Chef Q&A: Nate Appleman

The award-winning chef on developing the menu at the ShopHouse, the Southeast Asian Chipotle

When Denver-based Chipotle Mexican Grill launched its first ShopHouse Southeast Asian Kitchen in the fall of 2011 in Washington, D.C., trend watchers wondered whether this concept would rocket into the stratosphere of success, too. Second and third units will soon open in the nation’s capitol and in Santa Monica, Calif.

Like Chipotle, ShopHouse restaurants feature the assembly line model, allowing for customization of meals inspired by the cuisines of Thailand, Vietnam and Malaysia. Culinary Manager Nate Appleman, a James Beard Award-winning chef, offers insight for cooking up success.

"They might say, 'Look, these guys are cooking real food.' We can't pretend we're not a fast food restaurant because we are. But we are redefining fast food."

— Culinary Manager Nate Appleman

What have you have learned in the first unit about kitchen layout and equipment placement?

We treated this restaurant like an independent. We were given a very tight budget and told you have to make it work within these confines. Being up against the wall sometimes defines the structure of the way you do business.

What are you most proud of doing?

We have taken a really complex cuisine, where the flavors range from sweet and sour to very spicy and bitter, and made it very simple to execute without losing its integrity.

How did you do that?

I have been cooking for 20 years and drew on my experience. We have made dishes that taste great. How we did that, specifically, is a very in-depth conversation.

Okay, but how long did it take you to figure out execution, flavor, etc.?

From inception of the idea to opening, maybe nine months to a year.

What advice would you give chefs who want to do something similar with complex cuisine?

It took another nine months to figure it out after we started doing it. So I would say shorten time on the front end. You don’t know what you have or how it will flow until you have to put it in front of people.

What might another chef admire by just moving through ShopHouse’s line?

They might say, ‘Look, these guys are cooking real food.’ We can’t pretend we’re not a fast food restaurant because we are. But we are redefining fast food.