At just 32-years-young, Chef Ameer Natson is on the brink of becoming a multimillionaire. He’s the mastermind behind Planet Grill & Juice Bar, uniquely nestled inside Image Planet Fitness on New Jersey’s Route 22. A gourmet grill located inside a gym? you ask. Until your tongue tastes the tantalizing flavors brewing from this little culinary jewel; then it becomes clear why Chef Ameer has the whole town talkin’. Under the umbrella of his Castle Culinary Co., he’s catered to celebrity clientele like Jay Z and Beyoncé, built a solid reputation of exceptional (and healthy) cuisine, and created a brilliant lineup of young Black culinary creatives with just as much promise as he himself.
From his topnotch juice bar and culinary classes, to his private chef work and upcoming big business projects, this food master knows all about what it means to be a hustler. But unlike his signature juice drinks, things for Mr. Natson haven’t always been so sweet. In this exclusive interview with Miss CM, Chef A shares his story of failures and triumphs, glitches and glory, and how he stayed true to his calling, no matter how many times he took a fall.
CM: Before I even met you, I had heard a lot about you and your exceptional cuisine here at Planet Grill & Juice Bar. But I found it to be really unique and unorthodox that such high-quality food could be found inside of a gym. How did this gym-gourmet dining experience come about?
Chef A: So my partner who owns the gym purchased it from another guy about a year ago and he and I connected and [snaps fingers] kicked it off. I had my restaurant in Trenton [New Jersey] at the time, which was called Urban Gourmet. It was like the first actual full-service location that I opened.
So that’s no longer is service?
That’s no longer in existence. I had my partner buy me out, or rather allowed him to buy me out, and I moved into this area to focus on Planet Grill, which is a partnership between my partner Rog and I. So he wanted to bring some value to the gym because there are gyms all up and down Route 22—none of them have a world-class grill and juice bar or café, especially a grill and juice bar or café where the co-owner is a chef. So it just adds a lot of value [to the gym]. It’s one of the biggest selling points when people come here. They’re like, ‘Wait a minute, I know this guy Chef Amer. Oh! This is where he [has his bar and grill]! I’m definitely joining here! [Laughs.]
Planet Grill & Juice Bar
You have this bar and grill, but you also operate a lot of other ventures. So is this all under The Castle Culinary Company?
Yes! Under The Castle Culinary umbrella I do consulting for many restaurants, I do private chef work; the majority of it is set up where I assign my sous chef, and my team that works under me, to private chef jobs. Unless, of course, I am requested to be present. So if you were having a dinner party for six people, you would contact The Castle Culinary Company and say, ‘Hey, I’d like for you guys to come in and provide one of those extraordinary, private chef dining events here for us.’
Then you also have the catering aspect, and then culinary instructions. I’m also an adjunct professor of culinary at Star Career Academy. And in addition to that, I do cooking classes; you know, if people do events where they want to have me as the guest chef—’Ladies’ Night Out,’ ‘Cooking Class with Chef Ameer,’ or whatever. But the mother company of it all would be The Castle Culinary Company.
We talked before and you mentioned that you were a pastor at one point in your life, but that you wound up going down the wrong path and kind of living the street life. So how did that all unfold? And how did you then move into culinary work?
I graduated from culinary school when I was 21. And I had what would be equivalent to a Bachelor’s Degree is Culinary Arts. But I wasn’t patient enough to allow my career to take its course, so I took the fast route, which would be the [illegal] involvement [I got into] when I was younger.
Oh, you got into the streets after you got your culinary degree? I thought you went through that phase when you were a teenager.
Nooo! I had my culinary degree, I was even an ordained minister at my church, like the youth pastor. But ‘the life’ just wasn’t coming through quick enough for me, so I kind of took it into my own hands.
A beautiful salmon and poached egg breakfast prepared by Chef A
So how did you get into the street life, if you don’t mind divulging that information?
So my father was like a street guy…I think a lot of it was genetic, it was just in my DNA. I had to get that out of my system and I’m glad that it happened when I was younger so that I was able to move on and be where I am now. But what ultimately did it, I had started hanging with this dude, his name was Toby—I’ll never forget him. And he was just like, ‘We could really get money.’ Because, I had graduated from culinary school and I had started a small catering company called The Ebony Catering Company; of course, Ebony meaning ‘Black’; it was about Black people cooking good Southern food.
So I had a bank account, and I had checks, and debit cards—I had all kinds of stuff. And so the dude Toby was like, ‘Yo, do you know that you could buy stuff with a check and you don’t have to pay for it?’ And I was like, ‘What do you mean? You present a check, they run it through a machine, if there’s no money in it, they decline it.’ He was like, ‘Naw man, I’m telling you… .’ So me and Toby just started running. I think he realized I had a really good brain on me and he knew a lot about the streets. I had always kind of been sheltered from the streets, ya know? My father would spend a lot of time with me. I was very indulged as a child, I was kind of given whatever I wanted—
Kind of like naive?
Yeah, I think so. And my naiveness and my desire to be ‘it,’ in conjunction with the good stuff that Toby was saying kind of catapulted me down the wrong path for a while. And then it began to seem like it was so easy.
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