To make the starter he calls Ye Ole Pig Face Fritters, chef Derek Ronspies starts with a pig head. Northeast Washington farmer Brent Olsen trucks over six heads a week, and the chef picks one, rubs it with spices, smokes it awhile, then braises it in -mirepoix, an aromatic mixture of celery, carrots, and onions. The shreds of the sumptuous meat seep clean out of the cavities and cool to a gelatinous solid, which Ronspies cuts, breads, and fries into fritters.
We ordered them on a buzzing Friday night in Ronspies’s restaurant Le Petit Cochon, upstairs at the main Fremont junction—the center of the Center of the Universe. They arrived afloat on a bright puddle of pumpkin bisque, embellished with Treviso greens, a relish of poblano chilies, and lime creme fraiche. Meaty within and crispy without, the fritters were a smoky triumph, piqued by turns with spicy, bitter, sweet, and creamy notes; winningly Southwest. This was a killer dish.
Figuratively and literally. Ronspies is a guy who shot a bird once as a kid and never got over feeling bad about it. “As a chef, here are all these animals giving away their lives, and we just throw away perfectly good parts of them!” he announces, deploying F-bombs the way most people use punctuation. “That animal gave its life for you! You should use all you can!”
So Ronspies dreamed of a restaurant where he could use all parts of an animal: bone marrow, sweetbreads, tongue. Where he could debone a whole pig to make fritters out of the face, porchetta out of the side, ham out of the leg, trotter tots out of the feet, sausage out of the guts, offal crepinettes out of the organs. Where he could put “duck fries” on the menu and not have it refer to the typical American bar snack—French fries in duck fat—but rather to the European term for duck testicles. “They’re soft textured and mild, like a boudin blanc,” he explains lovingly. “When we first opened I sold testicles like crazy.”
He’s by no means the first chef around here to exploit what Anthony Bourdain calls “the nasty bits.” Bruce Naftaly at the late Le Gourmand and Ron Zimmerman at the Herbfarm were butchering whole animals before Ronspies had a driver’s license, paving the way for prominent Seattle chefs—Matt Dillon, Ethan Stowell, Jason Stratton, even his own big brother, Dustin Ronspies of Wallingford’s Art of the Table—to regularly use offal in their cooking. June, the now defunct restaurant in Madrona, devoted itself to nose-to-tail dining, its classically trained proprietor Vuong Loc proving remarkably elegant in his use of every part of the pig, right up to its ears.
But where June was a dainty enterprise and discreet about its entrails, Ronspies embraces them—sorry—whole hog. His is a street aesthetic, with menu items like blood and foie, buffalo duck feet, and Olsen Farms “Phat Ass” pork chop (with “D Rock’s pimpin’ grits.”) Indie music thrums across the room, which is otherwise twinkling and cozy and warm with wood, the bar along one wall churning out thoughtful cocktails. (On one visit a diner didn’t like the music, so the staff cheerfully changed
it to jazz.) Ronspies’s unrefined streak extends even into the restroom, which on one visit bore a merry chalk drawing of a goose being force fed. Hello Seattle!
I find the candor refreshing, as Ronspies makes sure his efficient and friendly servers use it to fully disclose truths like that the chocolate lardo pate dessert really is made with pig lard, with a big-ass shard of deep-fried pork fat soaring out of it. (A little salty to be satisfying as dessert, though the pork rind scores high on the originality scale.) Still, the tone may be hard to get right. Just days into opening Ronspies fired nearly his entire front-of-the-house staff, responding to negative feedback from diners—and proving the theory that chefs don’t always make the most intuitive restaurant owners.
They do, however, make sensational food. For all his alt bluster, Ronspies’s culinary style leans startlingly classic. A lot of the menu doesn’t require an adventurous palate at all. A beet salad featured jewel-bright Local Roots beets, diced small to bring their flavor to every forkful, sharing the plate with grilled apple, parsnips, smears of melted taleggio cheese, and acerbic sprigs of watercress—the very soul of harmony, and a fine dish.
Ditto Ronspies’s tempura cornbellies. Crediting a friend for the inspiration—“Dude! Why not corn dogs made out of pork belly!?”—Ronspies cloaks tiny squares of the unctuous meat in cornmeal, then fries and skewers and serves them with Sriracha and chunky kimchi, with a papery slice of daikon radish
for intrigue. They’re tiny, flavor packed, texturally delirious (as bacon fat wrapped in tempura will be), and they are emblematic of the global influences Ronspies freely appropriates.
But their pleasures are nominal compared with the aforementioned Phat Ass pork chop—a two-inch-thick behemoth which has become the centerpiece of the menu. Ours arrived over creamy grits and collard greens, with a sweet smear of apple butter: It was enough for two. (Tip: Split this as a main and surround it with salads and vegetables.) More than that, it was not overcooked, as one expects a two-inch thick slab of pork to be, but flawlessly moist.
He isn’t always so on in the execution department—a pair of lamb necks arrived inedibly overcharred—but he’s got real chops at the harder task: offsetting those lamb necks with harmoniously contrasting textures and flavors like scorched Punjabi cabbage, caramelized onion soubise, the barleylike grain triticale berries, grilled apricot, and a minty demiglace.
So while the impassioned young chef-artiste wrests delectable flavor from unmentionables, old-school Euro connoisseurs will not be put off. Yet. “I’m looking to do something with eyeballs, probably sheep’s eyes,” Ronspies enthuses. “Sauteed with brown butter, thyme, a little garlic; serve ’em with risotto. They’re nice, sort of like escargot. A little chew.”