Food Matters Q&A: Chef Nate King on his 16-year run at Cache Cache
SURREAL. This is how chef Nate King sums up his last night at Cache Cache on Saturday, April 13. As afternoon fades into evening and staff bustles about in advance of its final winter-season service, King settles into the restaurant office for an exit interview. Here he shares thoughts on 16 years, many at the helm: What it takes to create a “well-oiled machine” in a hectic environment with sky-high standards, how a French-trained chef becomes an Italian pasta pro and what legacy he hopes to leave with his team.
This spring, King and his wife, Jenny, will pack up and leave Aspen for good. Destination: the fertile Pacific Northwest, where he plans to open a new venture in Bend, Oregon, with former Cache Cache co-workers and, possibly, a rockstar investor.
Wow, 16 years at Cache Cache … and tonight is your last supper.
I walked in, there was nobody in the kitchen yet, and it was kind of strange: Looking at the hot line (and knowing) it will be your last time cooking there. You take a mental picture of it and hope that’s what you can re-create in the future.
What was the atmosphere when you came aboard in October 2002?
I was hired as the sous chef, then gradually it turned into a creative role. I started doing specials pretty quickly. Chris (Lanter, chef since 2000) handed over the reins right away. Jodi (Larner, partner and general manager since 1989), too. It was…easier. Then the restaurant got busier—and more serious.
After such a long time here, you must have it dialed.
It is dialed. We’re a family. It’s like coming to work with your brothers each day, people you can rely on. I was able to hire some guys I’d worked with before I started here to do morning prep. They are the foundation. The well-oiled machine happened pretty quick.
So do you feel confident about the restaurant as you leave?
Of all the stuff going on in Aspen—the growth, new restaurants popping up, places closing—the kitchen staff at Cache Cache has stayed one of the most solid, reliable teams in town. The average tenure for the cooks is at least six years, and that’s on the low end. Chuy (Jesus Gomez) has been back there for almost all of the years of Cache Cache, like 30 of ’em! And Carmelo (Ramirez) at 15 years. It’s an amazing team.
Who will assume your role as Cache Cache executive chef?
Chris is jumping back into the chef/leadership role. He’s excited. He basically said I gave him a four-year notice—because we bought our house in Bend four years ago. He says he’s been mentally preparing.
You trained at the Culinary Institute of America at Hyde Park. How does a chef with a classical French background become a master of handmade Italian pasta?
The simplicity of Italian food draws me in, and it’s a great creative outlet. When you have a large menu, like we have here, there are a lot of core ingredients already around; you try to figure out how to use these ingredients somewhere else. They were doing one pasta when I got here. I said we need to get a machine. So I started training the guys in the morning. There was no pushback.
Why did you choose Bend, Oregon?
(Jenny and I) were on a road trip, headed to the coast and Bend just happened to be in the way. I’d heard of Bend because of Deschutes Brewery. It’s a cool little town with a great community. We bought a house, and rented it out. We will have never stayed in it when we get out there in May, but we’ve worked on it every offseason. And there’s skiing—Mount Bachelor, which has more acreage than Snowmass, it’s just wrapped around a cone.
And you plan to open a restaurant there?
There’s a window for the food that I do here at Cache Cache, but toned down. Right now Bend is built on pub food and brews. There’s a huge influx of people from nearby cities—Seattle, San Francisco, Silicon Valley, L.A., Portland—all moved for a better quality of life. They’ve been around good food and dining.
And there’s only one other Italian operator in Bend. Coming from a place that’s saturated! I’ll roll in…and roll pasta.
Do you have a team yet?
Bill Dockter, a previous Cache Cache co-worker, is signed on as a partner. And we may have a rock star investor.
Any ingredients you’re psyched to use there?
Fresh seafood and shellfish…crab, mussels, clams. I’m excited because fresh ingredients are more abundant. There’s a longer growing season. Just over the Cascades is crazy farmland, the Willamette Valley, surrounded by wine areas to the west and north in the Columbia River valley, Walla Walla.
What will you miss?
(Laughing) I’m gonna miss my mushroom spots! I’m leaving two caches behind: Cache Cache and my mushroom cache. I’ll definitely miss the mountains. Moab I’ll miss big time—I love the ’scape of the desert. I’ll miss the people, the industry community. But I won’t miss the guest-cheffing that goes on in this town.
Guest-cheffing by the clientele that comes in and likes to change everything. They look at our menu as a list of ingredients. But…we’re a provider of that service here.
Since this is your farewell, what do you hope is your mark on Cache Cache?
Moving the restaurant to using the highest quality ingredients, and really getting in touch with our local farmers: Two Roots Farm, and those who grow specifically for us. We get comments that people seek us out for the pasta. That’s an ode to the work.
Any pre-service rituals you’ll DO tonight for the last time?
Morale building! My last pre-service. I’ve been letting Cesar (Vazquez), the new sous chef, take over. One thing I always tell them before we go into service, the last thing, every time: QUIET IN THE KITCHEN. Everyone gets a good laugh because it’s such a loud, bustling place, and you have to communicate all the time. But as soon as the doors open, it’s music off, all business back there. You want to hear the cooking.
How do you envision your first return to Aspen?
I’m excited to come back — on a trip! I’ll see what they have on the menu, but I’ll definitely have my king crab. And whatever pastas they come up with ….
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For anybody who lives here on the Western Slope, “Wireless” will likely conjure up some bad memories of winter trips westbound on Interstate 70, when Eisenhower Tunnel closures left you stranded, when you sit parked waiting for an accident to clear for hours worried you’d run out of gas, or — as is the case with Andy — when you took a bad detour or shortcut.