The Northwest Flavor Issue
Profiles: Food Geniuses of Seattle
These individuals are changing the way we make dinner.
Riley Starks: The Chicken Champion
Founder, Nettles Farm
He tirelessly pursues chickens that actually taste like, well…chicken.
It’s only slight hyperbole when Riley Starks—fisherman, farmer, renaissance man, connoisseur—declares he carved Nettles Farm out of the grassy folds of Lummi Island for want of a decent tomato. After all, for a time as a kid he lived in the villages of France’s Loire Valley, where his taste buds grew accustomed to fresh foods that tasted not like genetically engineered Big Ag food facsimiles, but full flavored and vivid—like themselves. He launched Nettles Farm in 1992, turning out eggs, fruit, tomatoes, and in time, chickens for meat. He began with the red broiler breed, whose long growing period yielded birds more flavorful than the Cornish cross variety common to the United States. High-end Seattle restaurants tasted the difference; demand grew. And though Starks took a hiatus from the chicken biz—to open the nearby Willows Inn, then to bring gastronomic wunderkind Blaine Wetzel to run its kitchen—he returned to his passion last year. “You can’t get decent chicken here because no one will grow it,” he says, explaining that Cornish cross hens are typically given six weeks to mature. The breeds he raises take five to six months.
These are currently three: the flavorful poulet de Bresse, the rare Austrian Sulmtaler, and the astonishing La Flèche, a slow maturer with a V-shaped comb and a bold, almost gamey meat that Starks first encountered on a trip to Burgundy. “It was in a little restaurant that made coq au vin, and the only meat I got was a leg knuckle and a wing, and it was so good…so amazingly good…every bite was just the essence of chicken.”
“We don’t even know what the essence of chicken is,” Starks reflects. “We think it’s the crust or the spices or the sauce. But really, it’s the chicken itself.” —Kathryn Robinson
Look for Riley’s first La Flèche birds on sale through Nettles Farm next year. Call for more information.
Scott Heimendinger: The Modernist Populist
He gave home cooks access to one of the most revolutionary cooking techniques of our age.
Scott Heimendinger’s first encounter with the cooking technique that would change his life happened at Tilth. It was 2009, and the Microsoft program manager’s frisee salad arrived from the kitchen topped with a most curious egg: the whites set, the yolk perfectly runny, but still holding its original orb shape in a manner that appeared to violate the laws of physics.
That egg spurred his obsession with modernist cooking in general, but namely the process of cooking sous vide, in which protein or -produce gets sealed in an airtight bag, then dropped in a water bath to cook, often over a period of hours. Precision temperature control guarantees that the food emerges cooked exactly how you want it. Achieving this feat required a $1,200 immersion circulator, a laboratory device used to run experiments in controlled temperature settings.
After devouring the scant information available on the technique, Heimendinger came to a conclusion: “It cannot cost $1,200 to heat water.” He reverse engineered his own immersion circulator, wrote about it on his blog, Seattle Food Geek, and hooked up with two University of Washington PhD students who would become his partners in developing the Sansaire—an at-home version that costs less than a good juicer. Along the way, Heimendinger happened to score his dream job, working for Nathan Myhrvold, the man who literally wrote the book on sous vide—technically six much-lauded volumes, known as Modernist Cuisine.
The technology itself—a heating coil, temperature gauge, and some means of keeping the water moving—isn’t terribly complicated. The demand for a home version simply hadn’t existed before. Theirs wasn't the only home version, but Heimendinger and his partners knew two things: Their device had to cost less than $200 and be attractive enough to claim permanent space on users’ countertops. Sansaire launched a Kickstarter campaign in August 2013, seeking an ambitious $100,000.
Except apparently it wasn’t all that ambitious, because the Sansaire hit that goal in a mere 13 hours and 4 minutes. Within 30 days, the project had generated $823,003 from 4,084 backers, most of whom would receive a Sansaire in return.
The devices finally shipped in January, resembling a futuristic wine bottle crossed with a pint of Guinness. Suddenly home cooks from Seattle to London were lighting up Twitter and Instagram with glowing salmon fillets, succulently rare rib-eyes, and eggs much like the one Heimendinger first encountered at Tilth. And, uh, a friend told us the Sansaire produces a wildly potent weed-infused butter, perfect for baked goods that will knock you on your ass.
For people who contend sous vide is overly fussy, Heimendinger points to the summer camp that recently purchased more than 100 units so cheap cuts of meat could be delivered to campers’ plates in a perfectly tender state. “At the highest level, our goal is to battle bad cooking.” —Allecia Vermillion
Scott Heimendinger’s Sansaire is sold at Sur la Table and sansaire.com, as supplies allow.
Taylor Hoang: The Cultural Connector
Owner, Pho Cyclo
She’s demystifying the International District—and letting us know where to find the good stuff.
Taylor Hoang is here to remind everyone: Go south of Yesler and you’ll hit one of the city’s best culinary resources.
Admittedly the intimidation factor of our city’s 100-plus-year-old International District can be pretty high for the uninitiated. The language barrier is daunting, and though the markets are appealingly cheap, the average home cook doesn’t exactly know what to do with lemongrass or a three-foot-long mountain yam.
But Hoang—a chef, a cooking instructor, and the woman behind Seattle’s Pho Cyclo Vietnamese restaurants and Lavender Jade catering—started giving tours of the neighborhood last year. People who signed up for her cooking classes would end up grilling Hoang for the names of her favorite grocery stores and markets.
They were curious about the ID, she realized—they just needed guidance.
During each three-hour tour, Hoang shepherds the group through the district’s markets and bakeries and mom-and-pop restaurants, almost all underreviewed and underappreciated outside the neighborhood, and all wicked, wicked good.
“There are destination places within the ID like Uwajimaya,” Hoang says. “But there are so many little places and restaurants that don’t always get the media writeup.”
Each tour starts in Little Saigon at 12th and Jackson with a walk through the neighborhood’s grocery stores and delis, and tourgoers eat plenty of samples along the way. They visit the Thanh Son Tofu factory and repair to Hoang’s mother’s restaurant, the legendary Huong Binh, for lunch. After a stop for cream puffs at Saigon Bakery, Hoang leads the group west into the International District proper for a tea ceremony, dim sum, Hong Kong pastries, and pork buns.
“By the time they leave they can’t breathe,” Hoang says, laughing. “They’ve just gone through food heaven.”
But Hoang’s mission isn’t just about the food. Over the past five years or so, as more and more families move out of the neighborhood and open restaurants all over Seattle, the ID is becoming less and less of the culinary hub it used to be. By bringing more consumers into the area—consumers who never would have shopped there without Hoang’s guidance—she hopes the neighborhood will continue to thrive.
“Eventually as second- and third-generation residents get older, this area could be gone. That’s what my fear is,” says Hoang. “I want my children and grandchildren to still go to the ID.” —Caroline Ferguson
Taylor Hoang’s $65 tours will resume in September. Look for dates and details at phocyclocafe.com.
Justin Marx: The Pantry Ace
Founder, Marx Foods
He ferrets out the absolute best local products and brings them to the nation's attention.
Every month or two, Justin Marx assembles the staff of his company, Marx Foods, along with a few food-oriented guests. Armed with piles of metal spoons, they taste 75 products in marathon two-hour sessions, dipping into barbecue bitters and Italian-made anchovy sauce and jam—so much jam—to deliver one of three verdicts: thumbs up, thumbs down, or the spineless sideways thumb.
A product must generally earn a thumbs up from two-thirds of the panel to make it onto the shelves at Marx Foods, at the foot of Queen Anne’s western slope—and onto the retail website perused by chefs and food obsessives across the country. Typically only two or three of those 75 products achieve the honor. While Marx wanders markets from Brooklyn to Minneapolis to Tokyo in search of culinary finds, the past two years have transformed him into a champion of Washington’s food artisans. At least the ones that can pass his tasting panels.
The 36-year-old, trendily bestubbled Marx has run a wholesale specialty food business in this spot since 1996, selling wild boar tenderloin and edible flowers and other uberspecialty items to high-end restaurants across the country. Adding a brick-and-mortar store in 2012 meant actual shelves to fill. He didn’t intend to focus on local goods, but he kept happening upon incredible preserves and sauces and seasonings close to home.
When the retail shop opened a year and a half ago, Marx stocked 10, maybe 20 local items. Now nearly one-fifth of the 500 products in the shop originate in the Pacific Northwest (some Oregon, but mostly Washington). The Port Townsend farmers market alone has yielded nearly a half dozen winners.
He develops recipes and shoots videos to champion local wares to a broader audience, hoping these moves earn him some loyalty when brands become big names far beyond Seattle. “The Pacific Northwest and Washington have tremendous cachet,” he says. “But it has to be local and awesome.” —AV
July 9–11, Marx Foods will let customers sample its entire collection of local pantry goods 11am–6pm. 144 Western Ave W, Lower Queen Anne; marxfoods.com
Glenn Herlihy & Jacqueline Cramer: The Permaculture Vultures
Founders, Beacon Food Forest
They're planting a forest we can eat.
Years ago during the revival of sprawling Jefferson Park on the crest of Beacon Hill, a lightbulb went on over the head of Seattle sculptor and garden designer Glenn Herlihy. That broad, southwest-facing slope of Seattle Public Utilities land adjacent to the park? Sure would make a heck of a community garden.
Years later, in a permaculture class in 2009, Herlihy remembered his epiphany, and, along with classmate Jacqueline Cramer, created as their class project a design for an edible arboretum there. Plaudits from the class and a suggestion to make it real led to a community meeting on February 2, 2010—“I chose Groundhog Day as a memorable moment,” recalls Herlihy—which drew so many enthusiastic neighbors, gardeners, and city agency representatives, Herlihy and Cramer knew their idea had legs.
Flash forward to the current moment—countless community input interviews, a zillion (give or take) meetings, one final garden design, a 2012 groundbreaking for construction, dozens of volunteer work hours, resourceful plant gathering (“There’ve been trees we’ve salvaged half dead off the sidewalk,” Herlihy says), and several large planting parties (some in pouring rain) later—phase one of the seven-acre Beacon Food Forest is nearly complete.
And though classic permaculture calls this food forestry—the creation of a sustainable food production ecosystem mimicking nature itself—the Beacon Food Forest will never resemble the seven-layer vine-encrusted tropical jungle most associate with the term. By necessity, Herlihy and Cramer adapted that tropical model to the Northwest’s temperate climate—a project some doubted could be done—and the result is a more manicured, parklike even, habitat abetted by tidy garden plots individuals can tend like P-Patches and community spaces for education.
When finished, Beacon’s seven layers will flourish beneath a canopy of tall nut trees like butternuts and heartnuts, and smaller trees like arbutus, crab apples, dwarf plums, and figs beneath them. Below those, currants and berries, then mints and herbs and rosemaries, then strawberries and other ground covers, and below them root vegetables, this arrangement punctuated with vertical--growing vines. Those plants that aren’t edible will have mulching or pollinating functions which support the whole community of diverse plantings, or guilds, that work together to create the ecosystem.
Hence the magic of a project which a whole community of diverse individuals is working together to create—from the UW ethnobotanist who’s brought myriad exotic starts to the forest to the Chinese communities who pressed for a Szechuan pepper tree. By the time it’s finished, in phases over the next few years, the Beacon Food Forest will be the country’s largest edible landscape on public land—and a place where individuals will be able to freely harvest according to their needs. —KR
Jacqueline Cramer and Glenn Herlihy say the lower west section of the Beacon Food Forest is now available “for ethical foraging.” beaconfoodforest.org