A Wannabe-Insider’s Guide to Seattle’s Outsider Chefs
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.
My adventure started on an unseasonably cool August morning, in a cab driving down a grimy section of Eastlake Avenue. Double-checking the address, I warily stepped out and approached what seemed to be a ’70s-era strip mall, with a Subway, a dry cleaner, an AmPm and a simple sign proclaiming "Sitka & Spruce." An unshaven fellow shot me a questionable look and disappeared behind a door. I had just spotted Matthew Dillon, the chef-owner of Sitka & Spruce (and an F&W Best New Chef this year). As we ate plates of salmon tartare with local cantaloupe, barbecued squab and coppa di testa made from a pig Dillon knew by name, we shouted about the merits of looking your food in the eye before you eat it—and so we became friends.
That afternoon, I headed to the Madrona neighborhood to track down an underground supper club (recently dissolved, alas) and the 300-pound pig that was supposedly spit-roasting in a backyard. Indeed, splayed out in an impressive handmade contraption of rebar and baling wire was an enormous, butterflied pig hovering over a healthy blaze. After a visit from the Seattle Fire Department and the arrival of more than 200 guests, what remained was a happy mob who dined heartily on charred pig, Pacific rockfish and bushels of local corn. At some point during the evening, someone began telling me about another key figure in this strange culinary fraternity—the full-time forager. Jeremy Faber, owner of Foraged and Found Edibles, is Seattle’s connection to the nearly forgotten secrets of deep-forest gathering. Cattail shoots and stems, wild violets, 10 distinct varieties of miner’s lettuce, stinging nettles and Pacific dewberry are just a few of the dozens of rarities that Faber brings in to restaurants such as Lark, Sitka & Spruce and The Herbfarm.
My destination the next morning was Pian Pianino, well hidden behind a dilapidated cleaners less than a block from Sitka & Spruce. Justin Neidermeyer previously ran Pian Pianino in a loft atop the local pizza institution Via Tribunali, cranking out the most obscure and lovely hand-cut pastas this side of Piedmont. While he previously sold his pastas only at farmers’ markets and held weekly dinners in the loft, Neidermeyer last year signed the lease on a two-story space that is clearly a lifestyle—half dreamy apartment and half painfully romantic restaurant, the two parts charmingly connected by a hidden spiral staircase. I sat down at his long rustic table, and soon, plates of insanely perfect tajarin (thinly cut, egg yolkrich noodles), gnocchi with broccoli rabe and chunks of pancetta, and local ricotta ravioli in butter and sage appeared, followed by a recklessly ambitious sampling of northern Italian grappas. Watching the afternoon sun glint off of his archaic collection of artisanal pasta cutters and die molds, I became unclear about precisely what century it was.
After a 15-minute drive from Neidermeyer’s back door, I was on the deck of a ferry headed toward Vashon Island, gazing upon the gorgeous Olympic mountain range backdrop. After a quick, cold dip in Puget Sound, I drove down an unmarked road toward Kurtwood Farms. Kurtwood Farms is home to Kurt Timmermeister; Daisy (a dog); Boo, Dinah and Francesca (cows); Bruno (a calf); dozens of ducks; 10 pigs; several sheep; chickens aplenty; rows of vegetables; a sprawling, light-filled, commercial-grade kitchen; and a really long table. Kurt is one of the few legal producers of raw Jersey milk in the country. This remarkable milk is delivered to a handful of local restaurants—Lark, Sitka & Spruce—and Minglement, a local grocery store. The milk, freshly churned butter, ricotta and yogurt could win over the most jaded of eaters.
Several nights a month, Kurtwood becomes a private playground for Seattle’s most inspired chefs and a few lucky friends. Pigs are slaughtered, flat breads are cooked in the outdoor oven over wood from the back acreage, ducks lose their heads and soon thereafter are bubbling in a warm confit. The basic rule at Kurtwood: If you come to play, you can only use ingredients from the farm—with a few exceptions, like sugar and salt. Olive oil is not allowed. And if you’re lucky, you will hear Timmermeister mutter, "Maybe it is time to let the tyranny of the Mediterranean end."
After a late night of camaraderie and duck-liver mousse, chilled cucumber soup with house-made yogurt, duck-fat pizza, turnips in Kurtwood Farms honey, platters of bronzed Pekin duck, and crème fraîche with just-picked berries, I was squinting at the morning sun, heading over to meet Johnathan Sundstrom, an F&W Best New Chef 2001.
Sundstrom has won endless praise from the national press, but as we sat in the darkened dining room of his quietly revolutionary restaurant Lark, sipping espresso made with beans from a roaster located just a few blocks away, he gave off none of the airs of other celebrity chefs.
Sundstrom’s dishes at Lark—wild nettle soup with sunchoke chips, chicken liver parfait with pickled wild huckleberries, crispy duck legs with baby turnips—epitomize his remarkable back-to-the-land ethic. In Seattle, it’s hard work. This part of the world is not as generous as the warmer climates down south; the landscape requires an appreciation for less glamorous ingredients. "Severe" is too strong a word, but there is a strong chord of restraint that runs through Lark’s thoughtful menus, where humble roots and weeds are given joyous new life.
Sundstrom and his acolytes are creating a new kind of regionalism based on exactly what’s at hand. Is Seattle on its way to a genuine regional cuisine? From what I’ve seen, I can say that the answer is yes, and that the local food community has heard Timmermeister’s trumpet call: Let the tyranny of the Mediterranean end.
Michael Hebberoy has started a dinner series called "One Pot" in Seattle and is working on a book, Kill the Restaurant.