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Journey to Cascadia

For many chefs, cooking with local ingredients is an ideal. But for one determined man in Seattle, it's a must--no matter the ingredient, no matter the season.

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.

Something of a forager himself, Sear has been scouring local libraries for truly traditional Cascadian dishes. After comparing notes with his brother-in-law's fiancée, who is descended from a Native American tribe in British Columbia, Sear developed dishes with distinct Native American influences: wild king salmon slow-roasted on a bed of green cedar branches and baked chicken wrapped in wild grasses (based loosely on the nomadic technique of cooking, on a bed of hot coals, wild game that was packaged in grass for travel).

Don't get the wrong idea. There's more to Sear's creations than just twigs and grass. That king salmon sits on a bed of Swiss chard and is surrounded by wild onions and sea beans, a salty kelp gathered at low tide that Sear calls "green beans gone wrong." And the chicken is served with an exquisite dried sour cherry and whiskey sauce.

Sear isn't worried about the lean seasons of fall and winter. He says he can get by with root vegetables such as potatoes, which he bakes in sea salt and fills with goat cheese. He plans to replace fresh local seafood, which becomes scarce once winter storms begin to roil the Pacific, with dried and smoked fish, like the smoked Alaskan cod he incorporates into a Northwestern version of fish cakes.

Just weeks after opening Cascadia, he is already talking about plans for a "very healthy restaurant." He says he can also imagine opening a Cascadia-style catering service--but, of course, he would only try such a thing in Seattle, Portland or Vancouver. "I don't see Cascadia going over well in Las Vegas," he laughs, before finally ducking into his kitchen as the first guests arrive. "Unless, of course, somebody builds a Northwest-themed casino."

Text by Ted Katauskas, who lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife and newborn son, Willam (named after the Pacific Northwest's Willamette River).

Published November 1999
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