When Nathan Gresham first got to Louisiana, he was on the one-year plan.
Now, it’s hard to imagine Baton Rouge’s restaurant scene without him.
Since he was 18, the chef/co-owner of Beausoleil has loved the intensity and stress that comes with being in the weeds in a restaurant kitchen.
“When I first started cooking in Mississippi, I wanted to get beat down,” he said. “I loved the pain. I enjoyed being in the restaurant and getting my teeth knocked in every single night. Then, it was like, ‘Whew, let’s do that again.’ ”
By the time he was 21, Gresham’s résumé included cooking in Wyoming at Yellowstone National Park and Anthony’s Good Food Market in West Point, Mississippi. But it wasn’t until he moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, in 2003, that he met two of the most important people in his culinary life — Rebecca and Marco Pauvert.
Gresham first worked with Rebecca, who trained him in fine-dining at Hazie’s.
“She had me doing tedious stuff,” Gresham said, with a child-like grin. “She would have me rolling out speed racks of chocolate truffles. I would do thousands of them.”
Gresham had a love/hate appreciation for that type of work. But through Rebecca, Gresham got to work with Marco — a French master butcher known for his speed and precision when it comes to cutting up pork, chicken and fish.
In 2004, the Pauverts and Gresham opened The Epicurean Café, a small, open-kitchen restaurant with around a dozen tables and a charcuterie shop. Working with Marco, Gresham learned and perfected his butchering.
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“I didn’t know the education I was getting until I left,” Gresham said. “[Marco] was the real thing.”
At The Epicurean Café, Gresham and Marco would start the day with a glass of warm brandy and fresh pâté. Then, it was down to business.
“[Marco] would get me making three different kinds of sausages a day,” Gresham said. “Half-pigs … quarter-cows … I would cut it out, get the fat ratio down. Put it out in the showcase. Then, he would have me do this specialty-cut chicken and bone-in ribeyes. I learned all the basic cuts this way.”
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The day’s work continued with Gresham helping Rebecca prepare each day’s specials.
“The menu changed daily,” Gresham said of The Epicurean Café. “Rebecca was a French chef, but she liked using worldly ingredients. Any given day, we might have a menu from India. That’s why you see a lot of Indian flavors or Asian flair in some of the dishes at Beausoleil. It’s just how I was taught to do it.”
After a year, the Pauverts told Gresham it was time for culinary school.
“Things happen for a reason, I’m sure, you know?” Gresham said. “She pulled me to the side and she said, ‘You gotta go learn.’ ”
In 2005, Gresham came to Louisiana. He had no connections to the state. He just wanted to cook in the South, and he breezed through culinary school. Some of the city’s highest-profile restaurants quickly took notice.
“I was supposed to come here, go to culinary school, then go back out to Colorado and work with Marco and Rebecca,” Gresham said. “They were the reason I moved here. They pushed me out. I called them after culinary school, and they said, ‘Stay there and see what happens.’ ”
In just three years, Gresham was promoted to head chef at Galatoire’s Bistro in Baton Rouge (then on Highland Road), and started working with general manager Jeffrey Conaway, who would help him open Beausoleil in 2010. Through his work, he met local restaurateurs Michael Boudreaux and Kenny Juban. By 2008, conversations began to percolate on a new restaurant.
“It was a recipe for a perfect storm,” Gresham said. “Jeff and I had built this clientele. People were excited we were all coming together.”
The evolution from idea to actual restaurant was quick. The restaurant opened at 7731 Jefferson Highway on Oct. 22, 2010.
Nearly six years later, Gresham is busier than ever.
On a recent morning, the 34-year-old was slurping a cup of black coffee at Christina’s downtown, a landmark breakfast and lunch spot on St. Charles Street that he, Conaway and the Juban’s owners took over after owner Christina Bannister died in January 2015.
Gresham was still full of energy, his eyes darting back and forth, his leg hopped nervously as he recounted when he first moved to Louisiana, the techniques he learned from Marco in his back pocket.
“I had a hard time selling his French pâtés and terrines at Galatoire’s,” Gresham said. “I couldn’t get rid of them. Maybe, I wasn’t selling them right. I was 24, maybe 25, years old. Maybe no one trusted me.”
Now, he’s confident about those sausages and livers. He has more experience. He has the crowd.
“We started revamping it [at Beausoleil], and I can’t keep pâté in house,” he said. “It flies out.”
It didn’t hurt that he, Juban’s chef Joey Daigle and nearly 30 other chefs took part in Cure Camp in Charlotte, North Carolina. During an intense three-day workshop in March, the chefs, Marco and chef/butcher Michael Sullivan studied everything and anything to do with butchering.
It was like being back in Colorado with his mentor all over again.
The first day, the chefs made blood sausage. The next day, Marco showed the chefs what to do with a quarter-cow. On the third day, Sullivan taught the chefs the science behind dry curing meats.
There was even a little bit of brandy in the morning.
“[Marco] made a couple examples out of me,” Gresham said, laughing. “He told some stories about how I used to mess everything up. But it was great. In this industry, all we have is what we’re working with. You get motivation from other chefs. It’s the progress. You get bored. You wonder, ‘What am I doing?’ I needed inspiration. This class totally reinspired me. It made me want to revamp everything I was doing at Beausoleil.”
The class was such a powerful experience that Gresham and Marco want to bring the workshop to Baton Rouge this fall. Gresham is hopeful Beausoleil can host around 30 chefs in October for the event.
“It’s just going to open people’s eyes,” Gresham said. “We’re always in the shadow of New Orleans food. That’s not a bad thing. That’s the reason I stayed in Baton Rouge. There’s opportunity here. Right now, you’ve got a lot of good chefs popping up. This class won’t be about Beausoleil. It will put the spotlight on Baton Rouge.
“It’s about showing these chefs from across the country these techniques, getting them in there and just making things happen together.”
Follow Matthew Sigur on Twitter, @MatthewSigur.