Chef Nathan Lockwood of Altura
Mise en Place
Anyone who knows anything about food service knows this term. French for ‘putting in place’ or aka ‘meez’ – it’s compulsory for any chef or cook worth their salt to be able to do. Not having your mise set up properly can have a disastrous effect on a night’s service. Missing items not prepared by the cook on the previous shift is a slight to the next cook taking over. One or two things out of place can be tantamount to a domino effect on how the evening goes. If the mise en place hasn’t be prepared properly bad things will usually follow.
A Ritual to Relish
In meeting Chef Nathan Lockwood of Seattle’s Altura one thing is abundantly clear – he’s got his mise en place for his work and life in the right order. The 2014 James Beard Award semifinalist is not the Gordon Ramsey-type – yelling at his staff and making a scene. He’s calm, cool and collected – because he’s been to the show and he’s prepared for anything. This is reflected in the calm, refined atmosphere of Altura and its staff. He relishes each service and looks forward to the ritual of setting up his mise every day.
I’ve done many interviews with Chefs in Seattle and I always ask them who their favorites are when dining out. Lockwood is the most often named by his peers as one of the best in town. I was fortunate to be able to spend some time with him recently to get his story. And so it goes…
Why did you get involved in food?
My first job out of high school was at a snack bar in Northern California at Whiskeytown Lake. I won’t say I enjoyed it but it was an introduction to putting together my mise and making it better every day. I was only making burgers and frying corn dogs though and I never thought of it as something I’d end up doing.
Later, when I decided to stop going to college I got a job in Chico, CA and washed dishes at a brew pub. I stayed there for 3 years, worked all the kitchen jobs and then decided to go to Culinary school at the CIA. I realized that being in the kitchen environment and that dynamic of people really fit my personality and energy level. I’ve always loved and appreciated food and I love to eat but the two came together as a career from different directions.
How did you make your way through the CIA?
I applied to the CIA and waited two years to get in. I went to Coeur D’Alene, ID to work at Beverly’s. Then I was accepted early so I spent a year at the CIA and then did my externship in San Francisco at One Market under Bradley Ogden for 5 months.
Did you end up staying in SF?
When I finished school I went back and worked at Michael Mina’s Fifth Floor. At the time, Laurent Gras was on his way in and it was a rough kitchen to be in. Not many cooks made it through the transition and I left soon afterwards.
On New Year’s Eve that year I began working at Acquerello and it was a wild first day. I started on the pasta station there and did that for a year – 2 shifts a day. This was around the same time as when the kitchen at Fleur de Lys caught fire. Shelley Lindgren, who owns A16 restaurant in SF, was a server there. She went to culinary school while they rebuilt as they paid the staff during the renovation. When she was done she went back to Fleur de Lys and when they re-opened Hubert Keller called me and offered me the tournant position. So, I went in and looked at the place – it was really beautiful. Afterwards I went back and talked to Suzette at Acquerello and she told me to take the job. Still, I continued to make pasta at Acquerello in the morning.
Working with Hubert Keller must have been a pretty amazing experience right?
Fleur de Lys was pretty demanding, especially as tournant as I was on a different station every day. I was working with a crew who had been together for 18 years. They tested me a lot and I had a great time there. Hubert was really great to work with – he’s still in the kitchen almost every service working a station. He was really engaged and never did a half day’s work. He was also a very level-headed, thoughtful fellow unless you pissed him off. People like Hubert – you don’t want to get screamed at by them because when it happens you know you deserve it.
Fleur de Lys really focused on classical French cooking technique and brigade style service. What I appreciated and took from there was how well everything worked together. The efficiency, the cleanliness, the precision and the lack of mistakes. I owe my organizational capacity to the couple of years I spent there.
How did you end up in Seattle?
Well, I think of Chico as home – all my oldest friends and their families are there. At the end of the day, I’m not a big city guy. I grew up in the mountains of Northern California. After culinary school I started to think about the cities I could handle living in and realized that a place like New York is the #1 place I don’t want to be. San Francisco and Seattle were my first two choices though Seattle is much more conducive to the long-term lifestyle I want to have.
My family is here and I would come up once a year to stage around while I was cooking in SF. During my second year at Fleur de Lys I staged at Union, Mistral, Rovers and a number of other spots. I met my wife on that trip as well. She was at law school at UW and came to spend the summer with me in SF. Then we moved back up here in 2004 at the end of that summer.
The summer of love… So where did you cook when you got here?
I ended up staging at Café Juanita and then went to work for Scott Staples at the old Restaurant Zoe for about year. It was a good change of pace for me – bistro cooking, fast paced. I lost a lot of weight cooking there. But I also realized it wasn’t what I wanted to do long-term.
I was looking for a sous chef position and I got a call from Acquerello to be their sous chef back in SF. I think it was on St. Patty’s day at about 2am that I got the call. Something had come up, I don’t know what it was – but I got on the plane next morning and flew to SF. I ended up there on Tuesday, worked Weds through Saturday, flew back on Sunday, rented a Uhaul, and packed our stuff and drove it all down with Rebecca. It was a whirlwind.
I spent two and a half more years at Acquerello during which time Rebecca did her last year of classes at Hastings and received her degree from UW. She now runs our business here – having her background is extremely valuable.
So after Acquerello and another stint in SF where did you go?
We moved to Marin and I took over the kitchen at a little place called Fork in 2007. It was smaller than Altura is but did a similar number of covers. It was simpler food. I made all the pasta at home because the kitchen in the restaurant wasn’t big enough. We lived on 6 acres of land with gardens in Lagunitas, had a great staff and it only required my time for five days a week – pretty amazing.
I was the 3rd chef after the opening chef had left. While I was there the restaurant had a good resurgence with positive reviews. This was 2008 and the economy was in a pretty rough spot. Plus, Marin is a difficult market for a fine dining restaurant. When the owners started thinking that they wanted to take the restaurant in a casual comfort food direction, I found myself looking North again and coming to Seattle for a week to visit friends and family. We snow camped our way up stopping at Mt. Shasta, Mt. Bachelor and Mt. Hood. It was really cold in the mountains with tons of snow and we ended up getting stranded in Seattle when the temperature warmed and I-5 South flooded.
During that trip I got a call from Suzette at Acquerello who told me that a colleague of hers was opening a hotel in Oregon – so we popped down there to look at the property and it seemed like a good opportunity. We left Marin and moved to Oregon to open Jory restaurant in the Allison Inn and Spa.
Seems like a long and winding path to get your own place.
Seattle has always been a town of no call-backs for me. In ten years, I’ve never been offered a job higher than a pantry chef here. I was faced with a choice to either find a job elsewhere or to open a restaurant. The process took two years to work through. I got a job at The Ruins in the meantime (the legendary secret supper club). It was a great job for me while I was working on getting this (Altura) started.
How did you manage a full-time gig and opening a restaurant at the same time?
I worked at the Ruins while we were searching for a space and working through lease negotiations. As soon as we signed the lease I left to focus on the opening process full-time. We were actually about 2 weeks from giving up and leaving Seattle when we finally were able to sign the lease for this space. It was an interesting spot known as ‘Edgar the Store’ dealing in Mexican/South American knick knacks. Edgar took off and it was ours.
What do you love most about the restaurant biz?
I love cooking. The day-to-day of it. I love every aspect of the process. I love receiving product, breaking it down, working it into the menu. All the steps and fundamental processes of cooking. If you can’t enjoy putting your mise together then you are going to have a hard time enjoying this business.
I also enjoy the visceral aspect of service. The physical work and energy that goes into repeating something an indefinable number of times, striving to make it better, cleaner, faster with each repetition. The whole service part of it is what keeps me in the business. There are a lot of things you can do with food that are possibly more profitable and certainly require less focus and daily work but I love the service and the interaction with our staff and guests. For us it’s a show and a great way to connect with our guests.
How have you dealt with service in a very open-kitchen environment?
We’ve just really embraced the open kitchen and have trained all the cooks as servers. It’s really broken down a wall for them and allowed them to connect with the guests. It’s good to see the way it affects the cooks. The cooks who are most nervous about this process seem to be the ones who ultimately benefit from it the most.
Has that approach led to any conflict or challenges between the front and back of house staff?
We have a great team and they work really well together…we have redefined the service roles for our cooks, servers, managers and Somm in a way that they all work together towards a common goal. The result has been greater efficiency for the restaurant, better working environment for our staff and a better overall guest experience.
What do you like least about it?
Well, now that I have a kid it’s hard to be woken up at 7 am after getting home at 3 in the morning. But I also want to get up and hang out with him. The hours are challenging but they are what they are. And I’ve known that for a long time. I’m a night owl anyhow now I just sleep a lot less.
What’s your opinion about the role of social media in the restaurant business these days?
I don’t feel that Yelp is an honest platform. It’s too easy to post things that are not related to anything we do here. You can just go out there and vent. You might not have anything to say about the restaurant – you might just hate someone that works there. That doesn’t seem like a positive thing to me. But I guess it serves a purpose.
Rebecca forwards me all the bad reviews and I read those but I don’t read them all. TripAdvisor has been really great for us. 3-4 people a night tell me they found us there and we’re the #1 restaurant for fine dining in Seattle. Open Table and to some extent Google reviews seem to be above-board. We do a hand written check now with simple totals for food, beverage and tip. On the back side of it is an invitation to let us know what you think, and or request to be added to our mailing list. People with honest criticism most often want to let us know and we welcome that.
What is your #1 goal with your restaurant?
Frankly – I’ve achieved everything I wanted to with this space. It’s all I want it to be. It’s small enough that I can see what is happening with every guest. I can afford to be on the line every night. I work every station here. Last month I was on pasta. The month before that on sauté. I get to cook with people I believe in and enjoy working with.
I remember setting this place up someone asked me what my color scheme was. It was terrifying. I was cleaning a porcini mushroom while I was on the phone so I picked that as my color scheme. I made all the host stands, tables – everything by hand. I salvaged wood from Jade Pagoda, found some benches on the side of road in Ballard and worked with them to help make this space into what it is.
What is your philosophy about food/cooking?
It’s a hard business and you have to be focused on – waste, labor, food, energy and time. I’m really hard on cooks when they waste a product. It’s not a business decision for me to be that way, it is a matter of respect for our ingredients. For me food is not a commodity that comes from nowhere and can be wasted. I have close relationships with the farmers, ranchers, fishermen who provide our products and wasting their hard work is not something that I am prepared to do.
It means that less desirable pieces of food don’t get thrown away. We can be creative and feed our staff or make something unusual for the menu. On this scale (of a restaurant), that’s a real thing. We can save money by utilizing every part of an animal in a number of preparations. The hundreds of little decisions we make every day like respecting trim – that’s what enables us to use ingredients like matsutake, char and steelhead roe and Perigord truffles. We can do this in an economical way because we’re so focused on completely utilizing what we start with.
Sometimes focusing on that whole process and dynamic is exhausting but you get used to it and it becomes one of our biggest challenges and greatest rewards.
What would you like to see more of coming in from local farmers/growers?
Produce-wise it’s been a long, slow adjustment for me coming from California. What seems normal to me in Cali is different in Washington where the seasons are really compressed. For example, we don’t have winter mushrooms and summer tomatoes on the menu at the same time in San Francisco but here it is common place.
Other than that, I feel there’s a business vacuum that will be filled in the near future by someone who is driven to make it easier to utilize the fantastic produce and seafood in our region. We get fantastic produce from farmers and I’m getting there with seafood and meat but I’m writing 16 individual orders for Tuesday delivery every week. That’s borderline overwhelming and takes a lot of time and energy to maintain. I feel like the product is here and the demand is here. But the access to quality, local, organic, fresh ingredients isn’t there in an easy-to-obtain manner. I also need to order daily in smaller quantities because I don’t have a walk-in.
What advice do you have for people looking to get into the food business?
Get a job in the restaurant you envision yourself working in down the road and ask for a stage. Offer yourself for 4 weeks. If this is something you’ll enjoy doing long term then you need to know ahead of time what it’s like to work the line. Too many people don’t do that. Going to culinary school now is all about money. Anyone with 50 grand can do it. It used to be that you would go, be vetted, had to prove you had knife skills and that you knew what you wanted to do.
I had a UW student that wanted to drop out and he asked me to do a 4 week stage. He gave up after 3 weeks. His parents came from Korea to thank me for giving him the opportunity to find out that this is not what he wanted to do. Cooking is really hard work and is demanding both physically and emotionally.
What would you have done differently when starting out?
In short not much. I didn’t start frying corn dogs to learn about food – and I would go back to do that job in a heartbeat. I made $3.85 an hour and after my shift I would empty all the garbage cans in the campground. For this I got a free camp site. I windsurfed in the morning, slept outside – it was awesome for an 18-year-old guy.
If I had to pick one thing maybe I would have spent less time at the Chico Brew House – but I was waiting for acceptance to culinary school. Maybe I would have been a little more ambitious – focused on learning service and cuisine from a classical standpoint. I never tried to get into the French Laundry and that was right in the heyday there. That said, I don’t think I’d trade my 2 years at Fleur de Lys for that anyway.
Tell me about someone or something that influenced who you are today as a chef
It’s a compilation of so many people and it’s hard to single someone out. Suzette Gresham and Hubert Keller are always mentioned. Someone I don’t give enough credit to was the Chef de Cuisine at Fleur de Lys – Rick. He’s an awesome guy – really inspirational and he was doing what I wanted to do – working the line every night. He had been with Hubert for 20 years and was on the line every single night. I’ve always felt that the chef needs to be the best line cook in the kitchen and I spent a long time cooking toward that goal…. alongside some amazing people.
What is your favorite ingredient?
Mushrooms. Is that true? Probably. Seafood as well. Things you can steer in the direction you want them to go. It changes weekly depending on what we have to work with but ingredients that lend themselves to gentle manipulation define the style of cooking that we do. Simple techniques that yield surprising flavors and textures when applied to the right ingredient.
If someone invites you to their home for dinner what should they cook?
Anytime someone cooks for me I’m grateful.
Who is the best chef in Seattle now?
I admire Jason Stratton a lot. The thing I appreciate about Aragona, and I didn’t eat until the last week it was open – was that he approached the opening from a professional standpoint. He understands one chef can only run one restaurant. He built a good foundation and he didn’t ever have a personal need to claim that work was all his own. Any great chef who owns a lot of restaurants – Daniel Boulud, Hubert, whomever; the first big decision they make is the management team and the chef. It can’t all be on you. I appreciated seeing that. I still think Spinasse is terrific – the best meals I’ve had in Seattle have been there.
Blaine Wetzel at The Willows, from a culinary standpoint, is doing the most interesting stuff from a Northwest cuisine standpoint and is driving us in a really productive direction. We share the same sensibilities: staying close to the land, working with foraged products, getting out on the farm. When you get close to what’s growing in the field or forest that translates to the kitchen. Even if you didn’t pick/harvest/forage it yourself – you’ve gotten closer to it the natural process of gathering sustenance from the environment and that connection translates to the kitchen in a very real way.
What is your last meal?
Bistecca, bone in from Magnolia Cattle Company dry aged Wagyu ribeye. Probably served with white truffles and perfect tajarin. And a great bottle of Barbaresco. Or maybe full on Thai food – as spicy as you can get it!
The Devil is in the Details
Nathan Lockwood’s meticulous attention to detail can be seen in the food at Altura. He focuses on ingredients that are local and foraged in the Pacific Northwest to develop menus that make it difficult for the diner to choose from – because everything looks good. It’s visually stunning and the flavor combinations are always on point. For my money, it’s one of the top 3 Italian restaurants in Seattle along with Café Juanita and Cascina Spinasse. If you want to see beautiful food, precision preparation and Italian food cooked in a pure and creative form – head there now.
If you enjoyed this interview with Chef Nathan Lockwood then please check out my other articles in the series at Chef Interviews and stay tuned for future conversations with more of your favorite well and lesser known Seattle-based Chefs! Next up, Maxime Bilet of Imagine Food coming soon to The Hungry Dog Blog!
A Recipe from Chef Nathan Lockwood of Altura Restaurant
TRIPE AND OXTAIL RAGU
FOR THE TRIPE:
- 10# tripe scrubbed and rinsed
- 4 qts. aromatic vegetables sliced thin (carrots, onions, celery, leek, fennel etc)
- 2 c. dried japonaise chilis
- 1 bu. mixed parsley and fennel
- Layer the tripe, vegetables and herbs in a tall pot into which they just fit.
- Season each layer gently with salt and pepper.
- Weigh down with a heavy weight and top with water to barely cover.
- Bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook for 4-6 hours.
FOR THE OX-TAIL
- 20# ox-tail
- 4 qts. aromatic vegetables in large pieces (carrots, onions, celery, leek, fennel etc)
- 2 c. dried japonaise chilis
- 1 bu. mixed parsley and fennel
- 1 c. water
- 3 ea. fresh bay leaves
- 3 qts. poultry stock
- 1 qt. veal glace
- Season the oxtail gently with salt and pepper.
- Heat a large SS rondeau and brown in batches in a single layer.
- Remove each batch to a deep hotel pan.
- Deglaze the rondeau with one cup of water and immediately add the remaining ingredients.
- Bring to a boil and pour over the oxtail.
- Add cold water to cover if necessary.
- Top with parchment paper and cook uncovered in a 350 degree oven until tender, approximately 3 hours.
- Allow to cool at room temperature for 60 minutes before transferring oxtails to a clean hotel pan.
- Strain the braising liquid over the tails and discard the aromatics and herbs.
- Cool rapidly and store in the braising liquid overnight.
TO FINISH THE RAGU
- Strain the liquid from the tripe and the oxtail together into a clean pot and reduce by 2/3.
- Pick the meat from the oxtails and break into bite sized pieces.
- Slice the tripe into 1” slices 3 mm thick.
- Clean 1 can of tomatoes and run through the food mill
- Strain the reduced cooking liquid through a chinoise into a clean rondeau and add all the remaining ingredients
- Simmer the ragu to achieve the proper consistency
- Season to taste with the following ingredients (approximate quantities)
- 3 ea. cloves of garlic run through a microplane
- 1Tbs. Calabrian chili powder
- 1Tbs. Korean chili flake
- 1tsp. Cayenne pepper
- 2Tbs fresh ground black pepper