This is part two of Katie Moulton's Chef's Choice profile of Nate Hereford of Niche (1831 Sidney Street, 314-773-7755). To read part one, click here. Part three, a recipe from Hereford, can be found here.
Did your family cook when you were a child? Yeah, my parents were awesome cooks, even if they don't seem to think so. They cooked honest meals every day of the week. I also remember that my mom always made a point to make a salad with every meal.
They instilled the idea and concept of community when it came to dining, which still sticks with me to this day. Food is about community, celebrating ingredients, people and life.
They were also really into ethnic food, I have fonder memories of sushi and Indian food, growing up, than I do of meat loaf and pot roast. In retrospect this showed me that the world was a bigger place than the town I grew up in.
How old were you when you started cooking? Professionally, I was 22. I always loved eating food as a kid. I remember cooking when I was probably about eight or nine, helping out with dinner. I just never thought I would make a career of it. Honestly, the thought never entered my mind.
First cooking job? After college I moved to Missoula, Montana. I got another job washing dishes at a breakfast-lunch spot called Food for Thought. One day some cat didn't show up to work and they asked me if I wanted to work the line. I haven't left the kitchen since then.
After that first job, every other job pushed me further and was a step above the past one. I've taken something from everywhere I've ever worked, inside and outside of the industry.
Did you attend culinary school or college? Yeah, I went to the Oregon Culinary Institute, in Portland, Oregon. I was a little older when I went to school, and I had been working in the industry for four years. I knew I was passionate about it, I worked really hard in school, pushed myself extremely hard, knowing that it would pay off. While in school, I noticed most of the other students didn't push themselves to constantly be researching food or cooking. I knew school was what you made of it. I had already been to college, etc., and I knew that this was what I wanted to do, so I didn't mess around at all. I never missed a day -- well, actually, the only day I missed was because I flew to Chicago to stage at a restaurant. But nevertheless, I didn't mess around. I took it seriously. On top of that, I worked a full-time job at this spot called Acadia Bistro.
School was a great experience for me, but once again it is what you make of it. Some of the most talented people I have ever worked with didn't go to school. It's extremely relative in this business. The industry, like life, is what you make of it.
What do you eat? I am constantly tasting food all day at work. By the time I get home, I am usually exhausted. I may make a sandwich or breakfast. I like to think I like light food, but I also love a food coma. Sometimes it may be a frozen pizza or chicken wings. And I have been known to roll down to a diner or a taco joint.
What do you cook at home? My wife also works in the industry, and honestly, we rarely see each other. But when we do, we like to either go out and eat or stay at home and cook simple food. An easy salad, pasta or roasted chicken. When we both spend our time constantly talking about or preparing excellent food, it's nice to unwind with either having someone else do the work or do something delicious, yet not too complex. I've been way into cooking Southern food lately and I've been working on dialing in my fried chicken.
The local chef who most impresses you? It's amazing working with Gerard [Craft]. He is such a talented cat, his style and vision is just amazing. He is constantly pushing forward. I have learned so much at my time at Niche, it has been mind-boggling.
Besides that, I'd have to say Kevin Nashan [of Sidney Street Café]. He is such a humble guy. He once told me that if he had to get a tattoo it would be of an ant, because we are all working towards a common goal, together. It blew my mind.
Ted Kilgore also really impresses me. I mean technically he is not a chef but a mixologist, but he approaches cocktails with the same enthusiasm and vigor as a chef does food. I worked at Taste for a little while and Ted is just an encyclopedia of knowledge and passion. His drinks are the best I have tasted anywhere. Many levels of flavor and depth.
I guess at the end of the day, I just appreciate folks who push the limits of creativity.
Your favorite restaurant elsewhere? I had the best meal of my life at Rafa's in Roses, Spain. A tiny twelve-seat space that served the freshest seafood possible. We ate at around ten on a Thursday, and they were getting fresh seafood straight from the docks. It was so fresh it was still moving when they were putting it on the plancha. Mind-blowing simplicity in a welcoming environment. Ferran Adrià calls Rafa the best chef in the world, because of his strive for quality. We overheard Rafa comment on Ferran, and he said, "The king of the country comes to my castle and calls me king? I don't think that is possible." That quote will stick with me forever, etching a beyond-epic meal into my memory.
Recently my wife and I were in Charleston and had a mind-blowing meal at Husk: the respect for the food, the energy from the servers, the space...see where I am going with this? It is more than just food. With both of these meals, it was an experience, feeling special that you are in the right place at the right time. If not, why go out? Why not just get a microwave dinner and watch reruns on the tube?
Your favorite food city? Probably San Sebastián [Spain], because that city lives and breathes food. It is everywhere, and it is amazing everywhere.
Favorite recent food find? Our sous chef Matt Daughaday has been making "everything" focaccia. It's pretty awesome. I love the flavors of "everything" bagels, but the texture always threw me off. This focaccia is light and airy and has a melt-in-your-mouth quality. It led us to many thoughts, from "everything" mayo to "everything" encrusted tuna.
Technique-wise, we've been doing a lot of puffed stuff at Niche. On a recent dish, we take black rice, cook the shit out of it and then purée it with water, salt and black garlic (a fermented type of garlic, that has a deep molasses flavor) and then pipe it on to a Silpat, let it dry out and then fry it. The chips taste amazing and have the texture of Munchos. Most essential ingredient in your kitchen? Acid. Whether it be yuzu, lemon juice, vinegars. They really help stuff pop out on your palate and elevate flavors to the next level. Besides that, salt.
Favorite local food find, and where do you get it? Wood sorrel, from my back yard. That stuff grows everywhere.
Five words to describe your food. The complexity in the simplicity.
One food you dislike. I don't like tomatoes when they are out of season. They just become mealy texture that taste fake. In season, however, they are amazing. I like most things, I guess I don't like hard pretzels or Cheez-Its.
A food you can't live without. Mayo.
An ingredient never allowed in your kitchen. A bad attitude.
Culinarily speaking, St. Louis needs more... We are moving along. We need more people to start supporting local spots and relying less on chain restaurants. Honestly, people can go out and get an amazing meal at local spots, supporting their community, for the same price they spend at chains.
The food in St. Louis is honestly awesome. I've traveled to some other big food cities, and I eat the food and drink the cocktails and I'm like, "Wow, this is good, but I can name a few places in St. Louis where it's better." We just need to keep pushing; we are on the verge of big stuff.
Best tip for home cooks? Taste your food. Don't rely on recipes. They should be a guideline based on flavors. If you understand how to balance your food -- when to add salt or acid, spices, etc. -- it will elevate it to the next level.
Favorite after-work hangout. At my house with my dog, Jake, and my wife.
Favorite kitchen tool. T-bar peeler and a bench scraper. I always keep these two things in my pockets. On top of that, a spoon.
What's next for you? Time will tell. I am confident in the fact that if you keep your head down working, good things will happen.
What inspires you? Farmers. There is so much energy put into the food before we even get it at the restaurant.
Favorite cookbooks? The Flavor Bible. It is more of a thesaurus than a cookbook, it gives you flavor profiles and what goes good with what. Besides that I really dig old cookbooks, like from the beginning of the century. I recently found this awesome website that has hundreds of them, and it is inspiring to see how simple people used to be. Also the TimeLife series from the '60s. My aunt gave me her whole collection a few years ago.
Proudest professional moment? The first time I cooked for my family after I had moved to Chicago. I felt like I had learned so much and garnered such an appreciation for food. Trying to convey my passion to my family was a big deal.
Favorite music to have in the kitchen. Lately I've been way into Girl Talk. He is just super-talented, and it's inspiring. It is throwdown music. When everyone is knee-deep in prep, put on any of his albums and magic happens. Besides that, anything that gets you moving. Early in the morning, it's usually more chill, something like Deer Tick or Phish, and then bust out the Fugazi or Rage [Against the Machine].
The five greatest kitchen albums, in no particular order: Girl Talk, Feed the Animals; Guns N' Roses, Appetite for Destruction; Sublime, Sublime; Nirvana, MTV Unplugged; A Tribe Called Quest, Midnight Marauders.
What's on your pizza? Bacon and onion. White pizza. Maybe an egg.
What's in your omelet? Screw that. Chicken-fried steak or two eggs over easy with hash browns and an English muffin.
What are you drinking? Bourbon. Coffee. Iced tea. Or water.
What's the most surprising food you've eaten? Animal tendons, pressure-cooked, then dehydrated, then fried. Pressure-cooked they taste like corned beef, once fried they taste like cracklings. Maybe sansho buttons -- they make your tongue tingle. Or real miracle berries -- they make sour things taste sweet. Besides that all kinds of offal. I love tongue. I really wanted to eat a pig spinal cord once, but I never got around to it. I've eaten a lot of random parts. I love offal.
What's the most difficult lesson you've learned in this business? The sacrifice. You work when everyone else is off. It takes a toll on your social life. It becomes your social life.
When did you know the chef's life was for you? It found me. I remember early on, I was looking for another job and I just thought to myself that I dug the lifestyle and there was nothing else that motivated me and got me excited. So I dove in headfirst.