If Zoe Nathan follows the trajectory of the nursery rhyme “Rub-A-Dub-Dub,” her next move would be to make candlesticks. She started as a butcher, working at Mario Batali’s restaurant Lupa in Greenwich Village. A cross-country move to California eventually led her to Tartine Bakery and a passion for baking, and it sure looks like that switch will stick. She co-owns Rustic Canyon Wine Bar & Seasonal Kitchen, Huckleberry, Milo & Olive and Sweet Rose Creamery, all in Santa Monica, with restaurateur husband Josh Loeb. We met at Huckleberry on April 3, and Nathan shared several culinary insights, none of them candle related.
What’s the first dish that you ever remember making?
Probably sloppy Joes when I was a kid.
And you have sloppy Joes on the menu now?
We’ve run it here before. I love a fun, messy sandwich. Most sandwiches here are messy. That’s definitely where my heart is, messy.
Was it a given that you’d become a chef, or did you consider other careers?
No, when I was younger, I wanted to be a preschool teacher and elementary school teacher, and then I got really into photography and went to school for art, for the short time that I did go to school, in Vermont, and then in New York. Then, I just wanted to do something with my hands, and I always wanted a shop. I always wanted a place where everyone could find me, where my family could be. I’m very close with my family, and I like seeing everybody all the time, and the easiness of it. I always wanted something, and it just ended up being food.
What was your very first night like working in a professional restaurant kitchen?
I was at Lupa. It was probably my externship, right out of school in New York, and it was a day shift, my prep shift, and I worked with this guy Wade, who was the sous chef there, and he was so awesome. He did all the butchery there, and when I got out of culinary school, I got an externship, and I went to Lupa because they did all whole pigs and whole everything, and he made all his own charcuterie and head cheese, and I was totally into trying to use the whole animal, so I just remember being there, we got a big ass knife, we had a whole pig, he was like, “Alright, I’m going to show you how to do it.” It was really thrilling, and I was there for maybe a year and a half. I went to the garde manger and it was really, really fun.
At what point did you decide to switch from savory to sweet?
A couple years later, after working in a couple different kitchens, I had moved up to San Francisco. I was working at Joe’s in L.A. and moved to San Francisco with my boyfriend at the time. Joe had helped me get a job at Jardiniere. I was there and I was in the kitchen, and all of a sudden it didn’t feel right to me. I didn’t really want to work at night. I lived a block away from Tartine, so every day on the way to work, I’d go by Tartine and there were just a bunch of girls like me. They had tattoos and they were chatting to each other and laughing, and the vibe was just all love and fun and good. They were working hard, but they were having fun. So I went in asked if I could hang out, or anything, if I could work for free during the day. I also had no friends, so I just wanted friends. Honestly, mostly I went to Tartine because I wanted to be friends with them. I went in and said, “Hey, can I just cut apples? Anything.” They were like, “No.” “Okay,” so I went to work that night. And then I went back the next day and the next day. Then finally, I guess somebody quit, so they were like, “Okay, let’s try it.” I always felt good about my speed. When I learned, I could always butcher a chicken super fast, and I always felt really good about that. They were like, “Okay, cut this box of apples.” I was like, “I want to be friends with these people, so I will cut this box of apples as fast as I will ever cut anything in my life, because I love the girl standing next to me, and I want to be her friend, and I want to have dinner with her, and I want to take her out for a beer.” So I just cut them as fast as I could, and I put my head down and I worked and I got the job and I was really happy. I was really happy there, and then I quit Jardiniere and just decided I wanted to commit to Tartine. I think I was there a little over two years, and it was probably one of the best experiences ever, and I learned so much from Liz and Chad. They’re just two of the most amazing, talented people. They’ve been an inspiration for work and also for my personal life, now that I work with my husband every day. They could do it, have a kid and love each other. It was really inspiring.
Would you consider them mentors?
Yes. Yes. Yes.
In what ways?
I mean, they’re amazing. They loved what they did. They perfected their craft. They cared. Probably the most inspiring thing was they ran this really professional but family oriented kitchen and restaurant. People would be there for so long. People would be there for years because they just loved working for them. They loved working in that environment. For me, I think, in the kitchen, it was rough, and people were screaming at each other, and it was hot. There’s not a lot of room for play, and even creativity, when you’re not the chef. That didn’t work for me, and also that didn’t work for the kind of place I wanted to open up. I like getting to know people who work for me. I like making them laugh. I like working really hard, and I also like them getting creative sometimes, if they can handle me saying that I don’t like it, and they have to throw it away. I found the environment they created to be so unique and so inspirational.
What do you look for when you’re hiring somebody to work in one of your kitchens?
Common sense is probably the most difficult thing to find in a human being. It’s not something that a lot of people have. Just kind of the love and the drive. I personally, generally like people who are from the school of hard knocks as opposed to CIA or something like that. I think they’re usually a little bit hungrier, and they’re normally more open to learn. I think sometimes people go to school and they’re given a diploma and they think, “Okay, that’s the end of my learning. Now I’m going to show people things.” I think that I’m still learning so much, so I can’t imagine when somebody comes to me and they’re like 10 years younger than me, and they just have a funny hat, and they’re like, “Okay, I know everything.” And I’m like, “Take the hat off girl because you don’t know anything, and neither do I, so let’s figure this out together.” And also they just have to be a good personality fit.
You said that Liz and Chad perfected their craft. Is there such a thing as perfection in cooking?