Jason Stratton

Born: 1979. Raised: Seattle.

Experience: Cafe Juanita and Poppy, Seattle.

How he got into the food business: Working as a dishwasher at Le Gourmand in high school. "I grew up poor; I was raised in a trailer park for part of my life. My mom was always determined to feed us well even though there were times we couldn't eat much. That's where I got the spark to feed people. But when I got the dishwasher job, it was purely to make money."

Biggest influences: Holly Smith of Cafe Juanita. "She taught me how to season well, and to be fearless about cooking. She's in Seattle and she's never had salmon on the menu. She's also the fastest cook. If it's busy, she can throw down."

Memorable cooking experience: Making dinner for chef Lidia Bastianich at Cafe Juanita. "She's such a personal cook and such a superstar. I was cutting something, and my hands were shaking."

What his next restaurant would be: A place that examines the history of food. "I'd look at colonial empires and trade routes and the discovery of the New World. Mediterranean food—that's really fusion food. Some 'classic' dishes are completely fusion, like risotto Milanese with saffron, or paella."

Favorite cooking show: Top Chef. "It's one of the only cooking shows that respects what a chef does on a daily basis. Every Wednesday night, my chef buddies and I watch it at a bar—The Bottleneck Lounge. We yell at Padma [Lakshmi, Top Chef host/judge] for her bad outfits. (Just kidding Padma! Much love Padma!) It's like we're at a sporting event. Someone will say, 'I can't believe he gave that sauce to Tom Colicchio!'"

Favorite cookbook: Paula Wolfert's books. "I love cookbooks that venture into the weird. She has no qualms about spending eight pages describing a dish. I love people who are so geeked out on something."