“I look around at everything I have now and it seems absolutely unbelievable.” When Natalie Young says those words near the end of the American Express commercial first broadcast during February’s Academy Awards, you can feel the sincerity.
That commercial allowed the rest of the world to get to know Young, the veteran kitchen pro and soulful force we know as Chef Nat, proprietor behind Downtown’s insanely popular Eat breakfast and lunch restaurant. Now that she’s shared her inspiring story of overcoming substance addiction—and considering her second Downtown restaurant, Chow, is coming soon to Fremont East—we dropped in for an early morning coffee chat with Nat, just to catch up on things, and get a little inspiration, too.
Did you know the American Express commercial was going to take that approach? I didn’t know what it was going to be about. When we started [filming], the crew came to my house and took all my stuff out except my couch, and the director told everyone else to leave and sat me down and asked, “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” Then I was like, “Oh sh*t. This is not about Eat.”
But I’ve been getting ready 15 years for this. It is a little bit putting your sh*t out there, but I just did my thing and I was very happy how it turned out. And the first day after the Oscars when it came out, a 19-year-old girl from South Carolina sent me an e-mail saying she had 30 days of sobriety and she was struggling and she saw the commercial on Hulu and it helped her stay sober for another day. So if that’s all that happens from this, I’m good.
But that isn’t the only thing that has happened. I just went to Drexel University to accept this [Outstanding Media Award] at this Young People in Recovery conference. People have started these great recovery groups at different universities and even recovery high schools. It’s very, very necessary, if you think about how many people we just watch die. And think about how people are entertained by that tragedy, from Amy Winehouse and Anna Nicole Smith to Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston and on and on and on. So I’m so glad I did the commercial.
You opened Eat with Downtown Project in 2012, before many restaurants and small businesses popped up in the area. How do you feel about Eat being looked at as a model of success Downtown? Believe it or not, I don’t think of things like that. I literally mind my own business. I just come in every day and look at how I can make things better and try to stay true and authentic to what I want Eat to be and what experience I want customers to have when they come in here. I want people from all walks of life to come in here and be comfortable. Business at Eat has been gangbusters, beyond my wildest dreams. I was telling someone the other day that I would have been happy just to make enough to pay my rent. Like, really happy. So everything after that is a gift to me.
Your new restaurant, Chow, should be open this fall. What’ll that place be like? It’s a much different place, but you will see me all over it, my brand and my personality. It’s different from a business aspect because I’ve hired a chef and a general manager. I did Eat by myself, and that’s grown into a $2 million a year restaurant, banging numbers for a really small restaurant. I don’t know what’ll happen with Chow, but I’ll do my best and approach it the same way I did with Eat and put all my love into it.
You’ll be serving fried chicken and Chinese food at Chow, which is a confusing combination for some people but makes sense to me. Yeah, people have asked me how that works, too. It does make perfect sense. There are chicken and dumplings in Southern food and in Chinese food, fried wings in Southern and in Chinese food, chicken and rice in Southern food and in Chinese food. So there you go!
It will be like Eat in that it’s nothing you haven’t seen before, and it’s not intended to be, but it’s different and it’s good. We’re doing these amazing pickled jalapeños and corn muffins that go with the chicken. It will have a window in the alley so you can do late-night grab and go or stand out there and eat, and I’ll be playing Led Zeppelin. ... Twenty-five years ago I wanted to do fried chicken and play Led Zeppelin in a tiny place with like two tables and a counter and a pinball machine and mismatched chairs. I’m so excited!