Nick Castleberry is back in town. This wandering chef has worked at Sitka and Spruce under Matt Dillon and helped out Cormac Mahoney at Tako Truck at Madison Park Conservatory. After stirring up the local food scene with his pop-up, Castleberry's at the Summit at Summit Pub, the zany, energetic chef surprised us all by taking off for his hometown of Little Rock, Arkansas.
Photo by Tiffany Ran
Now having been back for a year, Castleberry is settling back into Seattle, but not sitting still. He is booked for the summer at Skillet Street Food, but keeping his schedule and mind open. Though he is learning to drive the food truck now, Castleberry reckons that a brick and mortar option is not unlikely in the future.SW: Most people assume that chefs are rooted to one place, one restaurant. For you, taking on contract jobs, what does your schedule look like?
Castleberry: My schedule fluctuates a lot. I've signed myself up to pretty much stick with Skillet [Street Food] for the summer. That's my base schedule. They make the schedule. I kind of just show up and go, "Where am I going, what am I doing today?" I like to just kind of get in where I fit in.
As far as anything on the side, if my phone rings and something is worth my while and I think that's it's fun, sure, why not? I take it on. Everyone kind of works with me. I'm with Skillet this summer so that takes priority. Not to say that I'll write anything off that's worth my while if they're willing to work with my schedule. I just want to learn and have fun for the summer. When I'm doing my thing, it takes all my time and there is no room for any of that. So right now I'm kind of floating, just gearing myself up for a fun time and to have a nice summer.
Is Skillet your first food truck gig?
It's the first street food I've ever done. I'm very versatile so it's not the biggest thing to step into a situation and take it over. I'm learning how to park the trailer and things that I haven't done. I'm pretty happy about it.
These guys go hard. I'm usually working with a team of three including myself and anyone can usually work any position on it. We can all switch and break each other off one spot if it's going to be a bit too much at one time.
This past Sunday, we were at Chateau Ste. Michelle for some wine get-together. Kids were out there, [and] there was music and probably five other [food] trucks. We were looking at a line of probably 100 [people] consistently for three hours. We sold out an hour and a half before time was up.
What was behind your decision to start a pop-up?
It was more like a statement thing and a test for me. I'm a dreamer. I want everybody to be able to eat for $8 of less and support all the things I believe in supporting. That's a dream I have. We're not there yet, silly me. I did the best I could. What I mean by statement pop-up was that I just wanted to show everybody what it could be. Not that we're there financially or as a society, it's just where my head was at. I just wanted to make a point. It wasn't about the money or anything. It was just a test for me. I just wanted to see what I could get away with. Cormac was just finishing Tako Truck as I was bringing Castleberry's at the Summit. That was what I did for four and a half months.
What did you get out of the experience?
I gained experience in what it takes to approach a business — what would be needed in order to really pull off a brick and mortar or to go bigger, what I could do with myself, what I'm willing to deal with, what's it going to take or what the price points will be, a lot of things!
I learned a lot, a great deal. I took a lot away with me. I keep it all in here (points to his head) for future endeavors.
Could future endeavors include Castleberry's the restaurant?
I would like to think brick and mortar. Maybe not Castleberry's; I think that's a little bit passé at this point.
I like creating things and I get bored quick so I want to be able to create things and go, "Oh this is cool. Now onto what's next." I'd like to get my hands in the creative process of it, create something good that's going to run itself, and then move on — not necessarily leaving but to stay on the creative side of things. I like creating things, making things that benefit people and then, I'm on to the next.
You were doing pretty well here in Seattle. What inspired you to take off?
I maybe kind of surprised a lot of people with that. You know, I tend to keep my personal business to myself but after 15 years, I wanted to be with my family, take a break, and catch up. While I was in Little Rock, Arkansas, I knew I couldn't be content working there for someone for x amount of time. I really didn't know how long I was going to be there. I was indirectly trying to help them grow in their own manner.
I did a community dinner for the neighborhood as kind of my intro. It was Neighborhood Appreciation Night or something for the community. I wrote a nice letter to the neighborhood to tell them what I hoped to accomplish and where I was coming from. It was received very well. Not to say that it wasn't hard and all.
I must've contacted over 100 farmers before I even left on my flight. They must've thought I was crazy like, "I'm moving back and I want to meet you!" It was a lot to take on but that's how I work. It was culturally shocking to say the least, but I also know how to word it being that I'm from there. I knew where they were coming from. I never lost touch with my roots, where I'm from. Trying to educate is not necessarily trying to be too fancy or pretentious. It's more about how to word things the right way for them.
How did that work out?
They were receptive and I showed them that I could still do what I did back there (Seattle) here, and further the local food scene without being pretentious or coming across like this hot shot from Seattle. You know, all the stereotypes you deal with when you go from one place to another.
The guy at Dunbar (middle school), who works with the kids at the school that I went to when I was a kid, now has a garden project. The band that plays there were friends of mine from 20 years ago. So the way I spent my life has really been full circle. I get the most out of life or I enjoy when I get a full, rounded experience.
When I'm there visiting family, I didn't necessarily have to do anything. I love to cook, and I wanted to do something positive while I was there. I think I kind of light a fire under some of those chefs' asses. It got their attention. I think I made a dent, and I think I helped the community where I was born and raised, and I'm happy to do it.
Did your experience at Sitka help shape your passion for local cuisine and ingredients?
It was before that. I was at Supreme in 2002. That was the first time that I met Jeremy Faber, Christina Choi — rest in peace — and Matt Dillon. These guys came from the Herbfarm and came to work for Mohamed [Souaiaia] at Select Gourmet [Foods] and Corfini [Gourmet]. [They were] just kind of getting Foraged and Found off the ground. We all spent quite a few years together living under the same roof, working together — you name it, we did it.
Matt and Jeremy, I got to go foraging with them. I'm a kid from Little Rock, Arkansas. They took me out to go clam digging, to go foraging for mushrooms, to teaching me about how to pick a nettle and what to do with it. Christina taught me how to braise dandelion greens to get the bitterness out of it, to make the best damn dandelion tart you can make. I probably taught them what it was like to be from the South, to be a fisherman from Alaska, to go giggin' frogs at 2am in the morning wearing a headlamp and how to cook them frog legs. For me, it all started with meeting [them]. I can't thank those guys enough.