Today at Teak, we are excited to introduce Chef Nate, the senior manager of Driftwood Cafe, one of our sister properties here at the St. Pete Pier. Nate started at The Birchwood Properties a decade ago, explored local opportunities, and has now returned to a new leadership role.
We sat down with Nate to get the full scoop on his culinary background and his excitement for Driftwood Cafe.
How did you get into the culinary arts?
I started out in high school. I was 14, and I was lucky to be in a nice high school in Wisconsin that had a really good culinary program. So by the time I was a high school senior, I was already doing some culinary classes. I went through the American Culinary Federation’s program, which is the same program that the Birchwood’s Executive Chef Lee Aquino went through, and now I’m a certified chef.
How did your culinary experience progress after high school? After high school, I went through an apprenticeship and worked full-time at a golf course in Sheboygan, Wisconsin. I did all my culinary training there and expanded and went on from that.
Did your family inspire you to cook?
My stepdad was in the Navy, so he traveled a lot in his 20s and 30s and explored places like the Mediterranean and South Pacific. My mom also traveled when she was younger, so I grew up in the kind of household where we ate home-cooked dinners.
Is there any particular food that you prefer to make frequently?
I love cooking seafood. That’s always been a lot of what I really like to work with and play with. I’ve trained with a lot of classic French and European cuisines.
You started at The Birchwood Properties years ago and returned in a new role as the senior manager of Driftwood Cafe. Tell us about your journey.
I started at The Birchwood as a junior sous chef ten years ago, right after it was remodeled. After a few years at The Birchwood, I became the executive chef of a nearby restaurant, then I ran a cider press before rejoining The Birchwood team as Driftwood Cafe’s senior manager. During these transitions, I learned how to cook vegan dishes. It was a jump to come from fine dining and smaller plates and then going into the vegan food scene.
How did you end up at Driftwood Cafe?
The past two years have been hard for the restaurant industry because of the pandemic. I took some time off, and this opportunity came up. Chef Lee is very intentional about bringing in and raising people up and creating opportunities.
It’s definitely been a unique experience coming from a smaller restaurant where I completely had my hand in every little detail, where here I have broader responsibilities.
Why do you enjoy being a chef?
Making people happy. I think that’s one of the main things that’s always driven me. I love the poem by Robert Bulwer-Lytton that says, “We may live without friends. We may live without books but civilized man cannot live without cooks.” My mom had that quote in the kitchen and now I actually have that in my house now too.
I can show my love for food for people for life by giving that that’s so great. I think on any day, any age, any world, any city anywhere, there’s always going to be some little restaurant. It’s going to be a street vendor, fine dining or a little cafe like Driftwood. If you go to any little small town, the tiniest town, there’s probably going to be a little diner or cafe in there.
Describe your food style.
Eclectic and simple. My parents and I visited one of the top restaurants in Copenhagen that served little plates and often you couldn’t tell what it was. You don’t always know what you’re eating or what you’re looking at. It’s art, and I love that. I have an appreciation for it.
I especially like Italian cheese and charcuterie. It’s very simple, very focused. This is where it came from, the joy, the beauty of what you’ve got, what you did. It doesn’t need to be built in anything. A great chef can take a bland piece of meat and make it into something amazing. That takes a lot of talent, knowledge, and time to do that. But it doesn’t always need to be a big process to get there either.
What inspires you?
My family. I also had an amazing teacher in high school who really pushed me and helped me get into a great college program.
I also worked with a chef who was the youngest certified master chef in Europe at the time. My family is from the region near France and Germany and his family was from a few cities away. So we kind of had a little connection there from like where our families had come from the food history, those kinds of things. I didn’t know as a younger kid, you know, like, what all those things were.
What is the most memorable meal you’ve ever enjoyed?
My parents and I went to Noma in Denmark, which was incredible. We also ate at this incredible little ramen stand and taco shop that were unbelievable. The tacos were truly authentic, Mexican cuisine.
Are there any food personalities or chefs that you admire?
I grew up a lot with Bourdain. He’s a big one for me. David Chang is always really cool. I love his personality. I think that’s something I look and strive for is to be a little more.
Why do you love working at Driftwood Cafe? I love challenges. I want to build, I want to make something successful and to have other people see. It’s a beautiful space. We have fantastic equipment, amazing coffee, a lot of energy and a lot of time invested here.