Despite growing up in a household where frozen chicken pot pies were the norm, Nate Hamilton (Harvest, Madison) followed his own culinary tendencies down a career path that would take him from the local pizza joint to 17-hour days at Graze (and maybe someday to a burger shack on the beach). Lessons have been learned along the way, and Hamilton’s growth has resulted in his strong role as chef de cuisine.
Get to know Nate Hamilton
RIA: What overall influence did food have in your childhood?
Nate Hamilton: Not as much as a lot of chefs. My parents both worked, and worked hard. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my dad cook anything besides those frozen chicken pot pies, and my mom was juggling a job and twin boys and a whole mess of other things that I’m sure I’m still oblivious to. Dinner at my house was good, but fairly basic.
RIA: What are your earliest memories about food?
Hamilton: My mom’s chicken pot pie, and her goulash, both of which I still try to recreate for staff meal every so often. She still knocks the pie out practically every time I make it home. The goulash isn’t made from anything special. If I can remember right, it’s macaroni noodles and “Italian seasoning” and leftover spaghetti sauce and ground beef, but I used to put away a TON of it.
RIA: What was your favorite treat from the ice cream truck?
Hamilton: Those orange-vanilla push pops. I’m still crazy about those flavors and am going to work them into some kind of frozen parfait or semifreddo once summer comes around again.
RIA: Did you know you were going into the hospitality industry when you were in high school?
Hamilton: Nope. I was working in kitchens during high school, but at that time, I had no idea that I might want to make it a career.
RIA: When you first got the taste for culinary arts, how did you decide to become a cook?
Hamilton: I realized I was happier in restaurants and cooking than I was doing anything else. I figured I may as well make it a career.
RIA: When you made your restaurant world debut, what was your first position in the industry?
Hamilton: I was fourteen years old and expected to just be the guy who swept the floors and took out the garbage at the local pizza joint. Nope. They threw me in front of the oven on my very first day. I could barely reach into the back of it. Sixteen years later, I still have the scars on my arms from that oven!
RIA: Have any bosses changed your mind about your career or altered your perception of the industry?
Hamilton: Yes, by leading by both good and bad examples. They’ve taught me to treat my product with respect, to keep pushing on an idea that may not work the first time, to not drink on the line, to treat my staff with respect, that cocaine is a helluva drug and to stay away from it (thanks to those Bourdain-in-the-eighties wannabes that I worked for early in my career), that you can learn something from anyone in the restaurant (I was five years into the industry and a dishwasher taught me a better way to peel a carrot!), to understand that my presence at the restaurant isn’t more important than being in a good friend’s wedding or a family funeral.
RIA: At which restaurants were you on opening staff?
Hamilton: I was the opening sous chef at Graze here in Madison. Three weeks of consecutive 17-hour days. It was a really interesting process, from watching the construction to formulating the menu to hiring the staff, then figuring out what was working and what wasn’t and switching things up on the fly. A lot of lessons learned there!
RIA: Do you study up on anything in your off-time?
Hamilton: I think my “homework” is pretty average for a chef. I read a lot of cookbooks, blogs, websites. My Google Reader is packed with cooking blogs. I love to see what other people are doing. I don’t steal ideas, but we all inspire each other, right? If I’m having an issue with a dish I’m working on, I’ll research it in my off time.
RIA: What ingredient do you use most in the kitchen?
Hamilton: I don’t know about “most,” but I use a lot of mustard. I love mustard. I probably have like six different kinds in the walk-in, both outsourced and homemade.
RIA: How do you work through new dishes?
Hamilton: Someone gets an idea, and we’ll try it out. The kitchen staff will taste, the front of the house will taste, everyone will throw in their two cents. We try to leave the egos at the door. I may not always agree with someone else’s opinion, but I definitely hear it and give it some thought. I’m not the kind of guy that passes out samples to the staff just to get a pat on the back because we have a lot of great palates and a lot of solid experience, so I want to make sure it’s a dish that my cooks are excited about making and our servers are excited about selling. From there, it’s adjust, adjust, maybe switch out a component entirely, maybe take it in a different direction along the same path, then repeat until it hits perfect.
RIA: Do you serve offal dishes on your menu?
Hamilton: Every so often. Right now I’ve got a head cheese that’s panko-breaded and deep-fried, served with a Beauty Heart radish salsa and house barbecue sauce. It’s not too big of a stretch as far as offal goes. We do sweetbreads every so often. Our Spanish wine dinner last winter featured honeycomb tripe. So yeah, it makes an occasional appearance.
RIA: What are some ingredients you think chefs today overuse?
Hamilton: I love pork, I love bacon, but it’s become such a crutch. Sometimes I even have to pull myself away from it.
RIA: What piece of cooking equipment could you not live without and why?
Hamilton: My VitaPrep! It’s in constant rotation. We use it for soups, sauces, everything. Besides that, I’d say a good sharp microplane zester.
Sometimes, in the middle of a busy winter dinner service, I daydream about opening a burger shack on a beach somewhere.
~ Nate Hamilton, Harvest, Madison
RIA: What chef-wear is essential for you? What do you wear in the kitchen?
Hamilton: Birkenstock clogs, a short-sleeved dishwasher’s jacket, regular pants. I don’t like the pants designed for kitchen use. I’d rather just wear a pair of dark khakis. Then I always grab the aprons that have the neck hole in them. I feel lost without those aprons.
RIA: What qualities do you like in a line cook?
Hamilton: Hard-working, asks good questions, shows up on time, puts their best into every dish without sacrificing speed.
RIA: What qualities do you dislike in a line cook?
Hamilton: Line cooks who show up late. Cooks who get done with their prep and need me to tell them what to do next instead of either figuring it out for themselves or asking me what they can do to help out. Cooks who are obviously unprepared (you knew you’d need more of an item prepped, why are you waiting until 8:00 p.m. on Saturday night to do it? Why didn’t you do that at 4:00 p.m. when you had time?). Along the same line, why don’t you know where your backups are before service starts? Why are you asking me during service if there’s more sorbet in the freezer downstairs? Why didn’t you check that out earlier? To me, this business is all about preparation. It drives me crazy to see cooks who don’t take full ownership of their stations and don’t know exactly what’s going on as soon as the first orders start to come in.
RIA: Could you handle working in pastries for a brief time if you needed to?
Hamilton: I’m going to say that every chef should answer this with a “Yes, absolutely”! You may as well ask, “Could you handle working the grill for a brief time if you needed to?” There shouldn’t be such a disconnect between dessert and savory. Personally, I love working on new desserts!
RIA: What is the most exciting aspect of your day-to-day job?
Hamilton: Getting calls from farmers talking about new stuff they have coming up. It’s always great to be able to think about new ingredients and what you’re going to do with them.
RIA: What are the top five albums to cook to?
Hamilton: 1). Ice Cube’s “The Predator”. 2). Kanye West’s “Graduation”. 3). Army of the Pharaoh’s “The Unholy Terror”. 4). Doomtree’s “No Kings”. 5). Notorious B.I.G.’s “Ready to Die”. Yeah, we listen to a lot of hip-hop.
RIA: How do you feel about the state of culinary schools in America today?
Hamilton: The state of culinary schools today is pretty pathetic. I’ve seen some good people come out of culinary schools, but there seems to be an attitude that a degree is worth more than experience. Schools need to do a better job of training people for the restaurant and hospitality industry. That’s what they’re there for, right? Spending one day on a topic then moving on isn’t good for anyone, except those profiting from the tuition payments. I’d really like to see more time and care taken with culinary school students, not only with techniques, but a real emphasis on “This is what the industry is like. Love it or leave it.” Instead you have graduates turning their noses up at $10 an hour. No one feels like they have to pay their dues anymore. No one wants to clean the kitchen, pick herbs, or learn to properly break down a chicken. Instead you have kids who come out of school saying, “I had this really great idea, but I need you to order some calcium carbonate …” when they don’t even know how to blanch a green bean properly.
RIA: Ambitions to land your own reality show? Pen a tell-all? What projects are you planning?
Hamilton: I’m working on one big idea right now. I hate the word “dream,” because it implies it’s too lofty to attain. I prefer “goal”! It’s in the “write a business plan” stage. That’s all I’m going to say about it!
RIA: Do you wish you could open an ultra-casual BBQ, burger or taco spot?
Hamilton: Sometimes, in the middle of a busy winter dinner service, I daydream about opening a burger shack on a beach somewhere. Like, literally a shack like they have at the state fair. We would sell burgers and fries. Burgers come with bacon, cheese, ketchup, mustard, mayo, lettuce, tomato, red onion, and pickle. I’d probably call it something ultra-creative like Nate’s Burger Shack. Or Beach Burger.
RIA: Would you consider moving to another city, state, country?
Hamilton: One major reason why I rent my apartment instead of buying a house. I’m big on travel. I love the idea of being able to get up and go and not being tied down to a piece of property. So, as much as I love Madison, I’d definitely consider it!
RIA: Say you were not a chef. What would you be, and why?
Hamilton: It’s a hard thing to imagine. I’d probably be a travel … something. Anything that got me free airline tickets. I’d work while I did it, I don’t care. I love to explore new places.