen?

Chad White: I’m going to do venison with pickled papaya, salsa Xnipek, mint, and oregano sea salt. Then I’m going to do a scallop tostada where I’m going to take burnt onion in Merida oil and bring it up to smoke point. Then I’m going to singe the scallops with that, and it’s going to go on a tostada with mayonesa de chapulines – which is like cricket mayo – leeks, and buzz button.

Kirk Bachmann: Unbelievable. I’m not sure Aspen’s ready for you.

Chad White: I don’t know. [inaudible [00:50:04]

Kirk Bachmann: Chef, thank you so much for spending time. This was just a delight. Really, really respect and appreciate you. Continued great success. If you’re ever all the way down to Boulder, I hope you let me know.

Chad White: I will. I will. Thank you so much for bringing me on the show. This was a pleasure of mine.

Kirk Bachmann: 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. And if you can, please leave us a rating on Apple or Spotify, and subscribe to support our show. This helps us to reach more aspiring individuals ready to take the next step toward their dream careers. Thanks for listening.

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