Photo Credit: Emily Patrick
Nathan Brand came to Athens to study English at the University of Georgia. Although he has always wanted to be a writer, he became frustrated with literary studies and left school. Now, he works as a cook at The National, and he finds a strong and profound connection between literature and food. He has even begun writing recipes and other food-focused pieces. He is considering returning to school to finish his degree, but he feels strongly attached to his culinary studies as well. In an ideal world, he says, he would be in Paris, London or Copenhagen next year studying under one of Europe’s acclaimed Michelin chefs.
Flagpole: Could you explain what you do for a job?
Nathan Brand : Oh, it is really the best job I’ve ever had, and that’s really why I haven’t gone back to school: because it’s so hard to leave, even for, you know, 10 hours a week. It totally took me by surprise. It was an ad in Craigslist. I found out later—I heard about the opening [by] word of mouth downtown. I’ve always wanted to work at The National. I’d probably turned in five resumes—I knew they were doing something special—and they never called me back. I’d always wanted to be a server over the years, and then I finally heard that they were hiring for cooks, and I was like, “Okay, I’ll check it out.”
FP: Had you ever been a cook before?
NB: I had never cooked anything in my life. Not even in my life. Me and my brother were like Jacob and Esau: I would trade anything for him to cook breakfast for me. I couldn’t deal with it. I couldn’t scramble eggs, and then all of a sudden, here I was in this fast-paced [environment]. As soon as I found out about the opening, I got interested in cooking sort of overnight. I suddenly realized that so many of my favorite memories from being a child and growing up were about food. I spent summers in New York and Idaho when I was a kid, so one of my favorite meals was rainbow trout in Idaho. We would go catch them. And I vividly remember being served a gyro in an upside-down frisbee at some terrible Greek restaurant that my grandpa took me to. So, I started to realize that I had all these really cool food memories, and I started to get interested in the intellectual and the thoughtful side of food, so I grabbed a cookbook—The French Laundry [Cookbook]—and I was hooked. It was like reading an amazing story.
FP: That’s what I’d been wondering: as a former English major, do you think there is a connection between the way you experience food and the way you experience literature?
NB: I do now, but when I started I was so overwhelmed I couldn’t even think. I [had been] working at a coffee shop and a bakery, so I was kind of all over the place before I settled down and focused on just cooking. But I didn’t think so before: I thought that writing was writing and cooking and eating was cooking and eating. And maybe wine was the bridge between the two. But I never thought that you could think about food as much as you can think about literature, and that’s what has kept me going and kept me totally hooked.
FP: Could you explain what that connection is?
NB: I think that connection is creativity, and I’ve started to understand that flavors are kind of like words, and they can be put together beautifully, or they can go together in kind of a messy way. They can be very pure, or they can be kind of muddled. It’s all about technique, and that’s one of the things that writing and cooking have in common. I spent my whole life trying to be a writer. When I was a kid, that’s all I ever wanted to do was practice and practice and practice, so now I’m pretty good. But now, I feel the exact same way about cooking. I’ve had to practice and practice, and that was really discouraging at first, but I started to get better exponentially after awhile, and that’s an encouraging thing.
FP: You’re not from Athens originally, are you?
NB: I’m not. I’ve lived all over the country, and then Gwinnett for the longest time, which is kind of depressing to me, but I totally grew up in Gwinnett. That was another huge part of my sense memory as a kid. We had a huge garden that fed the whole family.
FP: People garden in Gwinnett?
NB: Well, my parents were, like, the only ones. We sold that house, and that garden’s gone, of course, but when I was a kid, I was home-schooled until I went to high school… A large part of my day was spent in the garden, and I hated every minute of it, but now I would give anything to go back and be a part of that.
FP: So, what do you think about Athens?
NB: Athens is one of the best places to be passionate and learn about something in the world. Everything’s cheap. Everyone is passionate about something. Everyone is doing something they love if they’re not students, especially. Usually it’s music, and sometimes it’s art, but probably third down on the list is cooking, since this is totally a service-driven economy. It’s really cool to be able to talk to other cooks about what you’re doing.
FP: You mentioned working for free or for low pay. Is that something you could do only in Athens, or would you find it gratifying anywhere?
NB: On the one hand, I do think it’s only that way in Athens and other select cities. In Athens—I live on Pulaski Street, in the best house I’ve ever lived in for so cheap, with a garden and chickens.
FP: Did you always know that you could work for a low wage and feel good about it, or did you arrive at that point gradually?
NB: I was very worried. I’ve been a server in the town for a long time, and you make very nice money for the town doing that, so I was very worried that I was going to run out of cash [when I became a cook]. But, I lived very cheaply for a year and a half—that’s how long I’ve been doing this—so I’ve been able to travel a lot. I’ve been to New York; I’ve been to Chicago; I’ve been to Charleston, Atlanta, Savannah, just because I’m not spending all my money here in town. I’d go there for food, and I’d go there for coffee because I’m a big coffee nerd, and I have learned so much. Every lesson has been amazing.
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