I recently relocated to seattle, a culinary move I would have scoffed at three years ago. Coming from antiestablishment Portland, Oregon, I was highly suspicious of Seattle’s corporate dining rooms, the megastars like Tom Douglas and the lionlike perch of Canlis. It seemed every notable restaurant must have had a team of 30 consultants just to get the doors open; it was unadulterated and terribly boring professionalism.
What I loved about Portland was the unabashed amateurism. The farmers were learning how to farm, the winemakers learning how to ferment, the cooks learning how to cook (many chefs even lying about their pedigrees and staying up late to work on their supposed three-star skills). Certainly all of us in the food industry were trying to figure out what it meant to run a restaurant. To Seattleites, iconoclastic Portland establishments like Navarre, Ken’s Artisan Bakery and Park Kitchen must have seemed like they existed in some distant land, where rent was affordable and charming vintage storefronts were in endless supply.
I am no stranger to the DIY ethic of Portland, having spent nearly a decade building a culinary big top that contained such acclaimed places as Clarklewis, Gotham Bldg Tavern and Family Supper—only to watch much of the circus end in lawsuits, at least one restaurant closure and a bitter divorce. With that wreckage behind me, I bought a 1963 Airstream trailer and headed off into a retooled existence in Seattle. The thought of being in another city seemed daunting, but what I’ve been experiencing is a dynamic new life, with a small group of intimately connected restaurant owners, dairy farmers and pasta savants who represent a more fully realized local food culture than I have yet to encounter elsewhere in the States. My new heroes are Matthew Dillon of Sitka & Spruce, Jeremy Faber of Foraged and Found Edibles, Justin Neidermeyer of Pian Pianino, Kurt Timmermeister of Kurtwood Farms, and Johnathan Sundstrom of Lark and Licorous.