From Photography to Food: The Genius Behind Wero Kitchen
How does a photographer become a chef? More to the point, how does a boy from a small town in Mississippi grow up to become an Instagram darling in Fort Worth?
If you’re Nathanael Gassett, you do it by following what brings you joy.
During the Great Shutdown of 2020, a lot of us turned to social media for inspiration, a laugh, or simple comradery. We shared memes, made snarky comments, got righteously indignant, and tried to keep a sense of humor while we were sheltering in place.
Nathanael started filming his cooking experiments and uploading them to his Instagram account, @werokitchen. (Remember that. It will come up later.)
Now I know what you’re thinking. Food blogging can get a little tiresome. Everyone knows someone who thinks they’re a foodie and a photographer and a writer. Nine times out of ten, they’re wrong.
For one thing, Nathanael’s Instagram reels were largely silent. There was no poorly written script, no forced jocularity, just the comforting sounds of cooking. Also, Nathanael used his talents as a photographer to great effect. The reels are beautifully lit; they have an almost chiaroscuro effect with a single source of light reminiscent of a Vermeer or a Rembrandt. That, combined with the ambient cooking sounds, created an almost Zen-like quality that resonated greatly with viewers trapped at home.
“I started those videos during a very stressful, very uncertain time,” he remembered. “The world felt like it was upside down, and I needed structure to my day… in a lot of ways, it was relaxing for me to have a process where I knew what the outcome would be. If I put these ingredients together, I know what it will make. It was like meditation.”
For a lot of people, cooking can be stressful. For others, the kitchen is a place of both creativity and peace. There’s an almost liturgical sense of ritual when we’re cooking. That’s the peace that comes across in Nathanael’s videos.
But let’s go back to the beginning.
Nathanael Gassett grew up in Natchez, Mississippi, a small town on the banks of the Mississippi River. He admits that while there wasn’t a whole lot to do in Natchez when he was growing up, that wasn’t always a bad thing.
“It’s really kind of a positive,” he admits. “Since there wasn’t a lot to do there, I could hyper-focus on things that interested me. I’d come home from school and kind of dive into things. I learned Spanish in about a year because I would study so much.”
Ah, yes. Spanish.
Nathanael’s Instagram handle is a play on the Spanish phrase el güero [ˈɡwe.ɾo], which translates as “blonde” or “pale” but affectionately means “whitey.” You see, Nathanael is fluent in Spanish and has a deep and abiding love for the culture and cuisine of Central and South America.
“I took Spanish in school, but I really learned it on the soccer fields,” Nathanael said. “I played with a lot of Mexicans, Hondurans, kids from Puerto Rico, and that’s where the nickname came from… There’s a strong Latin American presence in Mississippi. People forget that the U.S. is an international destination, and a lot of people end up where the work is.”
While Nathanael was playing soccer and learning Spanish, he was also taking pictures. “I started shooting pictures when I was about 15,” he said. “Then I was doing professional, paid gigs when I was 16. I actually had a business license before I had my drivers license.”
After high school, he worked as a professional photographer, shooting weddings and events, and working for local publications, before getting a degree in foreign languages and international trade from Mississippi College. “I started out taking pictures around town of my friends. Then they wanted me to take their senior pictures… then weddings, and it just grew from there.”
When I asked how he got from southern Mississippi to Fort Worth, Nathanael chuckled. “I was working as an international trade specialist, but that really wasn’t for me,” he said somewhat sheepishly. “So I started looking around to see what else I could do, but there wasn’t a whole lot of options there.”
Nathanael’s older sister lived in Dallas, and he had spent time with her and enjoyed North Texas. So he upped and moved.
“I didn’t really have a plan other than ‘I need to find a job.’”
He stayed with his sister for a couple of months before deciding to come to the other side of the Metroplex. He was applying for every job that he could when Central Market called him back.
“I had applied for a job in produce… but during the interview process, the cooking school manager pulled me aside.” The manager said that Nathanael’s skills weren’t professional, but he had the qualities the cooking school needed. “It was the best on-the-job training. I learned all the skills I need to work in a kitchen… it was really the start of this journey.”
And this is where Instagram comes back into the story.
“When I moved to Fort Worth, I really didn’t know anyone at all,” Nathanael remembered. “I didn’t know where to go. I mean, you can Google places to eat, but those are usually big chains. I’d just get in the car and drive around. If a place was busy at lunch or dinner, I’d try it.”
Not only would he try the restaurant or food truck, he’d take photographs of his meals and post them to Instagram. “A lot of those places I tried in the first year, I looked a little out of place,” he said. (Nathanael is a lanky strawberry blond with a red beard and startlingly blue eyes.) “The owners would ask where I was from, and a conversation would start… I’d ask if I could take some pictures to share on social media…”
“There are a lot of small places in town that are great. They’re not very fancy, but the food and the experience are always great, and they deserve to be respected and recognized just like the places that have a marketing budget and a social media person.” His photos and stories on Instagram started gaining followers. People started going to these little mom-and-pop restaurants. And Nathanael cooked his way through kitchens across Fort Worth.
But then, in what has become a familiar refrain, COVID-19 shut the city down. And Nathanael started making his videos.
Now Nathanael is working at La Onda, Victor Villareal’s seafood-focused, Latin-inspired restaurant on Race Street. He’s back in the kitchen, which means that his Instagram reel posting has slowed down a little. But don’t worry, Wero fans! He will be back!
“I’ve got a notebook full of ideas of things I want to do,” Nathanael said. “It’s been good creatively to have a break, but I’m ready to get back into it.”