Chef Life: 26-Year-Old Nathan Sandknop, Chef De Cuisine at the Chase Park Plaza

 In Food, Interviews

If you journey to The Chase Park Plaza Royal Sonesta Hotel in the Central West End and dine at one of the historic hotel’s restaurants, including the Chase Club, The Preston or Sidecar, you’ve likely tasted the culinary stylings of 26-year-old Chef de Cuisine Nathan Sandknop. A St. Louis native, Sandknop grew up mostly in southern California before returning to the Midwest in high school, where he busily began taking on menial jobs at fast food restaurants and mom-and-pop restaurants.

Sandknop took on his first job as a line cook at River City Casino’s 1904 Steak House, and later creating menus for the Chase Park Plaza. His latest dishes include playful, down-to-earth takes on modern delicacies: the foie gras donut at The Preston, for example. Sandknop also spent five months in Antarctica, serving as a sous chef on McMurdo Station.

How did you get involved in the restaurant industry?
I really fell into it in high school. One moment that stands out to me was when our class had several teachers and counselors encouraging us to get a three- and five-year plan together. They gave us resources about possible career fields to choose, but almost everything sounded boring to me and likely required sitting in front of a computer all day. But I saw “culinary arts,” and thought I’d get into it, not knowing at all what cooking really entailed.

I started when I was really young, working in fast food. Pretty soon I’d had had enough of that. I worked at some mom-and-pop restaurants and also worked as a dishwasher at Ponderosa. I realized that wasn’t the side I wanted to be on. The cooks always looked like they were having so much fun.

How did you end up coming to St. Louis?
I was actually born here, then my parents moved us to Torrance, California. I lived there until I was about 14, then moved back to the St. Louis area with my mom and started high school. We lived in Imperial, Missouri, about an hour south of St. Louis. I definitely go back there and visit. But St. Louis is home. If I ever move somewhere else, I’ll probably always come back here.

What was your next restaurant job after working in fast food?
I worked as a prep cook and dishwasher at the restaurant at River City Casino, which is now called 1904 Steak House. I convinced the chef there to take a chance on me, which was really unheard of for someone with my level of experience at that time. I’d get in every day at 8 or 9 a.m., clock out at 4 or 5 p.m and then stay after to learn. I was also enrolled at Jefferson College in Hillsboro, Missouri, in the culinary arts program. The guys would let me get on the station and cook, and I got to see how they organized themselves. I got to make some salads, plate some food and eventually worked my way into a line position there.

What are a few things that make your experience with The Chase Park Plaza special, and some menu items you’re proud of?
I actually started my own micro-greenery here. I grow arugula and mustard greens hydroponically, and I’m also going to plant kale, cauliflower and purple broccoli. In about four weeks, we’ll have two beehives with our own honey. There’s no corporate dictation. I run my ideas past the executive chef, and if he likes it, that’s what we do.

I also just rolled out a few new menu items for The Preston. One is my take on a North African egg dish called Shakshouka, often cooked in a spicy tomato sauce. To make the dish, I made lamb meatballs stuffed with goat cheese and grated cured egg yolks over the top. It takes about four or five days to cure the yolks, but when you’re done, it’s almost like a cheese texture. That’s an example of how I present things in a playful way. The dish is called lamb meatballs with shakshouka sauce and cured egg yolk.

We also have a charred octopus dish, which is something we’ve been known for at The Preston ever since we opened. We serve it with a brown-butter gnocchi, smoked paprika vinaigrette and a sunchoke puree. It’s really, really good. And we’re also doing a foie gras donut with cherry sauce, and we actually pipe a foie gras mousse into the donut.

I’ll definitely be here for awhile. Everything here is in the beginning stages.

You’ve now been at The Chase for about five years, and you took a leave of absence to work as an executive chef at McMurdo Station, the U.S.-based research center in Antarctica. How did that opportunity come about?
I was feeling stagnant here at the time, and I was looking to get out. I felt like opportunities for upward mobility had already been filled. I was watching all kinds of travel documentaries, and I watched one called “Antarctica: A Year on Ice.” I did some research and found the contracting company that was responsible for staffing there, and I applied for a job. A few months later, I got an email from an executive chef of the program who wanted to do an interview with me. I still thought, ‘I don’t stand a chance.’ And three weeks after the interview, I had an offer letter. I just thought, ‘I have to do this.’

To get there, I flew from L.A. to New Zealand to McMurdo on a military transport plane. I was there for about five months. The time of the year I was down there was the “summer” season, and the sun was up 24 hours a day.

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What was it like, living and working in Antarctica?

It was a blast. You work six- to 10-hour days, but everyone who lives and works down there is so awesome, open and welcoming. It’s a different world. It’s so much fun being around people like that. Many have been to all seven continents and like, 200 countries. With food and cooking, you have to make due with what you have. There’s always enough food on the station to last three years. Every week, we pull out what we need and it thaws in our walk-ins. As the sous chef, I planned out how much of everything we’d make and how many people we’d expect to feed in each period.

There were also times where we’d get fresh fruits and vegetables flown in from New Zealand whenever there was room on the plane. We call them “freshies.” I think the longest stretch we went was six weeks without any fresh fruits or vegetables. So when you do finally get an apple or a banana or an avocado, you have such an appreciation for it. That feeling has never escaped me. No food goes wasted, and any waste created on-island gets removed.

One of my favorite places to hike was Observation Hill. It was right outside “town,” as we called it. It’s a 900-foot climb, and you could see for miles because most of Antarctica is flat. It’s all covered in ice and snow, so there are so many different shades of light.

When you came back home, how had your perspective changed?
That appreciation for everything has really stuck. A few days after I got home, I woke up and there were birds chirping in the morning. I had almost forgotten where I was. There aren’t birds chirping in Antarctica. You miss things like rain on the roof, thunderstorms, green trees and squirrels. I’m also so much more playful with food now. I want to present things in a way that people haven’t seen before, with the freshest ingredients.

What is one of the best meals you’ve ever had?
One that sticks out most recently was in L.A., where I was visiting a buddy of mine. My wife and I went out there for a weekend trip. We went to a high-end hotel, kind of like the equivalent of The Chase. You go through this grand lobby and take an elevator all the way to the top to a restaurant that’s in this tiny room, almost like a dive bar. We had some of the best tacos, chips and salsa I’ve ever had in this barely lit restaurant, with incredible views of the city. You could tell the salsa was made fresh every day. It was a really cool dinner that I didn’t expect.

Photograph courtesy of Nathan Sandknop.

Cover photograph courtesy of Monika Grabkowska.

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