In Seattle's Kitchens, 6 Degrees
Friends and mentors ignited our hot restaurant scene
It was 1982, and Peter Lewis was waiting tables at Trattoria Mitchelli down in Pioneer Square when word got out that something big was happening up on Capitol Hill. Something he knew he wanted in on.
Like waiters all over town, he peered between the papered-over windows of a new Italian restaurant and bar — Settebello. "It was flashy and promising. Any waiter with any gumption wanted to work there," remembers Lewis, who, three years later, gifted Seattle with his own restaurant and bar, Campagne: a French-accented finishing school that has graduated more than 20 successful restaurateurs.
Viewed through the lens of time, it's possible to consider this a defining moment, one that set in motion a series of friendships and mentorships, connections and associations that grew into the dynamic, delicious melange that is Seattle's modern restaurant scene.
Settebello's flash and promise arrived impeccably dressed in an Armani suit. His name was Luciano Bardinelli, and he wore the label "Italian playboy" with impunity. The former general manager of Touch — Hugh Hefner's private Beverly Hills club — had come to Seattle for romance and fallen in love. But not with the woman who lured him here.
Seduced "by the red leaves and blue skies of Seattle in November," Bardinelli came because it reminded him of Italy's lake region. And in the decade that his restaurant stood sentinel at the corner of Olive and Denny, waiters and cooks were drawn to its flame because Seattle had never seen anything like it.
"Luc was the best front man in the Italian genre," says Scott Carsberg chef/owner of Lampreia, in Belltown. "He brought modern Italian cuisine to Seattle."
Luigi DeNunzio, owner of four restaurants and the mustachioed maestro behind Pioneer Square's "Little Italy," agrees: "Prosciutto di Parma, fresh porcini mushrooms, San Marzano tomatoes — these were unheard of. Before, you paid $6.95 for spaghetti and meatballs. Luciano put fresh extruded pasta on the menu and charged $10.50! People almost had a heart attack."
Bardinelli introduced Seattle to risotto and osso buco, but insists he wasn't alone blazing the trail of Italian fine dining. He cites Saleh Joudeh, whose Green Lake restaurant Saleh al Lago also opened in '82. And Carmine Smeraldo, who worked in Pioneer Square for Umberto Menghi before opening Il Terrazzo Carmine in 1984.
At Settebello, "There was a core clientele, people who enjoyed the finer things in life," says DeNunzio. Contractor Howard Wright. Gene Juarez on table 40. "And every Friday night there'd be Mrs. Friedlander: Southern Comfort with a cherry!" he laughs, recalling the jewelry-store doyenne's standing order.
Italian chefs imported from Los Angeles and San Francisco arrived and departed at an alarming rate. "We had some very, very colorful times," says Bardinelli, who hired and fired those "prima donnas" until he was forced to throw in the towel and pick up an apron. "I bought cookbooks, studied French and Italian chefs, and cooked for three, four, five years, teaching young kids how to do it, too."
One of those kids was Raffaele Calise, who later opened the screamingly successful Salute in Ravenna where Seattle queued up for pasta puttanesca and tiramisu. Calise later opened a string of Salutes, among other restaurants since sold or divested. As waiters, Lewis, DeNunzio and the late Kenny Raider offered collective expertise that wasn't lost on Bardinelli. "They loved the restaurant business and were very instrumental in making the place what it was," he says.
Settebello was certainly a beacon for Italian émigrés looking for work. Among them Lorenzo Scordamaglia, now owner of Ristorante Tropea in Redmond. And Gino Borriello, of Ciao Bella near University Village. One night, several waiters were standing in front of the restaurant cadging a smoke when a car full of attractive women stopped to ask for directions to a party. "The party's here!" the Italians told them, persuading the ladies to come in for a drink instead. Borriello ended up marrying one of them.
By the late '80s, the party was winding down as Bardinelli prepared to head to Kirkland to open the splashy (if short-lived) Stresa at Carillon Point — a dual-level showcase built in partnership with developer Paul Skinner. But before he could open on the Eastside, he needed someone to take over his kitchen on Capitol Hill. And that's when Luciano got lucky.
Scott Carsberg, a West Seattle boy, impressed Bardinelli by telling him he'd worked for Italy's renowned chef Andrea Hellrigl. "Scott was a kid who wanted to show the world what he could do," says his former boss, now speaking from "the 50-yard-line" of chain restaurants in Bellevue Square, where the last in a long line of Bardinelli-owned restaurants — Ristorante Luciano — proudly sits, catering to patrons from the early days at Settebello. And what "the kid" wanted to do was toss the pasta and the Caesar salad — out.
"Mrs. Friedlander came in and told me if I didn't have Caesar salad on the menu this place would be out of business in three weeks," Carsberg laughs. "I said, 'Excuse me? The menu's already been printed' " — without it. "She said, 'Go to the store and get the romaine!' " When word got back to Bardinelli, he told his chef, "Next time, have some around."
There was no romaine in the house when Carsberg opened Lampreia in 1992, a year after Bardinelli sold his Capitol Hill restaurant. Today Carsberg's creative genius has aroused some of the nation's most sophisticated palates. Meanwhile, his penchant for unchecked abrasiveness has earned him more than a few detractors.
Ask him if he cares.
Famously shunning the celebrity-chef spotlight, he chooses to spend his time in his kitchen rather than on the charity circuit, the radio or TV. And when he won the 2006 James Beard Award for "Best Chef" in the region, instead of flying to New York to accept the medal, he stayed in Seattle and did what he does best: He cooked.
Carsberg might be surprised to hear that the day he opened Lampreia, Seattle's superstar chef Tom Douglas told a friend: "It must be nice to own the best restaurant in the city on the day you open it."
ASK TOM DOUGLAS to describe the restaurant landscape when he arrived in 1977 and he'll mention the Golden Lion, 13 Coins and Ray's Boathouse. He'll talk about Victor Rosellini and Gerard Parrat of Gerard's Relais de Lyon, scene of his 21st-birthday bash.
As a savvy entrepreneur, he tips his hat to Mick McHugh, Bill and John Schwartz, Dave Cohn and Gerry Kingen, whose expansionist visions came to fruition long before Seattle had heard of the Palace Kitchen, Serious Pie or Tom Douglas' Rub with Love.
Douglas was 19 when he landed a job at Kingen's Broadway fern bar, Boondock's, Sundecker's & Greenthumbs. And 25 by the time he became the head chef at a new restaurant adjoining the Seattle Athletic Club near Pike Place Market. At Cafe Sport, he honed his skills as a chef unafraid to cross cultures on the same plate, eventually acting as both chef and general manager and hiring a cast of characters — many of whom work for him today.
Waitress and track coach Babe Shepherd earned a degree in phys-ed during her four years at Cafe Sport, and followed Douglas to the Dahlia Lounge in 1989, working with his wife and business partner, Jackie Cross, alongside servers who'd later open restaurants of their own: Jessica Price (Luau Polynesian Lounge), Kendell Sillers (Market Street Grill) and JM Enos (Lark and Licorous).
In 1994, after accepting a full-time teaching position at Juanita High School, Shepherd "went home, felt sick to my stomach and couldn't sleep. I realized that while I'd love to continue coaching track, I did not want to be a teacher." Three days earlier, her brother John had leased a sweet spot on Phinney Ridge. "He was going to do a little news stand, and I told him, that's not a good idea." She had a better one. They called it Red Mill Burgers.
Red Mill opened with a $50,000 investment and a raft of used kitchen equipment. Even their signature recipes were secondhand. "The chicken sandwich with basil-mayo on sourdough. It's the chix-wich from Cafe Sport," says Shepherd. "The red-onion jam we put on the burgers? Sport." As for her killer onion rings: "Tom came over and said, 'Let's work on that breading.' " Disgusted with her secondhand fryer, he showed up one day with a new one. Red Mill's success allowed the Shepherds to buy the building that houses it, expand into the adjacent space and open a second location in Interbay. "Sometimes we get so busy it's like the Lucille Ball candy factory," says Shepherd, who runs the Phinney store. Sometimes you'll wait 30 minutes for a burger, "but we'll make anything you ask for," she says. It was a lesson learned from Douglas.
"He always put the customer first. No matter what a customer asked for, he'd say 'Do it!' even if it means you put ketchup on their salmon."
Looking back at Cafe Sport's debut, Shepherd recalls waiting on Seattle Times restaurant critic John Hinterberger. "Everybody was in the kitchen saying, 'He's out there! What did he order? What did he say?' " He ordered salmon Niçoise and said, in print, "Ain't got no salmon in Nice." But we've got them in Seattle, "and Cafe Sport's chefs know what to do with them."
TED FURST, NOW a restaurant consultant, was one of those chefs. "Ted has serious food chops," says Douglas. "He was a natural. Few people have that natural ability, and I wish, to this day, that he had a small restaurant he was chefing at."
Furst once had that restaurant. It was a 30-seat Provencal café called Campagne.
Peter Lewis was waiting tables at Adriatica — owned by Jim Malevitsis and chef John Sarich — when he was recruited as service-staff manager at Cafe Sport. And that's where he met Furst, who'd soon leave Sport to work at Bellevue's Bravo Pagliaccio.
Lewis later joined him as Bravo's front-end manager and recalls a trio of businessmen who regularly commandeered a booth at lunch: Bill Gates, Paul Allen and Nathan Myhrvold. "We'd look across the street and say, 'Microsoft? What's that?' " And longing to run a business of their own, they set out to find one, opening the original Campagne in a funky space in the Ambassador apartment building — across from Settebello.
During that era, says Lewis, "French restaurants were places like the Mirabeau, with formal, hierarchically structured service and fancy sauce-work. As Francophiles, we thought we could create something appropriately intimate, sweet and informal" — something Seattle had never seen.
And that's exactly what they did, says Jim Drohman, now chef/owner of Le Pichet and its new offshoot, Café Presse.
Drohman and his girlfriend, Sheila McDonnal, were taking a stroll on Capitol Hill 20-some years ago when they came across the restaurant that would change their lives. Dressed in sweats, "we looked like hell." That didn't bother Peter Lewis, who invited the strangers in for a closer look. Scott Emerick, now chef/owner of Crémant in Madrona, also got a close-up of the original Campagne: on his prom night, 1987. "I'd never had a meal like that before. It was the first time I had snails. That garlic butter changed my life forever," says Emerick, who worked under Drohman at Campagne, and later at Le Pichet.
By the time Emerick tasted his first escargot, Campagne was losing $2,000 a month. "One of us had to go," says Lewis. Ted Furst, "the original gypsy in a gypsy trade," went. He landed as executive chef for Schwartz Brothers Restaurants.
And that's when "an extraordinary opportunity" presented itself for Lewis: a vacant restaurant across from the Inn at the Market. That prime spot had been vacated by John Sarich, who'd sundered his partnership with Malevitsis at Adriatica to open Dalmacija Ristoran in Pike Place Market. And when Seattle's first female celebrity chef Kathy Casey's long-delayed plans to move into the coveted space fell through, it was Lewis who got the green light.
"With Ted gone, I didn't know how I was going to pull it off," he recalls. He pulled it off with the help of Susan Vanderbeek. "Lovely, gracious and talented, she cooked beautiful food," Lewis says. "But she was not a manager." Drohman remembers her food well. It was served at his wedding-rehearsal dinner in Campagne's courtyard in the summer of 1988. Two years later, the Boeing engineer would leave the city of flight for the City of Light, returning from Paris to take his place in the pantheon of Campagne's staff-turned-restaurateurs. Lewis left Campagne in 2005, but his legacy endures.
"Being a chef at Campagne was exactly what I wanted. It had a great reputation, and lots of visibility," says Drohman, who rose from lunch cook to executive chef. Lewis, says Drohman, "has an impeccable palate. He's always polite and kind, but you knew when he wasn't happy with what you were doing."
Executive chef Tamara Murphy, hired in 1990 to replace Vanderbeek, was far from happy when Lewis insisted she hire Drohman. "I said, 'Pete! He doesn't have any experience!' " Proving her point, the first week on the job, Drohman carried a steaming stockpot into the closet-size walk-in, set it down and promptly stepped right into it. Examining the burns on Drohman's leg, Murphy thought, " 'See, Pete! Now what do I do?' "
What Murphy did was teach Drohman how to run a kitchen. "Tamara is wildly creative and the hardest-core line cook I ever saw," he says. "You never want a debutant cook who comes in and tells you what to do but can't cook on the line . . . She was the Tasmanian devil, and I tried to emulate that."
Murphy learned her lessons the hard way.
At her first major restaurant gig in New York, she met Christine Keff — who'd later open Seattle's fabulous Flying Fish. "I had an omelet order on a very busy sauté station, and I made it badly. Chris made me do it over. I put it out again. She sent it back" — later insisting Murphy make a perfect three-fold omelet for each staffer, doing it over and over if she failed. "I told her, 'It's just an omelet!' And she said, 'It's never just an omelet.' "
Dominique Place, the French chef and owner of Dominique's Place in Madison Park, was a protégé of Robert Rosellini and the man who gave Murphy her first job in Seattle. Murphy counts him, too, among her chief mentors. "I said, 'Teach me how to make pâté,' and he said, 'You can't even wash my floors right. When you can do something that takes no skill, then I'll teach you how to make pâté.' "
He also taught her that "the leap between being a good cook and a chef is huge." At Dominique's Place she learned to be a cook, but it wasn't until the restaurant closed and Place persuaded Lewis to hire her at Campagne that the cook learned to be a chef.
With Murphy aboard, says Lewis, "it was a remarkable run." Fine Dining Hall of Fame, James Beard award, Food & Wine Top 10 Chefs. A sprint that launched Campagne — and many who worked there — into the big time. And though Lewis owned the restaurant, Murphy says, "he let me take ownership in the kitchen."
That education came in handy when she opened Brasa in 1999. As did Lewis' other life lesson: He said, "When you invite people to a party, you invite the people you want to spend time with. If you don't want them at your party, you won't want them at your workplace."
Brasa's party started with a host of in-house talent, most notably co-owner Bryan Hill, Campagne's longtime manager and sommelier. Also in the house: pantry cook Julie Andres, now chef/owner at La Medusa in Columbia City.
"When we opened Brasa," says Murphy, "my head was about to come off my shoulders." Helping her keep her head on was Holly Smith. "Tamara is the most dynamic person I've ever met," says Smith, who stayed a year. "She's like Mount Rainier: she has her own climate. She can get you to do anything." After Smith's first day on the job, "Tamara walked by me and said, 'You're a really good cook.' No one had ever said that to me before. She instilled a lot of confidence in me."
Murphy instilled confidence, but it was Tom Douglas, says Smith, who helped broker her deal with his friend, Peter Dow, whose 22-year-old Kirkland restaurant she'd buy and rejuvenate. "Tom called and said, 'You have 24 hours to put in an offer at Café Juanita. It's a perfect turnkey. You don't have to do anything.' " But, Smith recalls, "I didn't just want to own a restaurant, I wanted my own voice!" Douglas helped her find that, too.
In 1993, Smith was a Seattle newcomer in search of a job. Standing in front of the original Dahlia Lounge, she looked up and said, "I'm not going to give my résumé to a place with a dangling neon fish." Later, "I heard that the only place getting national press was Tom's. I ate those words very quickly."
At the Dahlia, she found herself behind the stove with John Sundstrom and Philip Mihalski. Sundstrom had worked at Cafe Sport before Douglas bought the place and reintroduced it as Etta's Seafood. Today he's chef/owner at Lark and co-owner of Licorous. Mihalski would later share a kitchen with Saleh Joudeh at Saleh al Lago before buying the 17-year-old Italian standard-bearer and re-establishing it as Nell's.
"There was a collaborative spirit to that kitchen that kept a variety of talented people interested," Mihalski recalls. "What Tom was doing there was defining Northwest cuisine" — using seasonal local ingredients with Asian influences, and at the same time putting risotto or pasta on the menu.
Out of the culinary melting pot that was the Dahlia's communal menu meetings came individual inspiration. Off the clock, Smith preferred to eat Asian food, but "increasingly, as a chef making menus at the Dahlia, I was drawn back to Italy." "Because Tom lets the kitchen write the menus" — something she takes complete control of at her own restaurant — "I benefited as a cook. By the time I left (five years later), you'd go in at lunch, look in the walk-in and figure out what you were going to do, then you'd prep and write the menu. It made me a fast cook . . . a real cowboy. But there was less refinement. John and I fought for a little more refining."
Sundstrom spent six years at the Dahlia, rising to lead chef before Douglas relocated his restaurant up the block in 2000. By then, Sundstrom had relocated to Carmelita, an upscale vegetarian restaurant in Greenwood from which he was recruited to head up the kitchen at Earth & Ocean in the W Hotel.
"Every restaurateur has a different approach to how they market themselves," says Sundstrom, now known for his religious use of local, carefully sourced ingredients. And in a Tom Douglas restaurant, "people expected Tom Douglas to be cooking their crab cakes. When you work for Tom, you're in his shadow as a chef," Sundstrom says. "When you start influencing the menu and having more creative control, you want to be recognized for it."
Recognition was what Mihalski was looking for when he left the Dahlia to open Marco's Supperclub, a new Belltown boîte co-owned by a former Campagne waitress, Donna Moodie. "Ultimately, my goal was to own my own restaurant," he says. "Taking the job at Marco's was a step in that direction."
"Opening a restaurant tests your love for the industry," says Jim Drohman. "I tell young cooks that restaurant work is dirty and repetitive and boring. The most successful restaurants aren't the ones that do it right one night; they've got to do it right 1,000 nights."
Chef Joe Scott is looking forward to 1,000 nights of getting it right. Like Drohman, he made a career change, leaving his life as a geologist and putting himself through culinary school. He came here from California, as Luciano Bardinelli did, with a vision of opening his own restaurant. And like Holly Smith (who'd help teach him how to do that during his three years at Café Juanita) he found one off the beaten path, on Whidbey Island, whose name — the Oystercatcher — he'll keep.
With help from his wife, pastry chef Jamie, Scott will source his menu locally, as Sundstrom does. And it will reflect his adoration for Provence, as Peter Lewis had done. He bought his restaurant from Susan Vanderbeek, the first chef at Campagne in the Market.
And the connections continue.
Nancy Leson is The Seattle Times restaurant critic. Mike Siegel is a Times staff photographer.