Beyond the faddies: The food folks who keep us coming back
Passionate and vigilant, these Seattle-area culinary talents show us what success is made of.
Seattle Times food writer
WE’RE A CITY blessed and obsessed with hot young chefs opening hot new restaurants. A town whose growing multitude of restaurant groups are hellbent on trendspotting another concept and then another.
Let’s take a breather and consider, instead, how the restaurant-of-the-moment might manage to keep your heart — and its soul.
Pulling that off for a decade or two takes a clear vision, solid commitment and great oversight from the restaurateurs who’ve mastered the task — selling quality and value, comfort and consistency, warmth and wonder.
Look around. You’ll find those single-minded success stories everywhere, proving us wrong when we buy into the noxious notion that “first you’re hot, and then you’re not.”
Nobody was doing what Rick Yoder did when, in 1989, he and his wife, Ann, gave Seattle the gift that keeps on giving: Wild Ginger.
Their vision was concise, their timing perfect. Their plan?
Let East meet Northwest: Offer gracious service in a contemporary setting. Keep the Asian menu authentic. Strive for consistency. Execute properly.
In the years since, their Western Avenue hot spot made a big move to a landmark location at Third Avenue and Union Street, cloned itself at The Bravern in Bellevue and has magically maintained its status as the Northwest’s definitive Asian restaurant.
That magic, played out over nearly a quarter century, is orchestrated by Yoder, a Michigan-born white guy whose all-Asian kitchen crew, 80 strong, work its woks, fryers and steamers to take us on a taste tour of China and Southeast Asia.
“Longevity in the hospitality business is a carefully woven net,” says Yoder. “Of execution, quality environment and quality people, all wrapped together to make it work.” To pull it off, “You’ve got to minimize employee turnover, keep people engaged, and have a management team and a visionary to focus hard to make it successful.”
As chief manager and visionary, Yoder, 56, is both office wonk and floor man, confabbing with his tiptop team of supervisors and chefs, working the crush in his Seattle venue’s bi-level bar and dining room, popping into its adjacent music hall, The Triple Door, or over Highway 520 to Bellevue.
As a perpetual student of Asian food culture, he has made it his life’s work to bring the distinctive flavors of Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Myanmar, Thailand and China to a broad audience.
Like the fresh whole chickens, 48 hours out of processing — 100 a day, broken down into meat and bones. Those bones, slow-cooked for six hours, producing 125 quarts of stock each day, the fat rendered to flavor the cooking oil for Wild Ginger’s Fragrant Duck — a veritable flock that takes 12 hours and three prep-cooks to prepare for frying.
To do that, “you have to hire and be supportive of a big culinary team,” an army capable of consistently churning out the Ginger’s iconic eats, meals that make it as much a locals’ hangout as a tourist draw and as appealing today as it was 24 years ago.
AT KINGFISH CAFE, the culinary team is small but mighty.
After 17 years running a restaurant that got its start on a fried-chicken wing and a prayer, twins Laurie and Leslie Coaston laugh recollecting their state of mind when that team was even smaller.
Instant success ran everybody ragged: 16-hour days; lines out the door. And for Laurie, two girls at home crying for their mama.
They weren’t the only ones bawling.
Alternately exhilarated and exhausted, “We had a milk crate we’d sit on to take five-minute cry breaks,” Laurie recalls of those crazy days at their skinny storefront on Capitol Hill.
The Coastons had no restaurant experience but quickly learned what it takes to succeed in this fickle business. Then, as now, they wait and bus tables, answer phones, clean restrooms, tend to administrative tasks and do whatever-the-heck needs to be done to keep those customers coming.
Two years in, they annexed a second storefront on the corner, adding a bar — and later, booze. They stalked and snagged chef Kenyatta Carter, who’s run their kitchen for (nearly) ever.
Laurie’s daughters grew up at Kingfish under the watchful eye of their great, great, great Aunt Mary Josephine, who was born a slave in 1850. Her photo adorns the cafe’s walls. Now in their 20s, the daughters tend bar and wait tables, helping make the Kingfish a family fun-fest and a neighborly home away from home.
“We had a great idea,” Leslie acknowledges, sitting at a window table overlooking a tree-lined stretch of 19th Avenue East, her sister at her side. “It was the right idea” — a tongue-in-chic spot to highlight the African-American culinary canon.
To this day, Kingfish’s cachet relies on a juke-joint vibe and glorified home cooking: bulging plates full of “My Way or the Highway Buttermilk Fried Chicken” and mile-high red velvet cake that will have you fanning yourself like a church lady on a sweltering Sunday.
“People don’t go out for art on a plate,” Laurie says. “At least not here, they don’t.”
CAFE JUANITA’S Holly Smith is a fierce competitor who has won it all: The four-star reviews. The James Beard honors. The Iron Chef coat.
Pulled by the promise that success breeds success, she’s hounded by developers offering generous lease concessions. Pitched by TV producers who’d love nothing more than to watch her create food porn from vending-machine snacks.
As the star chef and sole proprietor of one of the best Northern Italian restaurants in America, “Everybody is telling me I should own seven different restaurants,” Smith says. “But that’s a pursuit of busyness, a pursuit of money and fame.”
Acknowledging friends and competitors who’ve played the expansion game, she shakes her head. “We get into the culture of doing more by telling ourselves, ‘I have to be this, I have to be that. I have to be, I have to be, I have to be.’ ”
So, what is she — now that the Kirkland restaurant she bought, revamped and sweated in for 13 years remains a raging success?
A single mom with a singular business, very much married to Cafe Juanita.
“I want to find balance. I don’t want to have to.”
What she has to do each day is drop her 9-year-old at school, then head to the restaurant. What she likes to do is grab a cup of tea and greet her pastry chef, who’s busy rolling house-made crackers at 9 a.m. Gossip with the guy from Herkimer Coffee while taking a delivery at noon. Berate the Boston fishmonger whose seafood showed up via FedEx — then had to be sent right back after she grabbed an instant thermometer, stabbed the fish and cursed out loud.
Smith loves the excitement of being on the line with her chefs; introducing customers to carefully sourced ingredients they may never have tasted; the obvious pride her waiters take in knowing the finer points of service.
As a quality-control fanatic, she’s obsessed with running one of Greater Seattle’s dwindling number of fine-dining houses, where cocktails are meant for lingering over, elbows rest on Frette linen and “din” is not the lasting impression at dinner.
What Smith does not like is failing her customers.
So she scans her email and OpenTable reviews, personally contacts complainants. Sends a couple home with a comped box of house-made tagliatelle when they felt short-hit on their $36 Wagyu beef cheeks.
“Our hope is, as a group, that we transport people. That some of their cares are gone while they’re dining here.”
But sometimes she cares too much.
Fighting tears, Smith recounts how a regular customer took her to task for being at home with her son one night too many. The many nights she’s out promoting herself, and by extension, Cafe Juanita.
“What I didn’t realize is how personally attached people would get to having me in this space, to the unrealistic expectation that I would live here 24 hours a day.”
And that’s another thing that’s anchored her in one place.
JOHN SUNDSTROM, too, is anchored in a single place: his kitchen at Lark.
Ten years ago, little Lark became an overnight sensation, a media darling, a magnet for the culinary cognoscenti.
Coming off the high of a lauded stint at the W Hotel’s Earth & Ocean, a cover-boy slot as Food & Wine’s “Best New Chef” and a reputation as a leading man in the local farm-to-table movement, it was a heady time for Sundstrom.
Lark became a blueprint for the new wave of Seattle’s chef-owned restaurants:
Find a reasonable lease in an up-and-coming neighborhood. Look for good bones and soaring ceilings. Keep the décor simple and rustic. Have on hand a trusted manager. Craft a compelling small-plates menu. Highlight local farmers, fishermen and foragers. Serve it family-style.
“We realized we didn’t have to open a 2-million-dollar restaurant,” Sundstrom says. “We could open a $200,000 restaurant, focus on great food and warm service, and the rest of it will fall in place.”
Ten years later, Sundstrom and company — his business partner and GM Kelly Ronan among them — have cultivated a clientele that sees Lark as a gathering place for occasions large and small. It’s a place where they recognize faces and know patrons’ names — “and not just because we have them programmed into the computer.”
He does his own PR, writes his own newsletter and recently published a very personal cookbook in an effort to keep his name — and Lark’s — at the fore.
And he provides constant vigilance in his kitchen, because while “I’m always working on consistency from the inside — it’s always me on the outside.”
“I look at my kitchen as a great training ground, and I’m very proud of cooks who spend years at Lark and go on to bigger and better things. They’re furthering my mission as a chef, and I’m furthering their careers as a cook.”
DAISLEY GORDON was a cook on a mission when he flew to Seattle 18 years ago to interview for a job. It didn’t take long to zone in on the right one, where today he’s both owner and executive chef.
“I still remember sitting at the counter of Café Campagne eating a Tuscan white bean salad. And I remember the guy who waited on me. His name was Brad; he was smooth, pulled together. All the staff at Café Campagne was attractive,” Gordon says. “It was like they had a backlog of great-looking people hanging around like utensils in a Bain-Marie.”
Six weeks later his spoon was resting in that Bain-Marie when he landed a slot alongside chefs Tamara Murphy and Jim Drohman at Campagne, Café Campagne’s fine-dining adjunct in Pike Place Market, before each took off to open places of their own.
As lead chef, his job involved ordering, expediting and cooking both upstairs and down at those very French restaurants, something he still does today.
“I couldn’t have prayed for a job like the one at Campagne,” Gordon says. Nor could he imagine that owner Peter Lewis would ever sell it; that the new owner would become his partner, that during the recent recession it would be his job to close and recast tony Campagne as casual Marché; and that after nearly two decades in business, Café Campagne — long since expanded from 36 seats to 100 — would still be pouring on the Gallic charm.
That charm relies, in large part, on the smooth service that first caught his attention.
“It’s called a cafe, but it’s still a restaurant: You’re delivering a full-service experience, a civilized experience.”
To Gordon, that means serving bread with the meal and not tacking on a surcharge. Offering reservations because our time is precious — and it’s the civilized thing to do. As the boss with the sauce, it’s his job to recognize that “just because a place is relaxed doesn’t mean your guests want bad food. They want great food.”
At brunch, that might be standards like Café Campagne’s bacon- and foie gras-sauced oeufs en meurette. At lunch or dinner the classic cassoulet that remains a cause celeb when it returns each year as a cool-weather standard.
“One of the fantastic things about French cooking is the wine pairing, the coursing, the gentle progression,” Gordon says. A meal timed by his staff to suit patrons’ wants and needs — not the chef’s artistic whim.
And one of the fabulous things about his tenure means that “over time, you know the cycles of business, the patterns. You can observe an evolution in guests’ habits and needs.”
Some of us choose restaurants for their novelty, for entertainment, says Gordon, citing the proliferation of molecular gastronomy and the need to check out the “best new” restaurant or latest culinary ingénue.
But what brings us back to Café Campagne — grown from mademoiselle to respected madame under Gordon’s watch — is “that deep satisfaction” you get from the tried-and-true: the truite aux amandes, the crème brûlée.
“You make that reservation, you want that dish, you’ve practically consumed it in your head. You’ve been thinking about it, salivating, you show up, it’s on the menu and you’re happy.”
HAJIME SATO knew he’d make customers unhappy when, in 2009, he completely revamped his menu.
Determined to come clean, he re-envisioned Mashiko as Seattle’s first — and so far only — fully sustainable sushi restaurant.
“Why not?” chides Sato. “Everyone uses sustainability as a marketing scheme!”
Everyone except a wide world of sushi chefs still willing to give customers what they want: toro cut from endangered big fin tuna; ranched hamachi culled from the wild as juveniles; black tiger shrimp farmed in Southeast Asia.
Casting his eye on the local sushi scene, he’s determined that other chefs should just say no to endangered species and environmentally unsound fishing practices — while not jacking up prices.
Globally, he’s taking guff from friends in his native Japan who insist, “Why are you doing this hip thing? You’re destroying the sushi culture!”
He returns the rant: “I’m doing something that goes back 200 years! Basic, traditional stuff: seasonal, local stuff.”
Initially, business took a nose dive. But soon it was up again — and not only because PC patrons were jumping on his bandwagon.
Sato stays busy because he’s a hoot, Mashiko is fun and he’s been running this ship since 1994, when he was a young punk looking to spice up the staid sushi trade.
A savvy marketer and creative maverick, he posts house rules like “Music is Chef’s Choice” and “Because Hajime Says So!” If he likes you, you might go home with a bumper sticker advertising his website — sushiwhore.com.
He’s an outspoken advocate of putting women behind the sushi bar (his sidekick, Mariah Kmitta, has been there a dozen years), and in 2011 opened Georgetown’s Katsu Burger, a distinctly Japanese take on the American classic, because Americans are obsessed with burgers “and I wanted to diversify.”
Fancy restaurants make him nervous. So do pretentious cooks.
“I tell all my employees to always think about the customer’s face when you’re making their food. If you feel like you’re the god, and it’s their job to understand that, you don’t deserve to be in the business.”
The best form of advertising is word-of-mouth, he says, and word’s out that he knows how to treat customers right: Make them comfortable. Make them laugh. Offer quality food, good value, your trust.
Brings them back, every time.
Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times food writer. Reach her at email@example.com or 206-464-8838. On Twitter: @nancyleson. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.