It’s not unusual to find every one of the 47 seats in Jerry Traunfeld’s cramped and boxy new Broadway joint Lionhead buzzing with diners trading bites and clacking chopsticks, a knot of waiting would-be diners clustered awkwardly at the door. Servers deftly thread their way from the kitchen among the tables to lay down steaming platters of the fiery vegetable and noodle and meat and fish preparations derived from China’s Szechuan province.
On paper Traunfeld seems an unlikely interpreter of this ancient Chinese cuisine. He is, after all, the self-described “Jewish kid from New York” who went on to stand shoulder to shoulder with legends like Robert Rosellini and Bruce Naftaly as the godfathers of Northwest seasonal cooking. His career traced a classic trajectory from the California Culinary Academy to 17 legitimately groundbreaking years making headlines and history at the Herbfarm in Woodinville.
In 2008 Traunfeld opened his own restaurant Poppy, in which he pressed the invention still further. He created dozens of complexly herbal, rigorously Northwest statements—small plates—which he then gathered into platters called thali, working all those individual harmonies into something overarchingly cohesive. This is a feat, showcasing Traunfeld as a kind of flavor whisperer; a chef who intuitively gets how flavors build and layer and conspire with one another.
All while he was quietly leading a parallel life, stir-frying his home meals and frequenting places like the Maple Leaf Szechuan dive Chiang’s Gourmet on nights off. Back in Traunfeld’s San Francisco cooking school days, Chinese celeb chef Ken Hom had been a teacher and Barbara Tropp’s The Modern Art of Chinese Cooking an inspiration. He loved how Szechuan food was freshness plus texture alchemized by extreme heat—then eaten communally around a table.
So two years ago when a promising space opened on Broadway, his path appeared clear: Open a Szechuan restaurant, suitably Traunfeldized with plenty of intriguing fusion a la Poppy. He wrote the menu. The space fell through. The disappointed chef decamped for China, savoring his way around the country with chef and cookbook author Fuchsia Dunlop, and somewhere amid all those fiery bites it hit him over the head. “These dishes don’t need to be changed,” he said. “They’ve been cooking them this way for thousands of years.”
So when a second space came open on Broadway—this just next door to Poppy—he grabbed it and got to work on a different menu altogether. Classics he ate in Szechuan, like the tofu with chilies and fermented bean paste known as ma po doufu, and that greatest hit of Szechuan pepper stir-fries, gong bao chicken. Classics he loved at Chiang’s, like soft pork meatballs in broth with greens and glass noodles. Yes, there were items he couldn’t resist making his own—buckwheat noodles with spicy sesame don’t traditionally come topped with a soft-cooked egg, nor do steamed buns generally get stuffed with braised beef tendon. Others he tweaked for Seattle palates, which generally aren’t keen on quite as much heat or quite as much oil as Szechuan food historically demands.
But mostly Traunfeld stuck with tradition—a bold, perhaps even counterintuitive move from a chef this reflexively creative. A diner sitting at the aesthetically old-school Lionhead—amid its seafoam walls and lacquered red bar and gilded screen and pressing, deafening crowd—can feel that authenticity, perhaps even understanding that a chef who must hew to its dictates has it tougher in very real ways than a chef with license to invent.
In this house that authenticity boils down to the word heat. Heat as in temperature, yes, since Szechuan cooking on a commercial wok is wrought by about 150,000 BTUs of searing fire, which means lightning-quick cook times and an attendant buzz of chaotic service. But also heat as in Szechuan food’s fabled numbing spiciness—never extreme at Lionhead, but unquestionably the source of brow mopping and water refills.
Still, the best Szechuan chefs know that the cuisine isn’t just hot, it’s intricate; spun of unexpected essences. Traunfeld’s mastery of the cuisine’s nuance and obsession with precision is, finally, what reveals him as this year’s most laudable chef. Szechuan peppercorn is one of those essences—fragrant, citrusy, electrifying—and since it came back on the U.S. market after a decades long agricultural ban Traunfeld has been hunting down just the right one. Likewise douban jiang, the fermented chili bean paste the Chinese make in clay pots and ferment in the sun for two years, and whose quality varies wildly brand to brand. I sat before a heaping bowl of red braised beef noodles made with his final selection. The noodles were peerless—wheaty, chewy, hand cut—and the beef cheeks unctuous and mouthfilling. But it was that sauce, salty and earth rich and pulsing with funk, that lent this dish its intriguing, inimitably faraway flavor. That sprang directly from the douban jiang, just as Traunfeld knew it would.