Chad White | A Long Journey Home
In late 2014 I was introduced to Chef Chad White by our mutual friend Travis Schultz. During our first conversation we spoke for over an hour and I was instantly impressed with Chad’s humility and respect for our trade. He was immediately put on the TC team. His accomplishments are equally impressive as his humility. Chad was awarded the 2014 Eater Chef of the Year San Diego and is the co-owner of Craft Pizza Company, in San Diego, California and La Justina, in Tijuana, Mexico. Chad is also a contestant on the current season of Top Chef.
Where did you grow up? I was born in Spokane Washington in 1982. I grew up in Veradale, a suburb of Spokane. It was small town life for sure but there was tons of cool shit for us kids to do. We were always outdoors. There’s lots of wildlife and stuff to explore. Hell, our road wasn’t even paved. It was a different time, we weren’t watching television or playing videos games. We created our own adventures.
Sounds ideal, so you and your siblings were building forts in the woods and catching fish and shit? Absolutely. I have two sisters and a bunch of step sisters and brothers. We would ride our dirt bikes and create our own adventures. In the summers I would work on my step dads farm. As a teenager my mom kept me on a short leash, I would really try to get in trouble but she was always one step ahead of me! In 2001, when I was eighteen, I joined the U.S. Navy because of the 9/11 tragedy. I wanted to fight for my country.
Your mom must have been terrified. She was and was also very much against me joining. When I went to enlist the line for the Marines was around the block so I signed up for the Navy because it had the shortest line (and longest enlistment time) and I was scared too, scared that I would chicken out.
I can see where your motivation was but looking back after all these years would you do it again? I think I’ve matured a great deal since then. The way I react to challenges today is a lot more calculated and not so knee-jerk but all that said, yes 100%, I would enlist again to protect my friends and family to the best of my ability.
I still feel emotionally manipulated by the events of 9/11. Whether you abide by the “official” commission report which admittedly has a lot of holes in it as to what actually happened or was allowed to happen there is an inescapable sadness attached to that day. I would say fear. Fear followed by anger. Regardless of what you believe happened behind the scenes it doesn’t change the fact that 3,000 innocent Americans lost their lives that day. It was and still is devastating. We are manipulated by the mainstream media, so much so that I don’t even watch Fox news or the rest of them anymore. International news sources give you much less biased reporting. In Mexico for instance the media is less sensationalized then it is here.
Lets talk about Navy life. Following boot camp I went to culinary school at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. It was a joint Air Force & U.S. Navy culinary arts program. I was a Mess Specialist which of course are now called Culinary Specialists. After my training was complete I ended up on the USS John C. Stennis. I was a 3rd Class Petty Officer – ‘Culinary Specialist’. Shipping out of San Diego we ported in Oahu, Hawaii three times, British Columbia, Japan, Malaysia and Australia all between 03-04.
Fully suited up on deployment we were packed with about 4000 sailors. I was basically a sous chef in the main galley which fed the bulk of the crew and they eat a lot. My responsibilities were to make sure the meals were hot, delicious and prepared on time. The morale of the crew was on our shoulders – if they become unhappy or malnourished because of our food deadly mistakes could happen. No Pressure. We had a big team and worked under a large chain of command – from a Supply Officer down to a 2nd class petty officer. Our Department was ran by a Master Chief, who was basically the the biggest fucking prick I’ve ever met in my life. The frustrating part was you can’t fire people who suck at cooking while on deployment. 4000 people need to eat 4 meals per day, everyday. We were like a floating casino in that we never closed, there was just a lot less gambling.
Where did you land after getting out of the Navy? I joined the team at 1500 Ocean in San Diego working for Chef Jason Shaeffer. Prior to 1500 Ocean he was an opening Sous Chef at Per Se which was a job he got by working at the French Laundry. I was still very wet behind the ears and was the butt of all the jokes. I wasn’t as fast as the other guys. I had to break union rules by sneaking into the kitchen during off hours to finish my prep. I had to be ready for service and nothing was ever good enough. I ended up working every station. Chef Jason allowed me every opportunity to learn as many lessons as I could the hardest way possible.
I know you had a random job or two early in your career. How was it as Executive Chef of a big hotel at age 25? *laughs* I had no idea what P&L meant let alone how to properly use or create a spreadsheet. I was sleeping a couple of hours a night in my office – usually after an 18 hour shift. I didn’t even have a Sous Chef. It was a nightmare property so I guess it was a blessing in disguise that I wasn’t really set-up for success. I didn’t see it that way till later in my career. If I were in that position today with the experience I’ve gained in leadership the sacrifices wouldn’t be as extreme.
After that you were at Sea Rocket Bistro right? Yes, we were a small sustainable seafood bistro in North Park, a neighborhood in San Diego. I was Chef/Partner with Dennis Stein and Elena Rivellino. During my time there I developed a friendship with the biggest prick ex-commercial fisherman, ex-con, ex-drug addict fish-monger in the world Tommy Gomes. Tommy’s kind of a legend in San Diego. He took me under his wing and taught me everything he knew about fish. At his urging I started utilizing parts of the fish that most chefs at the time were just discarding such as black cod liver, black cod eggs, swordfish bone marrow, sea urchin gelato, sea bass ribs, sea snails and gooseneck barnacles.
You quit drinking, what prompted that? Well, I never saw it as a problem. I’m a fun guy, super social, happy drinker. They were always glad to see me at the bars and I always bought rounds for everyone. I credit the change in lifestyle to my trainer Kaitlyn Stein. I was really overweight and she challenged me to stop drinking for a couple of weeks to kick start my workout program and it just kind of stuck. After that I audited myself and became much more aware of what I was eating and started to take better care of myself. I lost seventy pounds in the process.
How does a self described white boy from Spokane go about becoming an authority on regional mexican cuisine? I have to give credit to my ex-wife and her family for introducing me to real Mexican food. They are all from Acapulco and would frequently throw parties that I would cater with them. Beyond that I have had terrific mentors like Diego Hernandez who invited me to see what baja is. He really introduced me to Mexico culturally speaking as well as it’s rich cuisine. Javier Plascencia has invited me to cook with him many times. I went on a 20 day trip from the northern part of baja to the most southern point with Miguel-Angel Guerrero and fourteen his closest friends. I was the only gringo, we were all cooking together every day -all of these guys i consider my friends and mentors.
Whats new in Tijuana? I am the co-owner of a restaurant there named La Justina. We’ve been doing that for a couple of years. Up until very recently I was there three to four times a week. We have a good team in place and it’s doing really well. All of TJ is. It’s made such a dramatic transformation over the last several years, culturally speaking. American tourism is much lower than what it used to be and that forced the locals to reevaluate what they were doing. Instead of catering to drunk Americans looking to do bad things they’ve focused on catering to what Mexican people who live in Tijuana want. It’s created a renaissance in music, food, culture and crafted a more mature TJ than what it was in the past.
Top Chef, how was that? I looked at it as a challenge. It was a challenge to get selected for the show and the show itself is built around challenges. Winning the quick fire fish taco challenge in San Diego was a real honor. I think that was the highlight for me. It really is hectic and the time goes by so quickly. I felt like I was always behind or too slow on every challenge. Hindsight is a bitch. I probably made things harder on myself by over-complicating everything. It’s overwhelming when you’re looking at all those ingredients and thinking “okay, what am I going to do right this second!” Even the shopping trips are stressful because you don’t know if Whole Foods is going to have a certain ingredient and that alone could change your entire dish.
did you get closer to some cast-mates then others? Kwame Onwuachi and I were roommates and hit it off right away. We faced similar challenges when we were young and also share like-minded food philosophy’s. He’s a really good dude, very polite and respectful and super talented. He’s going to do really well when he opens The Shaw Bijou.
I guess your not chilling with Padma & Tom after service? Not at all. They are there as judges and that’s all you see of them.
What prompted Eater’s Chef of the Year San Diego to pack up and leave town? Look, I love San Diego and it was one of the hardest decisions of my life but I want my kids to grow up in a slower pace. I want them to have that same kind of upbringing I had, surrounded by family and genuine, good intention people. Spokane is a wonderful community and an ideal place to raise children. All of my family is here too. There’s a really cool food movement happening here as well. Chef’s are starting to network, share ideas and concepts and are talking to each other about local, organic food. At the end of the day my success won’t be measured by how many zeros are in the bank account. It will be measured by how many people I’ve mentored and their success. That’s what I hope to achieve by coming home, to leave a legacy.