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Wednesday, August 9, 2006 - Page updated at 11:53 AM

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Taste of the Town

Dandelion takes root, grounds chef living with Lou Gehrig's disease

Seattle Times restaurant critic

In April 2005, Carol Nockold celebrated the first anniversary of Dandelion (5809 24th Ave. N.W., Seattle, 206-706-8088) — the tiny Ballard bistro she'd dreamed about for years — by surrendering her leg to a tattoo artist. Today she wears a pair of dandelions planted for posterity, just above her left ankle.

"I was the only one in the kitchen without a tattoo," explains the 50-year-old chef, who once swore she'd never wear body art, but always knew she'd one day own a restaurant like Dandelion.

Nockold changed her life to make that happen, quitting her longtime job at Sur La Table after launching the company's gift registry and opening 20 retail outlets across the country.

And then, last year, life changed her.

She'd been working 14-hour days, when, inexplicably, the heavy pans she had easily lifted appeared to get heavier. Chalking that up to exhaustion, the chef joined a gym, hoping to increase her strength and stamina. That didn't help, and worse, she began to take the occasional fall.

And then, on a rare evening out, Nockold recalls, "I fell and broke my foot. And that's when I realized I shouldn't be falling. I was falling because something was wrong."

Listen for Leson on KPLU

Seattle Times restaurant critic Nancy Leson's commentaries on food and restaurants air every Wednesday on KPLU-FM (88.5) at 5:30 a.m., 7:30 a.m. and 4:44 p.m., and again on Saturday at 8:30 a.m. (Today she talks about kitchen gadgets.)

Leson's commentaries are archived on KPLU's Web site (www.kplu.org) and may also be heard at www.seattletimes.com/restaurants.

She saw a neurologist, underwent "a million different tests" and, in September, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease, it weakens and eventually destroys the motor neurons, causing paralysis. In Nockold's case the disease has moved swiftly, greatly compromising her mobility and her ability to swallow and speak.

But the illness has done little to dampen her joie de vivre, and made more precious the time she spends with family and friends around the table. Nor has it kept her from her restaurant — a Ballard destination for those in search of "Real Good Food."

Taking the leap

That's what she and her partner, Connie Palmore, promised the neighbors when they turned an empty storefront into a charming bistro. "We were like Thelma and Louise, jumping off the cliff," Palmore says, recalling their decision to take the leap. For Nockold, realizing her long held dream was both "liberating and terrifying."

The impetus was two-pronged: On Sept. 11, 2001, Nockold happened to be on a business trip and was across the street from the Pentagon. "I knew then, I did not want to travel so much, and we started talking about what's next," she says. "And then we went to Provence."

There, every other year, they rent a vacation house in a small village. "For two weeks, we shopped the markets — I cooked the entire time. And one night we decided to plan a restaurant," Nockold recalls. "It was one of those naive times when we were drinking rosé and everything seems possible," Palmore interjects.

A week after their return, Palmore stumbled upon a space in their neighborhood. "We were still on our rosé high," she says, when she stopped by Café Besalu for croissants. She parked nearby, noticed a little storefront for rent and scribbled down the landlord's number. And then she called Nockold, who said, "It's now or never."

After swift negotiations they signed a five-year lease, and nine months later a restaurant was born. "Most people told us it would take that long, but we thought — having opened stores before — that we could do it in six months," says Palmore, a former business-system analyst for Starbucks.

They named the place Dandelion because their yard was full of them. And because, Palmore explains, "Dandelions are weeds that never go away. They're strong, and they're edible."

Both feel they couldn't have opened the restaurant without a lot of help from their family and friends. Some lent money. One was a general contractor who lent his expertise. Nockold's best friend had a brother who worked for a restaurant supply company, and when he got married, the company gave him tableware for his reception, including 150 dandelion-yellow plates. It was a gift that keeps on giving: They now grace the tables at Dandelion. "We had a lot of love along the way," says Palmore.

When the restaurant opened, they were so busy they forgot to save their first dollar. Nockold, who's cooked since she was a child, took to the stoves but ceded head-chef status — first to a talented young upstart named Jason Tenesch, then to Zephyr Paquette and most recently to Kristy Scott. She recalls testing recipes with Tenesch, going through five types of chicken, for instance, before selecting the right one for their fabulous roasted bird — still a constant on the weekly changing menu.

Inexperience created hurdles. "The first year, we had so little room in the fridge, we had to be creative on how to keep things cold," says Nockold. "I had to go to the farmers market three times a week. We used a lot of tomatoes because they didn't have to be refrigerated."

"I'm busy living"

Today her illness keeps her from cooking, but as executive chef, she still plans the menu. Eating is difficult — she has a feeding tube because she can't swallow — but she still tastes everything on the menu. "I will eat as long as I'm able," she says. While the future of the restaurant is uncertain, plans are to keep it open "with the same integrity and quality of food."

Meanwhile, Nockold may be immobile, but she's far from idle. "I go into the restaurant a couple of times a week, and the staff comes to the house for a menu meeting." She's working on a cookbook, writing down everyone's favorite recipes with the assistance of her friend and helpmate Holly Arsenault. She spends lots of time in the garden of her Ballard bungalow and is reading the memoirs of her favorite cookbook author, Julia Child.

On Sundays, friends show up to eat at the house. They bring wine, and Nockold supervises as they prepare her house specialties. Afterward, they sit at a long table in the backyard, just as they do in her beloved France, where she celebrated her 50th birthday last August. "It's my favorite part of the week," says Nockold. "I have a terminal illness, but I feel like I'm busy living — not dying."

"I always wanted a restaurant, and my parents thought I was crazy," she remembers. But they always encouraged her passion for cookery. When she was 8, they gave her "Better Homes & Gardens Junior Cookbook: For the Hostess and Host of Tomorrow." It's still on her bookshelf, with an inscription that reads, "Merry Christmas to our little cook, Carol Ann, from Mom and Dad, December 25, 1963."

"I realize that many people do not have a dream, and even more, that few people get to realize their dream," Nockold says with great emotion. "I've been blessed with both personal and professional success. I've never worked so hard, or got so much pleasure from my work." To which her partner of 10 years adds, "We didn't want to be two 60-year-old pissed-off women who never did what they wanted to do."

"I would do it all over again," Nockold says.

"And I would do it all over again with you," Palmore smiles.

Share your news or restaurant tips with Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com.

More columns are available at seattletimes.com/nancyleson

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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