The opportunity to sit down with a woman who is constantly on her feet occurred on a rare, slow morning during Natanja de Beer’s first holiday season at Collage. Showing me around the kitchen while managing a maintenance project on the stove, she shared that upon arriving home at midnight the previous evening, she noticed that her new puppy had reorganized her bedroom closet on the living room floor.
As she told the tale with a quiet smile, it was just another day in the life of Natanja, who seems to effortlessly take things in stride. This is one of the many attributes that has enabled her to rise in very specific back-of-the-house kitchen culture with nearly no culinary expertise, but always with an appreciation for and understanding of food and of people. With a career spanning between Charleston and North Florida, Natanja was surprised to be known as one of the few women chefs in the St Augustine area. “It just doesn’t feel representative to what is happening in our industry. We promote equalities, people of different backgrounds, immigrants, those with a rough past. We join together to create something bigger than all of us.”
And that seems to also be the case for a woman, who while in college, burned eggs and set pasta on fire. “Culinary wasn’t on my radar at all,” Natanja laughs. “I was studying psychology and banking. When the recession happened in 2006, I realized that perhaps I should try something different. I moved to Charleston to learn to cook.”
Immediately following college, she’d become the first female line cook at Hanks Seafood, and Chef Frank McMann took her under his wing in his scratch kitchen to teach her the fundamentals of cooking. He encouraged her to attend culinary school. Later, she teamed up with Sean Brock to work banquets at McCrady’s. The move led to her becoming part of the opening team for Husk in 2010 – what she calls a “once in a lifetime experience.” “I feel privileged to be surrounded by passionate cooks who taught me properly,” she says. “At the same time, it was tough to integrate with the back of the house at first. It is truly a whole different world – open, honest and raw. But being in the kitchen, in many ways, gave me my voice.”
The Lodge at Little St. Simons Island helped her understand farm-to-table cooking. A former classmate serving as Executive Chef recruited her to the eco-island where she lived for three years, catering to guests and naturalists experiencing the annual migrations of 3,500 varieties of birds. She learned how to utilize the sustainable, organic gardens and work with local ranchers.
“In some ways, the full circle approach to food can get lost in the confines of a restaurant, but living the mantra of a sustainable island is something else entirely,” she says. “Watching flora and fauna interact provides such a complete understanding of life cycle, it is difficult to pull it apart without thinking of everything affected by each simple action.”
Growing up with meals homecooked by her French mother and Dutch father, she never realized it as privilege. On Sundays, the family brought out the silver and enjoyed a proper meal. Now with both of her parents retired nearby, the family cooks together on her days off. Natanja has truly delved into cooking – understanding products from a seasonal, local and sustainable standpoint and appreciating the history and culture surrounding food.
“Food is life, and cooking pays homage to that. Sitting down with loved ones is why we are alive. Food holds religious, cultural, and historic values along with a deep history. There is a reason that bread, beer, and wine have been with us since ancient times. Foods nourish us and sustain us. It is exciting to see our guests really connecting with that.”
Often compared to the military, each person shows up as a team player in the kitchen; not subject to what they are, but how they treat each other. Now running her own, she works to create an environment that allows mistakes and celebrates exploring new things outside of the menu. Her line cooks serve as a constant pipeline of inspiration. “I can now foresee things happening. There is a wirey, tense, seriousness when the focus is on. If you are going down, we are all going down. We take care of each other.”
Watching guests comment on her choices feels like a matter of connection. She also highlights the importance of servers and their interaction with guests on food and wine, while educating them about what is in season. “St. Augustine holds a special story with its Minorcan heritage, and the evolution of our culinary scene is exciting to watch. From Llama to Ice Plant and Blue Hen, there are so many great places eat. While we are in a tourist town, we are still a very local spot and Chef Matt Brown has been very instrumental in that growth. We continue to work on getting a dialogue going on here.”
For those planning to enter into the industry either cooking or serving, she says, “Be supportive of each other. It’s very rewarding, unless you obsess over online reviews and look for instant gratification. The hours are intense: 14-16 hours a day on your feet in a kitchen that can be 140 degrees. You’re making personal sacrifices to be here. You have to have a strong backbone as well as passion to survive.”