Why JBF Award Winner Nate Appleman Has Never Looked Back From Chipotle

Categories: Chef Interviews

Courtesy Chipotle
Nate Appleman was bent on becoming a chef from an early age, and so after high school, he packed his knives off to the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park to learn the craft. When he graduated, he spent the tail end of the '90s and the first few years of this millennium learning butchery in Italy and working his way through restaurants in Seattle and Napa Valley. In 2003, he landed a sous chef job at San Francisco's prolific A16, and he climbed the ranks quickly at the pizza restaurant, eventually becoming a partner and executive chef, a trajectory that earned him the coveted Rising Star Chef award from the James Beard Foundation in 2009.

After a long run on the west coast, Appleman decided it was time to come to New York, and he put his pizza knowledge to work the kitchen at Pulino's Bar & Pizzeria, the Nolita joint from Keith McNally that shuttered earlier this year. It wasn't a great match for the chef, and when his son was diagnosed with a heart condition in the middle of his tenure, he started thinking about lifestyle changes.

Around the same time, he met Steve Ells, the CEO of massive burrito chain Chipotle, who he connected with over a conversation about grass-fed beef. "I left and thought, it's crazy that a company like that is talking about grass-fed beef," Appleman says. His initial intrigue deepened, and a few months later, he was back in a meeting with Ells, asking if there was a spot for him at the company.

Ells put him behind the line at a restaurant, and Appleman quickly worked his way up to culinary manager, a position that allows him to develop new recipes and techniques for not just Chipotle but also for Shophouse, the Southeast Asian restaurant the Chipotle team launched in DC in 2011.

One of Appleman's projects just came to fruition with the roll-out of Chipotle's new sofritas, a braised tofu that officially went on the menu this week, and so we checked in with the chef, who is still New York-based, to chat about his role at the company, what's surprised him about transitioning into the fast casual space, and, of course, his burrito order.

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