Interview: Chef Nathan Copeland
It doesn’t take long to see that Chef Nathan Copeland is at home in the kitchen. Whether he is rattling off a recipe or describing searing techniques, he speaks the language of food as a true culinary expert. I had the wonderful opportunity to interview Chef Nathan Copeland in the kitchen of his restaurant, Victoria Rose, and surprisingly turned into a teaching experience when Nathan had me put on a uniform and took me to school.
Inner Fat Man: When did you first learn to cook?
Nathan Copeland: When I was about 8 years old, my mom bought my first cookbook and the first thing I made out of there was eggnog (non-alcoholic, of course). Then at about 9 and 10 years old I would watch Julia Child. Of course I didn’t know she had everything prepared and ready to use so I would race around the kitchen frantically looking for ingredients and trying to keep up with her. [laughs]
IFM: When did you get serious about becoming a chef?
NC: In college, I was working for my family learning to graft trees and the person I was learning this from was good friends with Jon Koobation, owner of Jon’s Bear Club in Reedley, CA. I was 19 and she introduced me to Jon and he offered to let me help with their caterings. I was still going to school, helping with caterings, and cooking for friends and one day Jon looks at me and tells me I need to find a restaurant to work in – “you have the knack, now you need to see if this is really something you want to do.”
So I went to work at the Elbow Room with Kent Speck in Fresno, CA. When I walked in, he said “you’ll either love it or hate it.” I loved it! Since then I’ve worked at Elbow Room, Upstairs Downtown, and Max’s Bistro while in Fresno before going to culinary school in San Francisco. From there I moved to Washington D.C. where I worked at Caucus Room and Equinox. I also did some staging on my days off to learn new techniques and work under some great chefs – Jose Andres, Morou Ouattara – and I also worked at some fun restaurants like Comic Ping Pong, Buck’s Fishing and Camping – which don’t sound like they have anything to do with food but Buck’s was the most straightforward organic restaurant I’ve ever been to. We’d get up at 5am to go the farmer’s market for fresh ingredients every day. From there, I helped a friend open a restaurant and then I missed the west coast so I moved back. A couple of years later, I opened Victoria Rose.
IFM: Is there anything you would have done differently in your education?
NC: I don’t feel like I bounced around enough or experienced enough different styles and techniques. I tried to pack as much as I could into a tight window.
IFM: How are you connected to other chefs around Fresno, CA?
NC: One of the things I find interesting is that a lot of the chef’s around Fresno can trace their roots back to Sharon Alexander and Roy Harland while working at Upstairs Downtown. There are a lot of us that can trace their roots to Roy and then there are a lot of us that can trace our roots to Sharon and Roy. I worked under both during my time at Upstairs Downtown and so did quite a few other chefs around Fresno.
IFM: You worked at the Caucus Room in Washington D.C. for a while, how did you like it?
NC: One of the most expensive dishes I ever made for someone was at Caucus Room. He ordered a 2lb lobster, bone-in 32oz Kansas City Strip and a bone-in 16oz filet. It was a $180 entree, with sides, and he ordered a $500 bottle of wine.
We also had quite a few politicians and celebrities stop in. Serena Williams was there and we even had Bill Cosby show up one time. Funny story, we went out and bought some Jello and served it to Bill Cosby and he thought it was hilarious. He came in to the kitchen and took some pictures with us.
IFM: What is your favorite cuisine?
NC: It would probably be Italian and Basque. Basque food is something I’ve always loved and my appreciation of Italian grew ever since I cooked under Sharon Alexander at Upstairs Downtown. We made all the pasta by hand and it was amazing.
I also like a lot of the fusions. There’s a place in New York that does a Cuban/Chinese fusion style that you wouldn’t think would go together but it is absolutely delicious!
IFM: What is the weirdest thing you’ve ever cooked?
NC: Bird’s nest soup. It’s from Thailand and they take these mud-thatch bird’s nests and reduce them down and get the loogie out. It’s the bird spit, essentially.
IFM: What is the worst experience you’ve ever had with food?
NC: I wasn’t really paying attention to what I was ordering and I ended up with lengua tacos. When I bit into it, I realized what I had done and when tongue is not what you’re expecting, it’s quite a shock.
IFM: What is the weirdest request you’ve received at your restaurant?
NC: “We want our steak raw.” They wanted a filet mignon brought out, not even rare or warmed up. It was just bizarre to see a raw filet sitting there with all the other cooked filets.
There are a few places I’ve been where people brought in raw ingredients (fish, shrimp, etc) and ask us to prepare it. Someone brought us shrimp and a coconut and asked us to make coconut shrimp.
IFM: Do you have any favorite ingredients or special ingredients?
NC: I tend to use thyme and garlic a lot.
IFM: Do you cook when you go home?
NC: If I don’t eat at the restaurant, it’s usually pizza. [laughs]
IFM: When you go out to eat in Fresno, where are some of your favorite places?
NC: Cracked Pepper or Trelio are pretty good options.
Cooking with Chef Nathan and having the opportunity to cook in a true restaurant kitchen was an awesome experience. After this, house kitchens clearly inferior! The time flew by in a flurry of whisking and searing while hearing about his unique experiences from chefs at some of the best restaurants. This was a thoroughly enjoyable experience and I look forward to getting another opportunity to cook with Chef Nathan.
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