ALICE HUNG PRODUCES vegetables and berries on a small farm in Darrington. She sometimes has tomatoes, and she always has eggs, and when the chef Matt Dillon (Sitka and Spruce, Bar Sajor, the London Plane) talks about her, his voice softens. “She doesn’t have tons of food to sell, but what she has is just…it’s beautiful. Delicious.” The small-time farmer who doesn’t make headlines humbles the big-time chef who does, for he knows that his product depends entirely on hers.
Of the myriad pleasures available to a restaurant critic, the one that means the most to me, by far, is eating food prepared by a chef who bows before the artistry of the producer.
We live in an age of celebrity chefs and the diners who worship them, so the idea that chefs themselves might feel reverence for someone further down the food chain…let’s just say it’s not what we’re used to seeing on Hell’s Kitchen.
When a chef responds like this—when Nathan Lockwood at Altura details the brilliance of the squash blossoms and edible sunflowers Neil Subhash brings him from Present Tense Farm in Carnation, or when organic chef Maria Hines (Tilth, Golden Beetle, Agrodolce) declares the melons and peppers Anne Utigard grows at King’s Garden in the Okanogan so flawless the chef will drop everything to buy them off her truck, even during dinner service, because it’s Annie—what you’re hearing is discernment, yes, but also humility and collaboration. It’s a symbiosis that serves both chef and producer. And someone else.
Over the years, I’ve seen some of the best Seattle chefs throw love at their sources, sometimes on menus, as Alice Waters pioneered in the 1970s at Berkeley’s Chez Panisse. I first remember it here around the mid-aughts, when Hines opened Tilth with names of the fishermen and farmers and foragers alongside every dish. When asked why, she would earnestly insist that careful sourcing matters because you can taste stress in an animal; a response a certain kind of skeptic might sneer at as a piece of Fred Armisen–Carrie Brownstein parody. Until the skeptic takes a bite.
Matt Dillon has generally favored a more cryptic approach, referring to “Billy’s tomatoes” on his menus less as an overt farmer shout-out (Dillon believes farm to table should go without saying) than an insider wink at a farmer he reveres, Billy Allstot from Billy’s Gardens in Tonasket. A few months back Dillon was cooking with the folks who run San Francisco’s Bar Tartine, whose novel use for wasabi leaves got him thinking. The next morning he called Georgie Smith at Whidbey Island’s Willowood Farm to ask if she could put in extra horseradish plants so he could buy the leaves, ferment them, then make them into a pungent jam. Similarly, when Maria Hines mentioned to the folks at Carnation’s Oxbow Farm that she needed cardoons, Oxbow planted them, sold them to Hines, then peddled the overflow at farmers markets—thereby creating new demand among home cooks who up to then had no earthly idea what a cardoon was.
What’s growing here, in other words, isn’t just cardoons. What this chef-grower collaboration ultimately yields is biodiversity; an environmental good that benefits directly from the diner’s varied and discerning appetite. Yes, the diner. You—whose critical role as third leg of this stool is simply to savor. To take a bite of what these chefs, and others like them have spun from the earth’s efflorescence, to roll it around on the palate, to be glad for it.
And then to want more of it.