Gerard Nebesky – Paella Chef

August 24, 2007
Posted in interviews
August 24, 2007 brett

Gerard Nebesky makes paella, and makes a pretty good living doing it. Standing outside of Renga Arts in Occidental, California, Gerard seems incredibly intimidating (he is not), for no other reason than he looks like the coolest guy on the planet, which matches well with the life he has lived.

At 18, Gerard flew to South Africa for his sister’s wedding; he came home a year later, inspired with a newfound passion for the culinary arts. After becoming restless again, Gerard moved to New Zealand, returning to San Francisco to attend culinary school, which led him to the restaurant business in Occidental.

After 11 years in the restaurant business, Gerard went back to exploring the world. It was during one of these adventures that he was introduced to paella, and life has not been the same since. Many people, from Teri Hatcher to Henry Kissinger, have enjoyed Gerard’s energetic preparation of Spain’s most famous dish. Gerard, formerly the art director for the largest printing company in the United States, warns against getting stuck in a rut; “if [your job] doesn’t work, just switch it.”

He calls his various jobs “a fun path to go down, for a while,” but never allows himself to get bored, because “life is just way too short.”

gerard nebesky paella king

Interview

So yeah, I’m doing this for everybody.  You know the Desperate Housewives? I did Teri Hatcher’s 40th birthday.  I just did a paella party for Rosarie Dawson down in LA. 

How do these people find you? 

All word of mouth. 

I don’t know if Brett told you, but we had a newspaper reporter tell us this morning that you were like, the most passionate person he knew.

Oh yeah? Chris Smith. Yeah, he’s a nice guy.  Alright so first we’re going to sauce these peppers.  They’re going to come out, and then go back in.  I need some towels.

Noah: Where are you from, what do you call yourself?  Just the quick run down of biographic information I’m going to need later.

I just do paella.  My name is Gerard Nebesky.  I live out here in Occidental.  I’ve been living out here since ’89.  I moved out here from New Zealand.  We just do paella now. Paella coast to coast.  All over the place.  Whoever needs it, wherever.  In the islands, New York, SNL, you name it.

How long have you been cooking paella?

Five years. It started it off on a ski trip in the Alps.  I was always, by default, the cook on the trips.  I was bringing one pan along in the backpack for these week long trips.  It was easier to do one pan meals.  I started getting into paella.  And it was in Spain, so you get all the stuff there, right?  So yeah, it was totally cool, and that’s kind of how it started.

So five years.  What were you doing before this?

I used to have a restaurant right across the street. 

Nice.

And you were not a paella specific restaurant.

Nope.  Never had even done one single paella.

I was still doing ski trips and stuff and was doing a ski trip in Utah when I got a call from a winery asking to do a paella for Teri Hatcher’s 40th birthday.  That’s when Teri Hatcher was hot all over again.  When the Desperate Housewives were really big. 

So I flew out and did that.  She passed my name around to all of her buddies in Hollywood.  And it really started taking off in every direction. 

So you started cooking in ’89.  Who are some of the people that you’ve cooked for that impress you?  I imagine Teri Hatcher is up there for you.

She’s a good one.  Henry Kissinger will be there tonight. Joe, I can’t pronounce his last name.

Noah: Henry Kissinger and Joe.  Word.  Fine diplomats in all their own rights.

Apparently Bill Clinton is at the Grove tonight.  Maybe he’ll be trying the paella tonight. That’d be really cool.  I don’t think he’s too well liked at the Grove.  It’s all Republican. 

How far is the Grove from here?

About twenty minutes.  You guys can go down there in that RV with all that stuff on the side of it and try to get in.  Just the video on your camera would be worth the footage.  They won’t arrest you.  They’ll just tell you to go away. 

Why do you think Chris Smith says you’re the most passionate person he knows?

I don’t know. I’m always trying to talk Chris into different trips and stuff. Joe and I do all kinds of crazy mountaineering all over the place.  We just take advantage of every season. 

The whole passion thing…I didn’t know anything about paella until five years ago.  I don’t know what I’ll get into next.  Probably won’t be in paella for too much longer.  Food and fashion kind of follow each other.  They’re in one ear and out the other.  Fondue didn’t last forever, right? 

So what’s next?  Or are you just going to try and ride things out?

Probably wine is what I’d like to get into.  I actually just opened a homemade cabernet.  You want to try one of those?

Sure.

So mountain man huh? 

I don’t know about that.

Just rugged?  Solude. 

Cheers.  Hope the trip keeps going well.

I’m okay with it.  I don’t know anything about wine, but if it tastes good to me, you’ve sold me already. 

We have a few official questions.  And unfortunately, you’re kind of hard to do this with because you blatantly passionate about what you’re doing. 

You ran your restaurant for thirteen years over here?

Eleven. 

And now you’re thinking about doing the wine thing.  So it’s all about the culture and the food?

Yeah.  And the you only live once kind of thing.  I don’t want to get stuck somewhere for too long.  I get kinda bored and stuff. I like to switch it up.  Wine’s fun.  I like things where you get in touch with the earth.  Whether hiking in the woods, or hiking in the woods to collect grown grapes or whatever.

You said earlier you were in graphic design.  Did you enjoy that?

I enjoyed it a lot.  But it was really stressful.  We were the largest printing company in the U.S. We did all of the printed everything for Sak’s, Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, everything.  I was the art director there.  And it was too stressful after awhile.  I didn’t like it.

Did you ever feel pressure to accept a job just to accept a job?

No, I took jobs I wanted.  The pressure I didn’t like after awhile was that the company was running further and further behind.  So after awhile we were like, a year behind and stuff was going out the door.  That stuff was too frustrating. 

But any jobs I’ve disliked.  Yeah.  I took a winter job this year for a helicopter ski company.  I didn’t like that. (Laughs).  I couldn’t get in the helicopter very much because there was no snow, and it was too isolated.  So that wasn’t the job for me.  That’s the first time I’ve really quit a job.

It slipped out too.  We were planning a menu that night and I said, ‘I quit’ instead.  Fifteen minutes later I was on the road.  So that’s how that went. 

So if you could go back to when you were 22 years old and tell yourself one piece of advice, what would you say?

See the dentist more regularly. (Laughs)

Noah:  So 22, you’d pretty much tell yourself to do the things you’ve done?

I was always doing something spontaneous.  I moved to New Zealand when I was twenty, something.  I was always doing something spontaneous.  Like I went to South Africa for my sister’s wedding when I was 18.  And I stayed there for a year after that.  I came back here for about a year and then moved to New Zealand.  Really enjoyed it there a lot.  That’s where I first got into the culinary arts.  I came out here to come to the culinary school in San Francisco, and found this place to be open across the street.  And that’s when I decided to go into the restaurant business.

I like to switch it up every once in a while.  Just to keep things spontaneous.  So at 22, I was still kind of doing the same thing.  I wasn’t really making a solid career choice.  I was just doing whatever was a fun path to go down for awhile. 

It seems like that’s stayed true throughout your life.

It’s worked.  So that’s nice, right?

Because it sounds like you’ve had a few different careers. 

That’s something you can just switch.  So that’s the nice thing. 

Noah: But not a lot of people have that confidence.  And a lot of people have a lot more…are you married?

No. 

A lot of people have a lot more obligation too.

Right.  I’m a full-time uncle.  So I give the kid back once they get naughty.  (Laughs) You guys are getting too bratty now, I’ll see you later.

No I don’t have a wife or kids, so that definitely frees me up a lot more. I don’t have anyone compromising anything.  Which is good and bad.

So we’re going to let this cook for a little bit and then add some spices to it.

Noah: This is like the coolest thing we’ve done on this whole trip.

Brett:  I didn’t even know what paella was before this.

Noah: I haven’t exactly seen a measuring cup out here.

Joe:  He’s done it before.

Noah: We are cooking paella out of the back of a Landcruiser.  I’ve been to Spain, and I’ve never seen it done. 

Saffron and a little bit of salt.  I actually saw you guys parked in Santa Rosa today off of Fourth Street. 

Joe:  What is this, the fourth one of the week?

joe occidental

(Joe)

So how do you actually make money doing this?

I charge by the plate.  I don’t do that many weddings.  I don’t like to do weddings.  But I just did a big event in a place called Meadowood in Napa Valley.  It’s just like when you’re a restaurant but you bring all the big things out and charge by the plate.  I know how many people are going to eat.  It’s like any catering business.  If you have 300 people eating, you have 300 people at x amount of dollars.

So how much would a plate like this cost?

Well, twenty is my minimum.  I would do $29 a person.  As far as catering goes, it’s still pretty cheap. 

What was that stuff that you put in there earlier?

Saffron, cumin, and paprika. 

Sweet.

Noah: This is badass.  This is one of the coolest things I’ve ever taken part in, actually.

You ought to see when we do it on the big pans.  It gets crazy.

Noah: I actually kind of like it on this scale.

You gotta see one of those in action.  It’s really nuts.  Joe, do you have some pictures?

Joe:  Yeah, I got some inside.

Noah: Now, I’m in your store, I didn’t actually get your name.

Joe: You’re in Renga Arts in Occidental, California.  I’m Joe Susch.  We use reclaimed and reused materials.  It’s the thing for us. 

Noah:  Cool.  Art. 

Joe:  (Jams out on the guitar for three minutes)

It should be a little carmelized on the bottom.  Just like that!  Cream carmel. 

Brett: Nice.

Squeeze a little lemon on top, and you’re good to go.

Noah: I guess that’s hot!  And Brett probably can’t taste anything anymore so we’ll have to get the opinion from someone else.  Brett’s not going to taste anything for a good week.  But he’s going back for more.  That’s a good sign.

Brett: So good. 

Noah: We ate all the paella.  The key is the carmelization.  And we got a bottle of Gerard’s homemade wine and about nine pounds of paella leftover.

Brett: That paella fed us for the next week.