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Nate Appleman on Changing Coasts, Moving to San Diego

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CIA-grad Nate Appleman gained serious acclaim while helming A16 in San Francisco, including earning a James Beard award in 2009. The chef left the restaurant for New York, and in 2010 joined fast-casual superstar Chipotle Mexican Grill, where he is now the company's culinary manager and helped to launch its ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen concept.

For the last few years, Appleman has gathered local and nationally-renowned chefs for the Kawasaki Disease Foundation's annual gala in San Diego; supporting the organization has significant meaning for Appleman, whose son has a heart condition related to the disease.

Apparently, our sun and surf was enough to seduce Appleman; the chef will be relocating to San Diego this summer. In this Eater Interview, Appleman talks about what prompted his decision to return to the West Coast, his impressions of San Diego's culinary scene, and his plans to be a part of it.

What spurred the move to San Diego?
There's only one reason, the weather. But really it's a multitude of things, San Diego probably has the best produce in America if not the world. It's definitely a healthier lifestyle for my son. Living in New York is stressful and that takes away from his well-being. I'm really focused on him and giving him the best situation possible. New York is an amazing place, I love it, but it's definitely not the healthiest of lifestyles for children.

Have you spent much time here aside from the Kawasaki events?
Not at all, this was a very gutteral choice. I have the best boss in the world who told me, "you can live anywhere you want and you don't have to be based in New York", and I knew I wanted to be back in California. I spend a lot of time in LA, but last November when I came for the Kawasaki event, I was driving from down the coast from Del Mar along Torrey Pines...I could see the ocean, the sun was shining through the car...I took a picture and at that moment I felt that this was where I needed to be.

Will your role with Chipotle change? Do you have expansion plans for San Diego?
No, I'm going to continue doing the same thing and working remotely. I would never rule out the possibility of ShopHouse going to San Diego one day but there's nothing currently planned. But it's been a great market for us with Chipotle, so I think it'd be a great place to open one.

What do you think about Chipotle's impact and influence on the fast-casual market?
We have written the rule book on fast-casual. Everybody who opens a quick-service restaurant tries to be "the Chipotle of" whatever food they're doing. It means different things for different people and I think for the most part, everyone gets it incorrect and that's why they're not Chipotle. I don't mean that in a sitting at the top looking down kind of way, but there's more than meets the eye to Chipotle than people know. When most places try to be us, they're only copying one aspect of it; maybe it's the organic thing, the aesthetics of our restaurants or how fast we serve the food, but the one thing that I haven't seen them do is copy the people culture. It's not something you can visually see, but we spend so much time and energy on creating a culture for good people.

Is there anything you miss about cooking in restaurants?
I miss it every single day. I miss the camaraderie of working with a crew of people all in the same boat on an intense level. My team at Chipotle has a tight knit closeness but it's not like we're going to battle every single day. I guess I do miss that adrenaline rush, but I also really appreciate life and that's something that I didn't have for many years.

There's a rumor that you might be doing some guest-cheffing when you move here, maybe at Chad White's new Común?
That's something that I tend to do every once in a while just to stay connected. My hopes are to move and be a part of the chef community. There's a lot of great guys that I've gotten to meet over the last couple years through the Kawasaki event. Chad is someone that's done my event every year and I'm forever indebted to him for that, so anything that guy needs, I'll be there.

Would you be up for popping into other kitchens?
Absolutely. Everything I do is a learning experience and by doing things like that, it keeps me in touch with the world that I used to be in and it keeps my mind going. It keeps those creative juices going, and without it, I wouldn't be as good at what I do for Chipotle.

What's been your impression of the food here?
I've just scratched the surface but the meals that I've had have all been great. I went to CUCINA Urbana and had a fantastic meal, they welcomed me with open arms into the kitchen and treated me like one of their own.

Chipotle's a great gig, but will you open your own place in San Diego one day?
I think San Diego is the land of opportunity. It has most amazing produce and the most amazing weather, and when you combine those things, you never know what will happen.
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