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Originally published February 27, 2008 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 27, 2008 at 5:33 PM

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Taste of the Town

Chef Scott Simpson returns to his first love — comfort food

At 28, chef Scott Simpson gained a fervent following as the original owner of the Blue Onion Bistro, selling upscale comfort foods and culinary...

Seattle Times restaurant critic

Nancy Leson on KPLU

The Seattle Times restaurant critic's commentaries on food and restaurants can be heard on KPLU-FM (88.5) at 5:30 a.m., 7:30 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Wednesdays, and 8:30 a.m. Saturdays. This week: Strike up the bland — food, that is.

Food for Thought with Nancy Leson

Food For Thought airs every Wednesday on KPLU's Morning Edition at 5:35 and 7:35 a.m, and again on KPLU's Weekend Edition Saturday, at 8:35 a.m. Listen to "Bland foods we love," her latest commentary. Or subscribe to podcasts.

At 28, chef Scott Simpson gained a fervent following as the original owner of the Blue Onion Bistro, selling upscale comfort foods and culinary kitsch in a converted gas station in the Roosevelt district. At 33, he gained acclaim for his funky-yet-formal dinner house, Fork, offering foie gras torchons and lobster corn dogs on Capitol Hill.

In the six months between Fork's 2006 debut and denouement, Simpson gained so much weight he couldn't breathe, he couldn't sleep and he could barely walk a block. "My legs hurt so bad, I thought they were breaking off," he recalls of those months. "My whole body was in pain."

Suffering from diabetes, heart problems, liver ailments and severe depression, the young chef sequestered himself in his apartment, leaving his fledgling business in the hands of his hired help — and ate his way to 469 pounds.

In June 2006, Simpson sold the restaurant. And after that, he never left the house, relying on Domino's delivery for sustenance. "I was a total shut-in. For six months in a row I ate pizza every night. Eating was my comfort, my solace. I created that for myself by not being social, by making food my entire existence."

Then, after a lifetime spent struggling with his weight and bipolar disorder, which was recently diagnosed, he decided he'd had enough.

Inspired by the massive weight-loss of another locally known chef — Sazerac's "Big Dawg" Jan Birnbaum — Simpson went on a liver-cleansing diet, flew to Mexico and underwent gastric bypass surgery, eventually dropping more than half his weight. Complications from the surgery almost killed him.

Today he's 35 and a sturdy 200 pounds, healthier, happier and intent on doing what he's long dreamed of — opening a little roadside burger joint. His latest venture, a 16-seat takeout cafe called Lunchbox Laboratory, is set to open this week off a busy commercial strip in Ballard.

Simpson spent the past six months gutting and remodeling the 1,800-square-foot space at 7302 ½ 15th Ave. N.W., once home to the original Ballard Brothers Burgers. He's torn out the adjoining driveway and built a patio set with picnic benches under a heated tent. The kitchen is outfitted with fast-food service in mind, and the interior with chalkboard menus and his trademark collectibles — everything from a hog's rear end to a kiddie drum set to a wall full of vintage lunchboxes stamped with images of King Kong, Lassie and the Cabbage Patch Kids.

Out front, a tall neon sign advertises "Lunch, Dinner, Brunch & More" and features a square-jawed, toque-wearing chef missing a tooth and sporting the kind of black eye one might have gotten in a bar brawl. Simpson admits it's a wink at the kind of chef he once idolized, and a nod "to the beating I've taken this last year" — a year that's "been one of the best and worst years of my life."

Helping Simpson run the business is his fiancée, Allegra Waggener. They met a year ago, and she's been both a steadying hand and a helpful visionary for Lunchbox Laboratory. Waggener's managerial experience at such finer fast-fooderies as Dish D'Lish and Specialtys will no doubt come in handy as they hit the ground running.

Their menu will encompass hand-ground burgers made with beef, turkey or lamb seared in French cast-iron skillets and topped with the likes of "crispy farmhouse bacon" and balsamic plum onion relish. We can expect a long line of "experiments" in comfort-food classics, like a rotating list of "TV dinners" built as a square meal with protein, veg, starch and dessert and served on compartmentalized china.

Vegetarians can munch on an "Ultra Vegetarian Patty Deluxe" embellished, if they wish, with one of two styles of fries — fat and stubby and shoestring. Plus vegetable gratins, mac 'n' cheese and "candyman carrots." Kids are sure to clamor for housemade corn dogs, and milkshakes made with homemade ice cream, flavored with peppermint sticks or Ovaltine.

And everyone can help themselves to condiments stored on an old Nesbitt's soda cooler: brown sugared carnival mustard, spontaneous combustion-fire ketchup, housemade vinegars and a variety of flavored salts — including one scented like bacon. In the coming months, Simpson and Waggener hope to roll out their "lunchbox program" — customized lunchboxes to-go, offering grade-school-worthy versions of retro favorites like tuna-fish sandwiches, or PB&J made with housemade nut-butters and jellies.

But how will Simpson, who has fought with a food-obsession in ways that nearly killed him, fight the urge to splurge on his own creations — now that his stomach is "the size of a golf ball"? And how will he keep his creative side from combusting, as it's done in the past?

For now, he says, "I have no worries, no stresses, no inhibitions. I'm very excited to be back in the kitchen, back cooking." He's eating healthfully, in small portions, and is happy to find that his palate is much improved since his weight loss. "I can really taste food, distinguish little things I couldn't before." Good food is the key again, he says: in moderation. "I had no self-control, and that was my problem." Now, when he eats too much, it hurts. "You can eat little bites of food, and it's like you ate a whole turkey."

At Fork, he recalls, "I wanted to do something artistic. It was a cool, weird experiment — and it wasn't for me. My art is comfort food." And unlike restaurants serving foie gras torchons and lobster corn dogs, he notes, "Burgers don't go out of style. You don't wake up one day and say, 'Burgers are so out, let's eat pork belly sandwiches!' "

Looking back on his years as a restaurateur, Simpson recalls that at Blue Onion, "I cooked the kind of food I wanted to eat myself." Now, he says, "I'm cooking the food I wish I could eat."

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com.

More columns at seattletimes.com/nancyleson.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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