It’s Monday and Zephyr Paquette’s new Capitol Hill restaurant, Skelly and the Bean, is closed. She’s there anyhow—getting the kitchen ready for its guest chef for the evening. Mondays and Tuesdays, Skelly’s dark nights, she opens the house to guest cooks—sous chefs, top culinary students, other rising talents who don’t get to star in their own productions. The setup is simple: Guest chef sets menu and price—selling seats through Brown Paper Tickets—and covers food and kitchen staff. Skelly gets proceeds from the bar. Service costs they split.
“These Incubator Dinners, they’re a big deal to me,” Paquette told me over the phone, voice burbling with the kind of zany buoyancy one might expect from a woman named Zephyr Paquette. I wasn’t looking at the small-statured spitfire with the two-toned cropped hair and the orange-colored glasses, but I knew she was roaring around her kitchen—I’d seen it before from my seat in her dining room. I also knew that all the stuff she was telling me about running her business with humility, honor, and respect—wasn’t just trotted out for the restaurant critic. It was the reason for her Incubator Dinners.
“There is so much talent in Seattle that hasn’t been noticed,” she says, genuinely pained. “How do you get started in this business if you don’t have $75,000 to open a restaurant?”
For Zephyr Paquette, this is not a rhetorical question.
A dozen years ago she arrived in Seattle on a bus from Atlanta, so shaken by loss (a dog, a romance, a motorcycle, 9/11) she’d given away everything that didn’t fit in a duffle bag and bought a ticket to the farthest place Greyhound would take her. She didn’t know a soul. The self-taught chef knew a thing or two about collard greens and fried chicken, however, and she scored a job with uberchef Tamara Murphy at her early restaurant, .Ing. That led to a job at Cafe Flora, which led to the sous position at the Ballard neighborhood restaurant Dandelion.
There, she and owner Carol Nockold would haunt weekend farmers markets, building relationships with farmers and exploring the value of farm-fresh food. For Paquette, whose family was “barely existent,” Nockold became a central part of her created family. When Paquette turned 35, Nockold baked her the first birthday cake she’d ever had. Soon after, Nockold was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Soon after that, she was dead.
All at once Paquette knew the restaurant she wanted to build: a restaurant that sprouted from real relationships—with farmers, growers, diners. She’d been eyeing the corner space on North Capitol Hill that had once housed the beloved neighborhood hangout Cassis and was at that moment being vacated by Tidbit. But there was that $75,000 problem. Years of damaged credit had left banks even warier of her than they had become, since the downturn, of everyone else in the crazy restaurant business. And crazy it was. From her then-gig at Tamara Murphy’s bookstore eatery, Elliott Bay Cafe, Paquette had a front-row seat to the hell Murphy was going through fighting her landlord to open Terra Plata. Finding the right partner was a crapshoot. Her dream Capitol Hill space got snatched up by the burger joint Easy Joe’s. It didn’t look possible.
On Mother’s Day, Paquette went to make brunch for another branch of her chosen “family.” While she was cooking, their seven-year-old boy, Pascal, slipped $10 of his allowance into her bag. When she discovered it, she called his dad. “He thinks you should open a restaurant,” Pascal’s dad told her. “We all think you should open a restaurant.”
Pascal had given what for him amounted to two months’ worth of his income. When she went to thank him, the sage seven-year-old gave her some advice: First you ask everyone you know. Then you ask them again.
Thierry Rautureau, owner of Rover’s, financed his new restaurant Luc by preselling gift certificates redeemable for discounted meals at both restaurants. Maybe, she thought, she could pull off something like that.
So she asked everyone she knew.
The deal was this: Pay $1,000 up front. Become a member (complete with membership card!). Get $1,500 back in the form of a $125-per-month restaurant credit for a year. It would function like a club—a club that happened to be open to the public.
Turns out the spitfire who’d arrived in Seattle without a friend to her name had in 10 years become friendly with nearly everyone in the Seattle food community. Tamara Murphy gave money. Private chefs and food journalists gave money. Easy Joe’s announced it was closing; this time she had the means to snatch the space up. Paquette posted the membership deal on Facebook, along with member parties where anyone who wanted to pick up a paintbrush could help. One man bought his wife a Skelly membership for her birthday and asked Paquette to post word of the gift on Facebook—timed to the moment the birthday girl would be drinking a martini and checking her Facebook page. The next work party, Birthday Girl came to scrub the walls.
The donated walls, that is, made of barn siding from a company in Montana that had sold Paquette flooring. One foursome bought a membership just when the joint needed its blue ceiling paint. “Thank you!” Paquette told them gratefully. “You just bought the sky!”
Nearly everything at Skelly is donated. Mismatched dinette sets, loudly mid-century, fill the windowy room. One yellow set came from members who were hurrying to catch a plane when they saw it on the street with a “Free” sign. “Ohmygosh, Zephyr needs to have that!” they said, slamming on the brakes and hauling it into their car. A weathervane chandelier dangles from the ceiling. A “Wall of Love” lists donors’ names in swirly psychedelic letters.
From a diner’s perspective, aspects of Paquette’s unusual business model create their own sunny weather. Take Yelp. That online opinion site—often crammed with negative appraisals of restaurants in their early, buggy days—had a Skelly and the Bean page filled from the start with comments mushy as mash notes. It helps when your diners are also your investors.
Then there’s service. Not better than other restaurants; more like qualitatively different. More familiar, more folksy—not so very unlike family. In fact on two visits our table languished long between courses and water refills. But when we forgot our doggie bag on the table the manager came running down the sidewalk with it. “Really, I would love to eat this but I think you’d be sad tomorrow,” he said, twinkling. It was Jef Fike, gracious proprietor of the former tenant Cassis. He had found his way to Paquette by way of an article he’d read on Skelly. “I thought, ‘Hmm, 2359 Tenth, why does that address sound so familiar?’ ” Immediately he called Paquette, and she said ‘Come talk to me right now! I’m sick of hearing how much people miss Cassis!’ Two hours later he was general manager.
So far, Paquette’s cooking bears the same folksy imprint as the welcome. Fat chunky potato salads potent with tarragon. Grilled endive salads, big with bitter greens and sweet muscat grapes and muscular blue cheese. Deep-fried rabbit rillettes, guiltily greasy, in a sweet apricot mascarpone dipping sauce. Thick burgers on good square buns topped with truffled cheese and pickled onions and bacon, and served with creamy-crunchy tater tots.
Her conceptions are sometimes simple, as in a pork chop large as a roast over fingerlings and rutabagas with just a dash of rocket pesto, or sometimes elemental, as in a sturdy plate of root beer–infused black beans with corn bread and pork belly. They can be well…forgetful, as in the side dish of blasted rabe which hadn’t been blasted, or a wizened hunk of halibut blasted quite enough, thank you. What they aren’t is nuanced. Paquette’s food is no air kiss. It’s a bear hug.
If things go as planned she’ll release a certain amount of new memberships quarterly—maybe 25 this summer, so she’ll have cash to buy tomatoes enough from farmer Kurt Tonnemaker to put some up for winter. Who knows, maybe she’ll throw a party to do it; invite the members for a preserving party.
“At first I was surprised that people would want to give a thousand bucks, then come scrub my walls,” Paquette reflects. “But when magic like that happens, I’m not surprised anymore. People want to be noticed. To know that they exist. Everybody wants to have a place to be.”