The first time Nate Rafn prepared food for paying customers, he was terrified.
He had no professional training. The clientele at Caruso’s Italian Café were particular. And up to that point, Rafn’s job responsibilities had included washing dishes and bussing tables.
But Rafn wanted to learn how to cook, so when an opening was identified in the kitchen, the Keizer restaurant’s owners gave the 20-year-old his chance.
During an eight-hour shift, Rafn learned how to bone chicken, prepare lettuce for salads and make tiramisu. He heated sauces and was given a crash course on how to cook and finish several dishes on the menu.
All the while, he assembled cold appetizers and desserts, facilitated communication between servers and staff and helped the pantry worker get soups and salads out the door.
“It was fairly intense. And most of the time, I was stationed at the front of the kitchen, within arm’s reach of two ovens, a 12-burner gas range, a steam table and a super hot broiler, which would radiate heat directly onto my head,” Rafn says.
“At the end of the night, I was covered in sweat and exhausted. But I was also excited. I was learning how to cook great food and how to work in a fast-paced environment. … The whole experience gave me a great deal of confidence.”
That confidence is something Rafn carried with him through the next decade as he transformed from a dishwasher and kitchen newbie into a talented chef, host of a popular supper club, television show producer and one of Salem’s biggest advocates for sustainable and local food.
Next up: restaurant owner. Rafn and his wife, Rochelle, plan to open a space downtown in early June.
The 29-year-old McNary High School graduate says that everything he’s experienced has prepared him for this moment.
“I’ve wanted to have my own restaurant for forever,” Rafn says. “There’s no time like the present.”
Rafn’s passion for local, sustainable food began as a youth, when he and his three brothers feasted on their mom’s pies and cobblers — made from the cherries they picked.
His interest later led him to the job at Caruso’s, where he spent several years as a waiter and line cook, learning how a restaurant was run.
Then, in 2005, he began producing a program for CCTV called “Living Culture.” Using his own video equipment, he approached chefs, farmers and artisans from throughout the Willamette Valley to talk about everything from composting and raising chickens to the value of community gardens and farmers markets.
“I had experience with video production in high school, and I knew I could pull it off,” Rafn says. “I wanted to know more about where food comes from, aside from my parents’ garden. So I started visiting farmers to see what they were up to.
“For me, doing this show was my ticket into chefs’ kitchens. I wanted to learn something from them.”
One such presenter was Steve Morton, chef for the former Morton’s Bistro in West Salem.
At first, Morton didn’t know who Rafn was or what he wanted. But eventually, Rafn convinced him to be on the show, not once, but several times.
“We both talk the language of food and spent many hours doing just that,” Morton says. “The circus world that is being a professional chef can be heady and frightening stuff all at the same time. It’s a journey, not a destination, being a chef.”
Rafn’s first step toward going pro was starting an invitation-only supper club in his home in 2006. Through word of mouth — and a website he launched several years later — the dinners attracted a loyal following. To date, more than 700 people have joined his email list.
Two of Rafn’s regulars are Jon and Christie Hendersen, co-owners of Old Mill Feed & Garden in Dallas. They met Rafn a few years ago and have been patrons of the supper club ever since.
“Going to supper club is totally enjoyable,” says Christie Hendersen, adding that she enjoys the communal seating. “We don’t have to make decisions, and we enjoy the presentations and the menu. At Nate’s, it’s the combination of flavors that we’ve learned to appreciate.”
For Rafn, starting the supper club was a way to run an underground restaurant without having to make a large capital investment. The events helped him hone his cooking skills while Rochelle practiced hosting and serving.
Rafn describes his set, four-course menu as simple, yet delicious, often inspired by seasonal produce and products sold by regional vendors. About 35 guests fill his dining and living rooms each month.
“Each season brings its own limitations, and it forces me to work with whatever ingredients are available,” he says. “If it’s wintertime and my options are minimal, I have to rethink how I prepare and pair each ingredient. It’s a good exercise, and it’s kinda fun.
“On the other hand, summertime puts very few limitations on what we can grow locally. So I sometimes end up creating dishes based largely on color combinations.”
At April’s event, the courses included a host of delectable goodies — from a potato leek soup and pickled potatoes to fresh mozzarella and roast pork with millet porridge. For dessert, he served a goat cheese tart with raspberry sauce.
As usual, much of the food was locally sourced. The potatoes came from Teal Creek Farms, the cheese curds from Full Circle Creamery, the pork was raised at Rain Shadow El Rancho, and the goat cheese was hand-crafted at Fairview Farm Goat Dairy.
“I’ve always been interested in trying to use food to communicate something about the place we live and the people who live here,” Rafn says. “To me, that’s the magic of food.”
Through the chefs who trained him at Caruso’s, the experts he met through “Living Culture” and the successes and foibles he had in his own kitchen, Rafn says he’s become more assured of his culinary skills.
“I enjoy getting to the bottom of things, to understand the cultural and environmental implications of food,” he says. “I believe knowledge is the key to my progression as a cook.”
The supper club, while popular, will be ending as Nate and Rochelle devote themselves to their new restaurant, Rafns’.
Although tight-lipped about some of the details, Rafn says he will run the kitchen while Rochelle will take care of the front of the house. They plan to serve an assortment of salads and sandwiches made with local and sustainable ingredients, and the space will feature large, community tables. They initially will serve lunches, with special suppers planned for the not-too-distant future.
Rafn and his wife spent more than a year researching the project and drafting a business plan.
“The night I signed the lease, I felt like I was having a heart attack,” he says. “Now, I’m confident in what we’re doing and the type of philosophy we have with food. I’m just excited.”
Rochelle shares in her husband’s enthusiasm, saying that they are striving to duplicate the festive and homey atmosphere they’ve had with the supper club.
“The more I talk about it, the more I hear people say how excited they are by what we are doing,” she says. “It’s been a really long road, but I feel we’ve gone about this the right way. I’m ready.”
Rafns’ is scheduled to open in early June at the former downtown Quizno’s sandwich shop at 479 Court St. NE. Initial hours will be 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. For more info, visit www.dinnerattherafns.com.
A native of Fargo, N.D. (yes, like the movie), Erin Snelgrove spent a decade working as a newspaper journalist before joining the communications staff at Willamette University in 2011.
Partner to Jeani, parent to Liam, William Bragg is a professional photographer. WilliamBragg.com.