Why he won Because he spins the extraordinary produce he gets—from farmer friends and from his connections as a part-time forager—into sublime Mediterranean-influenced dishes.
Born San Bernardino, CA; 1973.
Education Culinary Arts program at Seattle Central Community College, Seattle.
Experience Salish Lodge, Snoqualmie, WA; The Herbfarm, Woodinville, WA.
Inspirations The community of cooks in Seattle, especially The Herbfarm’s Jerry Traunfeld. “You don’t realize what you’ve learned from Jerry until three or four years after you’ve worked for him. Then you say, ‘That guy’s a genius.’ Which he clearly is.”
Pet peeve “Not being delicate with ingredients. I hate heavy hands.”
Ingredient obsession Vinegar. “I use more vinegar and have more types of vinegar than anyone I know. I have 17 kinds right now.”
Fantasy splurge “I’d have Marco Pierre White kill an animal and cook it for me at his house.”
First cooking job “My mom’s best friend had a little restaurant-café, where they made high-end handmade pastas. I’d help them out after school when I was 12 and got addicted to it. I’d do dishes or bus tables or do remedial prep—peeling eggs, chopping onions. I felt it, and said ‘I’m sticking with the food thing.’ ”
Favorite hobby Foraging. “My best friend, Jeremy Faber, owns Foraged and Found Edibles; he’s Seattle’s premier forager. We forage mushrooms, wild greens, fiddlehead ferns, wild onions, licorice root. We pick flowers and maple blossoms—you can deep-fry them or use them for ice cream. The name of my restaurant, Sitka & Spruce, is a direct reference to foraging. It’s the variety of spruce tree that grows above porcini mushrooms.”
Most memorable cooking experience [My] first day at The Herbfarm. “I went out and dug potatoes and picked nettles—they were out by the llamas. We used them that night. Then an old man named Roy Beeman came in with his berries—he didn’t bring them anywhere else.”
Most humbling moment Eating at Chez Panisse, in Berkeley, CA. “They know where to get stuff and they know what they’re doing; they never stray from it. I take pride in what I do, but then I go to Chez Panisse and say, ‘They really do it.’ ”
What keeps him going “There’s nothing else I’d rather do. I want to show respect to all the people who grow things for me.”
Favorite childhood dish “I used to take ground beef and put in every single condiment I could find in the fridge. I’d brown the meat with Worcestershire sauce, teriyaki sauce, pickles, ketchup, mustard.”
Favorite kitchen tool A green-stained Sabatier chef’s knife.
Most memorable meal Beef cheek and pineapple tacos at a little taco bar in La Cruz, north of Puerto Vallarta [Mexico]. “The owner would grill the beef while his wife was making the tortillas. Every single thing except for the beer and salt were from his own property—he had cows in the backyard and grew pineapples and limes.”
Second-most-memorable meal “Two years ago I was in Kamakura, outside of Tokyo, and I ate in a soba shop. The old man who ran it used all wooden tools and cut the soba noodles by hand with a wooden knife. You could have either hot soba or cold soba and he’d make you drink the starchy liquid at the bottom of your plate. He and his wife just hung out and made soba noodles in broth. He was like 85 years old.”
Favorite cheap eat The takoyaki—Balls of crêpelike batter filled with octopus and deep-fried, then topped with bonito shavings—or miso-marinated black cod collar at Maneki in Seattle.
Favorite guilty pleasure Cheez-Its. “One hundred percent. My dying-day restaurant will be an all Cheez-It restaurant—there will be Cheez-Its in everything. No other cheese cracker; I’ve had tastings and none of the others work.”
What his next restaurant would be “I can’t answer that question. But I’m starting an empire of all 20-seat or below restaurants that make no money but where I can play records.”
What he’d be if he weren’t a chef “I’d be either a ski-bumming trust-funder from the Coca-Cola empire and spend all my money developing sustainable farms, or I’d be a cheesemaker and herd the sheep and goats.”
Advice to future cooks “Be aware. Love what you’re doing. Research your product. Always be happy that you’re cooking.”
Favorite cookbook “On my last day at The Herbfarm, Roy Beeman, who forages the berries, brought me his old, beat-up copy of Feasts for All Seasons by Roy Andries de Groot.”
Congratulations to Mei Lin, winner of Top Chef Season 12.