Chris Bertke, New Executive Chef of Native Foods, Wants the Chain to Become the ‘Gold Standard’
He's bringing an infusion of punk rock energy to the 28-year-old vegan restaurant chain
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Way back in 1994, Chef Tanya Petrovna launched Native Foods with a single vegan cafe in Palm Springs. A second location came just two years later and soon the brand became the first vegan fast-casual chain to go national in the U.S. In recent years, Native Foods has expanded dramatically, now boasting a dozen locations from Illinois to California. Overseeing the menu for all of them is the chain’s new executive chef, Chris Bertke.
“What we loved about Chris when we first met him was that he was down-to-earth and passionate about everything plant-based and animal welfare, which perfectly aligned with our mission and our culture,” says Native Foods director of marketing Sandra Thum. “Once we tasted his food, we knew he was the one who would elevate our already delicious menu.”
Bertke joins Native Foods after a career in restaurants, including helming two of his own in Missouri, Utah Station in St. Louis and Vegan Deli and Butcher in St. Charles, along with a series of pop-ups focusing on vegan versions of comfort foods like pizza and barbecue. We chatted with him about how he arrived at the job, what he hopes to do on the national stage, and how he owes his early cooking inspiration to his mom, grandmom, and Yan Can Cook.
Can you tell us a bit about how you started cooking?
When I was growing up, I was fortunate that my family had always lived right up the street from my grandma. Therefore, I was able to pick up cooking from my mom and my grandma because I was always at one place or another. My grandma was very old school and was an awesome baker. She made pies that were literally out of this world. My mom was just an all-around great cook. It sounds weird in current times, but my mom would make us a homemade dinner almost every day of the week. Also, I remember my mom and I would always watch cooking shows during the times I wasn’t at school. I was fortunate enough to be able to watch my favorite chef, Martin Yan on PBS everyday on his show Yan Can Cook.
What they instilled in me early on was just a love for cooking, creating, and bringing family and friends together by having a great meal put in front of us. Back then, I didn’t realize how lucky I was to have that. Both my mom and grandma really used cooking as a way to say “I love you.” That to me, is huge. And to this day, I’m honored that people allow me to cook for them. They are putting their trust in me and in return, I’m trying to give them what my mom and grandma gave me, love on a plate. Sounds cheesy, but that’s what they taught me – besides the basics of flavors and different techniques.
What inspired you to make the transition to a vegan lifestyle?
Making the transition was easy. From early on, I always loved animals – honestly even more than people to an extent. After going vegetarian for a little bit, it just kind of made sense. I was already experimenting with my own recipes, so I just figured go all in and just see how it goes. And being in the punk rock music scene for so long helped me. Back then, punk rock was rebellious and dangerous. And that long ago, being vegan was somewhat rebellious. I’ve always loved going against the grain, going vegan was just that, on top of just being the moral thing to do in my mind. The scene had some high morals coming from a lot of the bands I listened to. So on top of already knowing deep down that eating animals wasn’t for me, I was able to access knowledge and information from the whole punk rock scene to help me make my ultimate choice of being vegan.
Did being vegan make it harder to build a career as a chef?
Simple answer: No. Like Native Foods, I was ahead of the times with cooking this style of food. So the chefs I worked under really appreciated and respected the creativity I was bringing to the table. It was new to them and they were excited to learn. Case of the student becomes the teacher. I just got lucky that I was able to work for some really really open-minded chefs. They really looked out for me and helped finesse and tweak the basics that are necessary in cooking. And yes, 99.9 percent of the cooks I worked side by side were respectful. You always have that one ass who didn’t get it. But honestly, the chefs and cooks I worked side by side with, were very willing to learn new things and respect the ideas I brought to the table.
Tell us a bit about your own vegan restaurants in St. Louis, perhaps what you developed there in terms of crafting these relatable, accessible foods from house-made vegan ingredients?
I was the executive chef for two concepts in STL, Utah Station and Vegan Deli and Butcher. I focused on pop-ups prior to both of these ventures and they were wildly successful. I basically just did my homework. I brought my ideas out to the community to see what worked and what didn’t. Luckily, most of the ideas I brought just worked. I consider myself to be fairly creative, very crazy and out there. I think a lot of people were just able to relate with the new ideas and fun ideas I was coming up with. To me, there are no boundaries when it comes to cooking. Just like punk rock and music. I also pride myself on being accessible and wearing my heart on my sleeve. So along with fortunately being able to come up with some ideas the vegan community hasn’t seen, I come across as a normal dude. Not the pretentious chef that some people associate with the culinary world.
What are you hoping to accomplish in this new role with Native Foods?
What I hope to accomplish with Native Foods is pretty simple in theory: I want to be able to build on the already incredible menu that has been developed over the past 20 years with their previous chefs – and hopefully bring a little of my unique style of cooking and creating to the menu. I want to eventually make Native Foods stand out as the gold standard of vegan restaurants. There is a ton of competition out there, but with the foundation we have already, I’m positive we can make that happen.
I’m excited to be able to make a bigger impact on the vegan scene in general. I want to make people – vegans, vegetarians, and meat eaters – realize that this food can be crazy creative, fun, and delicious. And last but not least, the Native Foods people. The culture of this company aligns perfectly with mine. And I have met, honestly, the best people I have ever worked with in my life just over the past four months I’ve been with Native Foods. Everyone in the company has been so welcoming to me. That, alone, makes me honored to be in their presence every day.
RELATED: Besharam Chef Heena Patel on Cooking for Yourself, Changing Kitchen Culture, and Being Shameless About Living Your Values
Get more of what you love from VT. Follow us on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and sign up for our email newsletters.