Zoe Nathan Looks Ahead in LA
Co-owner and head baker of an acclaimed Santa Monica restaurant group, the ICE alum reflects on seven restaurants, family and what’s next.
Zoe Nathan (Culinary, ‘01) turned away from male-dominated, nighttime kitchen life when she found strong, tough women like herself in pastry. Now co-owner and head baker of the Rustic Canyon Family of Restaurants, she is grateful for everything cooking has given her since she decided she wanted to make a career of working with her hands.
“I was getting a liberal arts college education in New York, and I was passing out from boredom when someone was talking about their feelings in a writing class,” Zoe says. “I realized I am not good sitting down and I needed to figure out something to do with my hands.”
Since she’d already tried and disliked fine art, she thought a culinary career path was the natural next step. With her parents’ support, she left the New School and enrolled in Peter Kump’s New York Cooking School (now the Institute of Culinary Education) when she was 18 years old.
“It really resonated with me from the moment I started cooking,” Zoe says. “Everyone who worked there was really sweet and kind and that was a really nice introduction to the industry. They gave a really nice overview and I felt like I had the tiniest bit of knowledge of a lot of things, so I didn’t feel like I was going into the industry totally blind.”
After graduation, Zoe spent time at Lupa in New York, where she learned how to butcher and then worked as garde manger. When she left New York, Zoe traveled around Europe, expanding her palate as she ate. Then she returned home to Los Angeles, where she worked on the line at Venice icon Joe’s Restaurant. Zoe next moved to San Francisco to work at Traci Des Jardins' Jardinière.
“That’s when I started to realize that night kitchen work wasn’t really for me. It was old-school and male-dominated in a way that I was kind of over before it started,” Zoe says. “I used to walk by Tartine Bakery all the time and I’d see a bunch of girls who looked like me with tattoos and who didn’t smile right away – they were my kind of girls.”
After a persistent effort, Zoe finally secured a job at Tartine and everything clicked for her.
“The women I worked with were amazing. It was still tough and hard and really physical, all the things I liked about cooking, but there was a gentler, kinder, more female touch to the whole thing and that just made sense to me,” she says.
She spent two years baking and learning at Tartine before moving back to Los Angeles, where she was the opening baker at a couple of restaurants before she eventually got a job as the pastry chef at Rustic Canyon, the celebrated Santa Monica restaurant where she met her now-husband, owner Josh Loeb.
Zoe and Josh quickly fell in love and got married soon after meeting. Together, they opened Huckleberry Bakery & Café, the project Nathan considers her baby, in 2009. The couple hasn’t stopped since.
In 2010, Zoe and Josh opened Sweet Rose Creamery, an ice creamery that now has five locations in Los Angeles, and in 2011, they debuted Milo + Olive, a neighborhood pizzeria and bakery. In 2014, Nathan came out with her cookbook, “Huckleberry: Stories, Secrets, and Recipes From Our Kitchen.” The couple opened Cassia, a Southeast Asian brasserie, in 2015 and Tallula’s, an ingredient-driven, Mexican restaurant in 2017. They also own and operate Esters Wine Shop & Bar.
“We now have seven restaurants and three kids. We work together and we play together and have built a life I’m really proud of,” Zoe says of her relationship with Josh. “We have over 450 employees at this point and we know everybody and we pride ourselves on being good bosses and making sure everyone has health insurance and a liveable wage.”
On top of keeping seven restaurants running and winning awards (Zoe was a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Pastry Chef in 2009, and Zoe and Josh were semifinalists for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur in 2018), Nathan switched to exclusively organic ingredients in all the restaurants about five years ago.
“We use only organic ingredients from the baking soda to the meat. It was an uphill battle and sourcing weird, esoteric ingredients was almost impossible, but finally we’re there,” she says. “We try our very hardest to be good people and to support good farmers. We try to affect the world in a positive way.”
Aside from opening what Zoe hopes will be Rustic Canyon Family’s last restaurant, Birdie G’s, and working on a children’s cookbook with her kids, she is searching for ways to continue changing the world for the better.
“One nice thing that one of our managers always says to our servers is that we’re blessed enough to be feeding people who have already eaten today. We feed people who have already eaten, which gives you perspective,” Zoe says. “The next challenge to Josh and me and anyone who is graduating and wants to come into food is how to feed people in a similar way who haven’t eaten yet today. I think that’s the next level for all of us. I don’t know what that means yet, but I hope we can use our passions to do something good.”
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