Meet the chef: Nathan Davis of Rough Cut
When you think of China and Chinese food, American-style barbecue probably isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But Shenzhen (a city with almost 12 million people just outside of Hong Kong) is where chef Nathan Davis got his BBQ chops.
“There are a lot of ex-pats in Shenzhen who want Western food,” said Davis, who returned home to Middlebury in May after six years in China. “It was an upscale and popular place.”
In mid-November, Davis took over as head chef for Middlebury’s own barbecue restaurant Rough Cut.
Davis got his start as a 15-year-old washing dishes at Fire & Ice.
“It was me and a bunch of friends from our basketball team,” said Davis, now 36 years old. “It was a great environment for a team. The motto was ‘harder, faster, more efficient.’ I loved it.”
During his time at Middlebury Union High School (and after), Davis worked in several local kitchens, including Neil and Otto’s, Bobcat Cafe, Fire & Ice and Two Brothers Tavern. As luck had it, in 2004 the chef at Two Brothers was on his way out and offered the role to Davis.
“They put me in charge at 23 years old with John D’Avignon,” said Davis. “I was young and there were things I didn’t know. John and I shared the responsibilities, and our styles and work ethics complimented each other — we made a pretty good team.
“That’s how I learned to cook,” Davis continued. “Chefs would try to push me to be better and I took risks — like taking that job at 23.”
After almost two years at the tavern, Davis got a six-month gig in Puerto Rico with East Island Excursions putting all the food and beverages together for the day-trips. Then returned to Washington state, where he cooked Kosher meals for a second summer at a kids’ summer camp.
Later that year, he returned to Middlebury, where he took over the kitchen of Eat Good Food — coincidentally that restaurant was in the same location on Main Street as Rough Cut is now — but that didn’t last long. So, Davis volunteered at the teen center, worked for WRMC (the Middlebury College radio station) and cooked on the line at Fire & Ice.
“I was chatting with a friend from Middlebury College and he was telling me how he traveled all over the world,” Davis said. “I remember thinking, ‘How do I get that gig?’”
Well, opportunity came knocking, when Davis got a job offer from Feld Entertainment — a company that presents live, family-friendly shows like Monster Jam, Disney On Ice, Disney Live! and others in more than 75 countries on six continents.
“I had just gotten another offer to work for the teen center,” he said. “It was a huge bummer to not take that.”
Instead, Davis went to Florida to work on a show. He ended up having a knack for learning the mechanics of the oversized character heads, took a weekend course in fixing them, and proceeded to travel all around the world helping fix these heads. In a little over a year, Davis visited Cairo, Dubai, South Korea, Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Spain, Japan, Mexico and China on tour with shows.
Davis boomeranged back to Vermont, where he returned to kitchens — this time cooking breakfast for the Hostel Tevere in Warren and dinner for Timbers at Sugarbush Mountain Resort.
“What we needed in that area was a place for locals to eat,” Davis said. So he teamed up with a former coworker and together they started Pine Tree Pub — a place for “average-Joe types to get quality, affordable grub.”
If you haven’t seen the pattern yet, Davis has a habit of taking a break from the kitchen every few years to recharge. After getting the Pine Tree Pub up and running, it was time to take a break again.
Now 2011, Davis got a call from a Middlebury College friend who was running a supply chain business in China. He invited Davis to move overseas and help him run his warehouse.
After about three years working the warehouse, Davis missed cooking and was getting offers to cook in restaurants in China.
“I worked for two years with Bubba Mac’s Smokehouse BBQ and another year for the BAIA Group, which had four restaurants,” Davis explained. Managing the fast-paced, high-volume demands of four big-city kitchens is stressful enough, now think about navigating it all in a foreign language … and that language is Mandarin. “I ran four kitchens simultaneously without being able to read or write.”
Thankfully, Davis can speak Mandarin fluently.
In May of 2017, Davis returned home just in time to roast a pig for his aunt’s wedding. For a few months he was a chef-for-hire in a bunch of area kitchens, and then in mid-November an offer came from Rough Cut co-owners Sean Flynn, Ben Wells and Sara Giard.
“A wise man once said, ‘Never turn down a meeting,’” Davis said. “So I never turn down a meeting.”
After meeting Wells and Giard, Davis was on board as the new chef, replacing original chef Brandon Perry.
“The crew I adopted in the kitchen is fantastic,” Davis said, complimenting the talents of his sous chef Mike Chively, Nate Mans and part-time dishwashers. “It’s really hard to find good talent in this industry,” said Davis, citing drug addictions as one of the major hurdles. “Plus there just aren’t as many 15- and 16-year-olds jumping into the dish pit as there were when I was young … So, I try to spoil these guys whenever I can.”
Davis changed the menu when he arrived and has been tweaking it since. He’s changed the procedures, cook times and rubs; added smoked half chicken, fried pickles, smoked wings and brisket chili; and focused on the vegan and vegetarian options.
“I wanted to be sure to give that part of the menu some thought and design some good options,” Davis said, highlighting the acorn squash and smoked jackfruit sandwich — it has the consistency of pulled pork.
“I love cooking good food for my community,” Davis added. “I’m stoked to be here with such a fun group of people.”
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