The only time Josh Nebe's heart isn't in his cooking is when it's on his sleeve. Usually the nicest guy in the room, Nebe seems to take life in stride. No problem is worth stressing about. Maybe it's his signature popped brimmed hat that brings him peace of mind. There's a magical quality about Josh, and not just because he was the opening chef at Unicorn. Yep. He's the guy who came up with the entire fair-themed, corn dog-and-elephant-ear menu back when Unicorn opened in early 2010. Even though Nebe left to become the sous chef at Marjorie, the menu has stuck around.
Photo by Julien Perry
Still young and fresh-faced, Nebe is unlike many chefs his age who already seem beleagured at 24-years-old. He's got that special undefined quality that makes people light up when they see him. He's an interesting guy whose love for cooking is palpable, even in the form of the written word.
SW: What's the story behind the hats? They've become your calling card.
Nebe: I was in Texas visiting my dad back in December 2009 and in the back of his truck there was this neon orange hat that read Arlington Range or something like that, and I thought it was cool so my dad gave it to me. And just to piss him off I popped the brim and threw it on and was like, 'What do you think?' He told me I looked stupid. I couldn't take it off after that.Before that orange hat, when I worked at Barrio, I used to wear an EG Wilson (a meat shop in Brier, WA) cap with a steer on it that I popped the brim on. I wear it all the time now. At Steelhead I wore a conductor's hat. I try not to wear them out in public that often because they're nasty little hats.
You just named a handful of restaurants you've worked in and the interview just started. Where all have you worked?
Ferrara on Vashon Island, which is now closed. I was 18-years-old and it was my first real grown-up cooking gig. I was at Brasa after that for five months. Also closed. It's where I worked my first hot station, I got beat up every day, and I commuted to Vashon and back for school. Then, Kevin stole me away to Steelhead Diner. I worked a brief stint at 94 Stewart, followed by Barrio and Unicorn.
What attracted you to Unicorn?
I got to make my own menu. I got to do something new. I got to do something nobody else had done. I don't know a lot of people who are willing to just totally be like, 'You know what? Screw it. Let's go make corn dogs.'
What kind of restaurants do you like to work in? Which ones are a turn-off?
Really high-volume restaurants, especially Mexican, I don't have any interest in. I mean, they're good to eat at, but I don't want to do that again cooking-wise. I'm having a whole lot of fun working at Marjorie where everything is project-oriented and it's these really wonderful flawless creations that took a lot of effort. It's about turning out something that when you put it out on the plate, the customer is already smiling. When you see them eating it you're like, 'Yes!', and your entire world blows up.
What's your favorite kind of food to make?
That's a hard question. Braise. There's nothing better than a braise. It's saucy, it's delicious. Every bite is something you want. My favorite style though ... I like sarcastic food. I think that's the best way to describe it. Food is fun. We're doing this dish at Marjorie right now that's a soft shell crab BLT but it's a little bit deconstructed so it's a nice big plate, aioli, seared soft-shell crab. Everybody wanted bread on it, but I just use bread crumbs. I could have done a sandwich, but I wanted to be sillier about it.
What's one of your most memorable dining experiences?
To this day, one of my favorite dining experiences was during the holidays when my family would gather and we'd go to the German deli and there would be this spread of just all different kids of rye bread and smoked and cured meats and cheeses and pickles and onions. Everybody had their own little wooden board and we made our own open-faced sandwiches. It was wonderful.
Do you have the desire to have your own place someday?
I would love to have my own place. The idea of actually having my own place is terrifying. It's a lot of money, a lot of life thrown into something. Later in life, yeah, I would love to have my own place. I can see it. Well, let's be honest. If somebody came up to me tomorrow and said, 'Do you want your own place right now?' I'd be like, 'Yeah. Let's do it.'
And what kind of food would be served at your restaurant?
I would love to do ice cream. I'm not good enough at ice cream, though. That's like my secret hobby. The kind of food I would cook at my own place - that's really to be determined. I want a small kitchen, like Marjorie, three or four cooks that are there on the same days and off on the same days and they form a collaboration. I just really like to cook. As long as I'm cooking I'm happy.
Check back tomorrow for part two of this week's Grillaxin with Josh Nebe.