Behind the All-Star Chopping Block With Nate Appleman

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This Sunday’s episode of Chopped All-Stars features four celebrity chefs with serious culinary chops. Anita Lo is a longtime fixture on the New York City restaurant scene, Beau MacMillan helms an applauded restaurant in Phoenix, pastry chef Jacques Torres is often credited with creating the best chocolate chip cookie on the planet and Nate Appleman has run successful restaurants on both coasts and has a James Beard Award (for Rising Star Chef) under his belt.

In anticipation of his Chopped appearance, Nate sat down to chat with us about competing for his son, how this experience compared to his run on Season Two of The Next Iron Chef, and what motivated him to recently make the move from an upscale restaurant kitchen to… Chipotle? That’s right — visit New York’s Chelsea location and you just might score a burrito made by a celebrity chef.

Did competing on Chopped bring back memories of your experience on The Next Iron Chef, Season Two?

It did, it brought back a lot of memories, just the competition aspect of the whole thing. By doing The Next Iron Chef, I realized how much I missed competition like that; I mean like when you’re a kid and you compete in games or whatever it is. It brought back that desire to want to compete. It was just really fun to do.

Was Chopped very different from NIC?

The timing of everything is very different, not only that Chopped is just one day but the timing of the battle, it’s 20 and 30 minute rounds versus…I think the shortest Next Iron Chef challenge was 45 minutes. It’s also different because on The Next Iron Chef I felt like I was really competing for myself. This time I was competing for everybody out there who went through the same thing I went through with my son. I did it to raise money for his disease through the Kawasaki Disease Foundation. I felt like I was doing it for everyone besides me.

Was Chopped harder than you expected?

It is at least twice as hard as The Next Iron Chef. It truly, truly is. Here, they open the basket and go. It was mind-blowing. I was trying to peek in the basket to see what was in there; it is a real surprise. I’ve always been a fan of Iron Chef, so watching that and Chopped, I’d think, what would I do with that as quickly as possible? That ended up being something that helped me; I was used to thinking that way, in a very quick manner. Then again, actually putting that to the test is very different from sitting on your couch watching.

Advice to future Chopped contestants?

Go in with an open mind and don’t have anything pre-planned. That’s probably what everyone does; they go in with a plan and try to make the ingredients fit that mold. I’d go with an open mind, with nothing planned; cooking what the basket gives you. That’s how I approached the whole thing. I was cooking what I was dealt, flying by the seat of my pants.

Did you hesitate at all before signing on to compete?

No, because it was for a charity and I did it not even to win, but to raise awareness. Zero hesitation. I wanted to get the word out there and truly bring awareness to this rare disease. Any time something affects young children, it’s a major deal.

How was the camaraderie among the competitors in your round?

You would expect that people would be joking around, like the NBA All-Star game. There was zero joking around. These people were out to win! It was for a charity but it wasn’t one of those BS things. The people behind cooking truly were passionate about their charity.

Who did you see as your biggest competition?

Anita Lo, for sure. I saw Anita and I got a little worried. She’s a great, great cook. That’s what it takes. You can be the best competitor in the world but if you can’t cook, it doesn’t matter.

A few months back you left Pulino’s Bar and Pizzeria and are now working with Chipotle. Can we expect Appleman creations on the menu soon?

Working with Chipotle is not about necessarily coming up with new things. A lot of fast food companies out there, that’s their whole marketing scheme: What can we do next and market it? Chipotle is kind of the opposite. They know where their core strengths are and want to evaluate everything from top to bottom to see if it can be done better; if we can improve ingredients and produce. I only worked in New York for a year before this, but we are using at Chipotle the same top-quality ingredients as we did at Pulino’s. But we are charging $8 for a burrito. I love it and have never been happier. I am doing something that can touch millions of people. Believe it or not, it came together when I was competing on Chopped. When I was cooking from the baskets, creative juices were flowing and I was using my brain and I realized, I’m not loving what I’m doing at Pulino’s. Being on that show made me examine what I’m doing and realized I needed to make a change. It was like three days later that I said screw it, I’m leaving. It ended up being a crucial point in my career.

What’s next for you?

I’m going to continue working at Chipotle, doing various things that are top-secret [laughs]. I’m very excited to watch Chopped. I don’t have a TV, so I’m going to have to find somebody to have a viewing party. I’ll let my son watch TV this time. I usually don’t. He’s four.

Catch Round Three of Chopped All-Stars this Sunday at 9pm/8c and check back in with the FN Dish on Monday for a behind-the-scenes recap from host Ted Allen.

For more from Nate, follow @nappleman on Twitter.

Join the #Chopped conversation during Sunday's episode with @gzchef, Chopped judge (and Round Four All-Stars competitor!) Geoffrey Zakarian.

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