Nate Appleman, executive chef at San Francisco’s acclaimed A16 and SPQR restaurants, didn’t inherit his culinary chops from his parents. “They don’t cook,” says the chef. However, Appleman’s father did pass on another lifelong passion. When Mr. Appleman, a physician, returned from a business trip with a small spider inked on his leg, the future chef, then only 4, was in awe. “It made such a huge impression on me. I wantedone right away,” says Appleman. He had to wait 13 years, though, until he had a tribal mask the size of a basketball inked across his back at 17. “Of course, it’s the only one I don’t like,” he says. Appleman estimates that he’s sat in the tattoo chair more than 40 times since then, marking most of his upper body with images like flames and sea horses.
Strangely, none of the tattoos reflect his work in the kitchen, a vocation that has earned Appleman a steadily swelling wave of acclaim. He’s a finalist for the James Beard rising star chef of the year award. His cookbook, A16, won best first cookbook from the International Association of Culinary Professionals. And he was named one of Food & Wine’s best new chefs of 2009.
He decided to pursue a career in the kitchen not long after he became a pint-size ink enthusiast. “I was about 6 when I decided to be a chef,” says Appleman. But his specialty didn’t come into focus until halfway through his program at the Culinary Institute of America, when students are required to take a butchering course. “When I opened my restaurant, I made it my mission to get in whole animals and break them down myself. It’s a lost art,” says Appleman with pride.
Fans of his restaurants enthuse about his way with fire-roasted meats, but he may be even more famous for his perfect Neapolitan-style pizzas. In addition to being an expert butcher, Appleman is one of the only certified pizzaiolo in the United States. He made thousands of pies in pursuit of his certification, and the tender-crisp pizzas that he shapes by hand and cooks to a lightly blistered perfection in his wood-fired ovens are considered by many to be even better than those found in Italy.
Dividing his time between his restaurants (he has a third, Urbino, in the works in San Francisco, and an outpost of A16 opening in Tokyo) and his young family is a challenge for the chef. But Appleman is ready for the day when his son, now only 1, asks to be taken for his first tattoo. “I’ll let him,” he says. “But he’ll have to let me pick it out. His, unlike mine, will have to be a good one.”