Snoqualmie Valley native Joe Ritchie began his cooking career flipping burgers and “getting my snowboarding money by working in kitchens.” Off the slopes, Ritchie discovered he had an affinity for the kitchen life. So much so that after a stint in the military, he used the GI bill to go to culinary school in Phoenix.
Ritchie’s first job in Washington was cooking under Jerry Traunfeld during his days at the Herbfarm, a happy coincidence since he grew up around the corner from the original Herbfarm in Falls City. “I had always heard about it when I was a kid,” he says, though he thought it was “some exclusive place.” He eventually worked his way up to sous chef at one of the state’s most celebrated farm-to-table restaurant experiences.
After a few years in Colorado, Ritchie returned to the Northwest, to helm the kitchen at Cave B winery near the Gorge amphitheater. There he cooked for the likes of Tom Petty and Dave Matthews, the latter of whom would often reserve the whole winery a week at time for the whole Dave Matthews Band. After long sets, says Ritchie, Matthews and his posse would head back to Cave B and he would cook up whatever was in the kitchen. Ritchie says, he got to know the band a bit—surely causing much jealousy to lady fans everywhere.
Despite the cushy position, not to mention the opportunities to rub elbows with stars at Cave B, Ritchie still craved the city life. When Traunfeld asked him to work at his new Northwest-meets-India thali restaurant, Poppy, Ritchie gladly made the switch from running his own kitchen to working as chef de cuisine for one of the most talented chefs in the city.
Here, a few questions for Joe Ritchie
If you were to open your own restaurant today what kind of food would it serve?
I know what I wouldn’t serve: Pacific Northwest, farm to table, new American blah, blah, blah. I appreciate farm to table , I love the Pacific Northwest and am amazed at what we have here but I hate limiting myself so much. Plus I’m tired of homogenous food.
Where do you like to eat in Seattle? And what do you order?
I’m at Ba Bar every Friday night for late night food. I play basketball to unwind after work and a bowl of pho or plate of mackerel wraps is ideal way to end the night! I really love La Bête. I’ve also always been a huge fan of Lampreia/Bisato. I order like a typical cook: whatever looks technical or creative on a menu with a huge bent towards variety meats and charcuterie.
What dish were you the most proud of finally mastering?
I love making pasta. I remember when it really clicked and I realized that I had figured it out and gained a whole new level of confidence.
Tell me about your worst restaurant job.
Ugh! Definitely washing dishes at the Tift Haus in North Bend (it’s closed now so I can bad mouth it by name) It was the local diner complete with pull tabs, canned mashed potatoes, and a smoking section. I was 15 at the time and got incessantly yelled at by the chef and crotchety owners. The last straw was getting chewed out by an elderly woman who walked in on me when I was scrubbing the toilet in the women’s bathroom. I never went back.
What’s your favorite part about being a chef de cuisine?
I love the additional pressure and attention you get as an exec chef but coming to Poppy as a chef de cuisine has given me more time to concentrate on food rather than the mountains of other shit that comes with being the culinary figurehead of a restaurant. I’ve known Jerry for 10 years now so I feel like we are on the same page a lot of the time.
What dish do you enjoy the most at Poppy?
I love eating the food at Poppy and did even before I worked here. It’s different! I love the chickpea salad on our bar menu and right now we are doing a shrimp and grits dish that I’m quite happy with.