Our Wicked Healthy Interview Series features individuals who are making a big impact in the plant-based world and beyond. Today we’re featuring Nate Burrows, Sous Chef at Plant restaurant in Asheville, NC!
Instagram is a wicked awesome place for lots of things but, let’s face it, we’re just there for the food. Scrolling through plant-forward feeds filled with endless culinary talent reminds us of how strong the plant-based movement has become, and inspires us when we hit a wall, pushing us forward to do more. We can’t say for sure where the plant-based movement would be without instagram, but it’s definitely made it a more unified one, connecting chefs, home cooks, bloggers and the veg-curious in a unique and powerful way.
We’ve highlighted some of our favorite instagrammers before, and want to focus today on one specific account that gives us endless inspiration: @veganagoge (aka Nate Burrows) food photographer and Sous Chef at Plant restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina. We’re drawn to Nate’s work because it has a high-end but rustic look without that tweezified, pretentious feel. We think that plant-based should be beautiful and approachable, and Nate manages to expertly hit both in one shot. With dishes like this King Oyster Mushroom with Confit Potatoes and Grilled Broccolini, Ginger Pickled Pepino Melon and Caramelized Maitake with Toasted Fennel Seed, it’s chefs like Nate that are taking plant-based to the next level. For this reason and many more, seeing his latest creations pop up in our feed is always a breath of fresh air.
Because we admire Nate’s work, we wanted to learn a bit more about the person behind the feed. So we were wicked stoked to have the opportunity to virtually sit down with Nate to discuss a little more about his background and sources of inspiration. Read on to learn more about Nate’s unique approach to food, the meaning behind his instagram handle and see some of his gorgeous, inspired culinary creations!
When did you start cooking and how has it developed over the years to form your current culinary style? Did anyone or anything specifically have a strong influence on that?
When I was a kid I started cooking for myself out of a palate-driven necessity, and developed a love of food that quickly led me to the restaurant industry. It wasn’t that my hard-working parents didn’t cook, but providing quantity was their main priority because I lived in a large family, made even bigger by a houseful of friends. This, with my dislike of meat even at young age, meant I was happier to cook for myself than to eat with my family (sorry mom). As a teenager I began working in commercial kitchens because the pay was comparatively good, and admittedly, I was attracted to the hard work and hard party atmosphere. Inevitably I grew tired of the “wild kitchen life” but I didn’t get tired of cooking and I’ve never left the industry.
There are two things that shape my style that anyone can apply. The first is building an intuitive sense of food, and the best way to do this is exposure. You have to cook, eat, and experiment as much as possible. For me this comes from nearly two decades of working in many different kitchens, and from eating at as many restaurants as my time and wallet has allowed. The second, and most important to me, is cooking from a playful and whimsical place. When conceiving of a dish for a restaurant menu there are lots of things that have to be considered, none of which I have to worry about when making food to share on instagram. This leaves me free to cook comfort food one day, and challenge myself to pair unlikely components the next.
Are you a native southerner or have you lived elsewhere? How has where you lived impacted your cooking style?
I’ve lived in the south for the last ten years, and in New Hampshire/Vermont for the previous twenty-two. While both regions have undoubtedly shaped how I see food, most of what I’ve been trying to do lately, is to let go of what I’ve seen done before. The most fun I have in the kitchen is searching for new (to me) flavor combinations. I love taking different produce and using a combination of cook techniques and “bridging” ingredients to bring things together in a new way, while using some tried and true pairings as a foundation to hold a concept together.
Your instagram handle is “veganagoge” … can you explain to us the meaning behind that?
Ha! This unintentionally esoteric, and often mispronounced name has caught me so much grief from friends! I may have gone with something less cryptic and easier to pronounce if I’d known more than a handful of people would have ever seen my feed! But, being serious, it does speak to my goal pretty well. Anagoge is a Greek word used to describe a climb or ascent, and is often used spiritually. So, Veganagoge, or vegan anagoge, has two meanings for me. The first, of course, is that I’m attempting to elevate and showcase produce. This may be why you’ve described my food as approachable, because while I haven’t set any hard rules for myself, I don’t often use overly complex or transformative techniques. I don’t have a sous vide, vacuum chamber, or any other expensive equipment at home (unless you count my vitamix), so the food may be sometimes surprising in composition and pairings, but remains accessible, because for the most part, anyone could do it.
Without going too deep into a massive subject, Veganagoge also represents the ease on my conscience that comes from living a vegan lifestyle and my growth as a result. I didn’t truly know myself, or feel comfortable in my role in the world, until going vegetarian and eventually vegan, and while it can be discouraging sometimes to be so at odds with what is culturally normal, Veganism has helped elevate me to a more positive and mindful place.
We see that you are currently the Sous Chef at Plant restaurant in Asheville, North Carolina. Can you tell us a bit about Plant’s philosophy, menu and atmosphere?
Plant is different from anywhere else I’ve worked, and I’m lucky to have played a small part in shaping it into what it is today. It’s a vegan-owned, chef-driven, full service restaurant where mindfulness and compassion shape the business model and where the food is how we express this. We have a small, close-knit staff, a fifty-seat dining room, and an open kitchen. This keeps us connected with our guests. We in the kitchen see that every plate goes to a person that could be us, and the customer sees that human hands are crafting their dinner with hard work and practiced cooperation. It also means there are no secrets; you can watch us cook and ask whatever questions you like.
As a vegan establishment we of course don’t use any animal products; we simply don’t see them as food. We buy the highest quality and most local foods we can, so the menu is vegetable-focused and mostly “healthy” by its nature. That said, Plant isn’t a “health food” restaurant. Driven by our need for deliciousness, Plant is a bold and full-flavored, artistic culinary experience. The owner and Executive Chef Jason Sellers has a palate unlike anyone I’ve met and I’m fortunate to call him a long-time friend and mentor. Jason’s taught me not only how to be a better chef by fully respecting the ingredients and finding creative balance in all aspects of a dish, but he’s demonstrated how to be a respectful and honest businessperson, how to show compassion for the guest, the employee, the animals, and the planet, and also how to work harder and smarter through pure effort and an always mindful approach to ergonomics and organization. All of this translates into a dining experience that I’m not going say will change how you see vegetables, but we’re certainly going to try.
Can you describe the plant-based food scene in Asheville? What are the best parts and what are some areas that can be improved upon?
I’m happy to say the plant-based scene is strong and constantly growing; we’ve a large vegan community in Asheville and it’s well reflected in the market. There are lots of exclusively plant-based establishments to choose from, and any self-respecting and locally owned restaurant is familiar with plant-based food and either provides options or can easily modify what they have. That’s the best part; we always have choices. A quick lunch, a date night, a cold pressed juice, a coffee and a bagel, creative sushi, and much much more, all readily available in this very small city. The only thing missing is a late night craft cocktail joint with vegan snacks and small plates, for those long weeks when you lock up the restaurant late at night, and need a strong drink and for someone else to do the cooking.
Describe to us a dish you currently have in your head, but haven’t made yet.
I’m lucky enough that I can just immediately make whatever comes to mind! So, while I don’t have a dish that I’m working on, I do have a direction I’m excited to go in. The wild food scene is strong in Asheville and I’m fortunate enough to know an excellent forager. Since finding a large volume and steady supply isn’t necessary when making dishes at home, I’ll be able to work with small amounts of both the common, and the even more fun, but less common wild edibles. I’m hoping this growing season that I can find the time to create, eat, and share dishes that mix as many wild and locally farmed foods as possible. A great example of this are these sunflower seed cheese and wild chive-stuffed morels, with braised wild carrots, and quick-pickled wild mustard buds and flowers.
Describe to us the best dish you’ve ever made.
I’m totally going to dodge this question because I’m hoping my best dish is one I’ve yet to make. Progress for me comes from my own dissatisfaction with my work; it drives my partner crazy for her to hear me constantly criticizing my food. But, it’s important that I’m my harshest critic, so I can keep progressing as a cook. I think you can tell when a chef doesn’t fully develop a dish, doesn’t come back to it over and over until it’s perfect. And while I may never make a perfect dish, or be comfortable calling one my best, I’m terrified of being complacent. It’s the fastest way to become irrelevant and lose the love for what you do.
Can you share with us one of your favorite food photos and any story that may be behind it?
A recent dish that I wouldn’t call my best, but that was certainly fun, was a Kuding tea plate I did as a challenge from a friend. This hard-to-love tea has delicious smokey and sweet notes hidden under a very heavy layer of bitter and I needed to find a way to bring out its best qualities. I made a sunchoke puree with maple, hazelnut milk, and the kuding tea. The natural nutty flavor of the sunchokes is amplified by the hazelnuts, making a great base for the smokey tea and maple flavors, while the maple helps balance the bitterness of the tea. The addition of toasted and crushed fennel seeds to an already umami-rich caramelized Maitake creates a savory cutlet reminiscent of “sausage”. Roasting some black grapes and Cerignola olives together mellows the sweetness of the grapes and amplifies the fruity flavor of the olives. Lightly pickled black radish provides an acidic pungency that cuts through all the deeper sweet and savory elements. And lastly, pear blossoms were added for their floral notes that help balance an otherwise heavier experience.
Finally, what is your favorite wicked healthy dish?
I’ve a real weak spot for spicy noodles loaded with veggies. Any kind at all. It could be a simple Italian pasta, a ramen bowl, a Pad Thai, or anything in between, and it’ll be pure comfort food to me. You throw some carefully cooked mushrooms in the mix and I’m set!