It is an hour before Saturday evening's first seating, 135 guests are expected for dinner and chef Kerry Sear is still dressed in shorts and a T-shirt, lingering at a table in Cascadia, his new restaurant in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood. On the far side of the dining room, visible through a partition of etched glass that appears to ripple behind a curtain of falling water, waiters dart randomly about the kitchen like excited electrons. But Sear radiates a calm that seems magnified by the fountain's acoustic imitation of a soothing Pacific Northwest winter drizzle.
For Sear, Cascadia is the culmination of a career that began in rural Warwickshire, England. When he turned 11, his mother sent him down the road from the family farm to "learn a few things" from the chef at the hotel in the old manor house. By age 16, Sear had worked in five kitchens in England and Scotland. At 21, when he received his first executive chef appointment at a 400-room hotel in Ottawa, he vowed that he would graduate to the best hotel chain in the world, then open his own restaurant by the time he turned 40. And that's what he did. Last year, he left his coveted position as executive chef at Seattle's Four Seasons Olympic Hotel to launch Cascadia--only slightly behind schedule. He had just celebrated his 40th birthday. "People still come up to me and say, 'My gosh, you've given up the highest-paying chef's job in Seattle,'" Sear tells me. "Well, why not? I didn't want to be this fat old chef, bald and bored stupid, resting on my laurels. I need a challenge."
Sear's idea of a challenge is to create a puzzle for himself and then try to solve it, the same way he decided on a career path early in life and then figured out how to follow it. (There was also the puzzle of cooking for a luxury hotel dining room while remaining a vegetarian, which he says he accomplished by taking only the tiniest tastes of any meat dish.) For his new restaurant, he has imposed a rigid restriction on his kitchen: he will use only seasonal ingredients grown, gathered or made in the area called Cascadia, which stretches north to Alaska, south to Oregon, west to the Pacific Ocean and east to the Cascade Mountains. The concept sounds simple enough, until you begin to take stock of the average Northwestern restaurant kitchen. Domestic cheeses in the walk-in refrigerator are likely to have come from either the Midwest or the East Coast; olive oil is probably imported from Europe. Finding local olive oil was easy (Sear uncovered a Washington vineyard with its own grove), but cheese proved to be more problematic (he's limited to sheep's-milk and goat's-milk cheeses made in the Cascades and Cheddar and blue cheeses from Oregon). For produce, Sear does business with two organic farms in Washington and employs a trio of foragers, ex-loggers who comb the forests for everything from berries to truffles, fiddleheads, chickweed and wild onions.