Each year Seattle Met profiles five local chefs who are under 40 and don’t yet run their own place. What began as a way to celebrate the people who make a restaurant great—even if someone else’s name is on the door—has evolved into an intriguing glimpse of where our dining culture is headed.

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Image: Sarah Flotard

James Saito

Sushi Chef, Sushi Kashiba

James Saito works behind Shiro Kashiba’s sushi bar with guys decades older; the 30-year-old is one of the few not born in Japan, and definitely the only guy who got his start making grocery store sushi. A fourth-generation Japanese American, Saito grew up in South Seattle making maki with his parents on special occasions. That grocery gig was short lived; Saito was soon entrenched in well-regarded sushi restaurants, initially learning to break down fish (“That’s what makes sushi sushi”) and make pristine nigiri under Ryuichi Nakano of Kisaku. Last year Saito’s colleague at Miyabi in Tukwila announced his move to a new sushi restaurant downtown, urging Saito to interview with the proprietor. Who, by the way, was Seattle’s own sushi legend, Shiro Kashiba. 

“I figured even if I got the job, I was going to be some sideline guy,” Saito recalls. Nope. Some nights he makes nigiri and rolls for tables in the dining room; others he prepares omakase alongside Kashiba and his 20-year lieutenants. Forget creating your own dishes; traditionally minimalist Edomae-style sushi requires years of humble, disciplined skill building—as Kashiba himself puts it, “Chefs come here, they have to serve Kashiba’s sushi.” That’s the point, says Saito. “Learning is the biggest joy of this job; I’ve learned there’s so much more to learn.”

What the Boss Says

Shiro Kashiba hired Saito based on the reputations of his past teachers. “He has big potential,” he says. “James already has the basic skills, but he likes to learn. Here he will learn the real Edomae style.”

Most Memorable Meal in Seattle

Saito remembers a big birthday dinner at Joule’s original location on 45th. “We just ordered their entire menu. It’s become my default when I want a really great meal.”


 

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Image: Sarah Flotard

Shannon Martincic 

Chef de Cuisine, Bar Noroeste

Shannon Martincic’s culinary resume consists solely of restaurants that play on an international stage—an internship at Chicago’s Alinea, then stints at Mugaritz in San Sebastián, Spain, and Borago in Santiago, Chile. So running Josh Henderson’s new taco bar might seem a strange leap, until you order one of Noroeste’s three set menus (yes, a taco bar with coursed menus) and begin with venison crudo bristling with almond slivers and frizzled shallot. It looks—and tastes—more four-star fine dining than thumping cocktail den. By the time the build-your-own taco course arrives, you realize this 23-year-old is fermenting, grinding, and otherwise coaxing grown-up taco flavors out of in-season Northwest ingredients—hardly any citrus, no avocados. Her guacamole is made with eggplant, brightly acidic like tomatillo salsa, and is, yes, a little controversial.

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Image: Sarah Flotard

“I would never call this Mexican food,” says Martincic, who changes Noroeste’s menu a little every day, hewing to Seattle’s subtle seasonal shifts. “It’s about translating onto the plate this one perfect moment in this one area of the world” through the lens of tacos. Her food is intellectual, but not precious; dinner at Noroeste might end with the server smashing a chocolate piñata Martincic crafts herself and stuffs with handmade sweets.

What the Boss Says

“Shannon does esoteric food that makes people think a little bit more,” says Josh Henderson. “We’re always trying to balance the intellectual with the layups—the carnitas and stuff people will always order with the eggplant guacamole.”

Most Memorable Meal in Seattle

Since landing in Seattle and immersing herself straightaway in the new job, Martincic hasn’t had time for much dining. But she and her Chilean-born husband have Northwest oysters or happy hour nachos (the greasy, unlocal kind) whenever possible. 

 

 

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Image: Sarah Flotard

Taylor Thornhill

Chef de Cuisine, Bateau

His mentors are Seattle’s heaviest hitters, from Thierry Rautureau (Rover’s) and Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez (Harvest Vine), to Matt Dillon (Sitka and Spruce), Jason Stratton (Cascina Spinasse and Aragona), and William Belickis (MistralKitchen). And though that means Taylor Thornhill has moved around a lot—“I work in a place till I can absorb no more, then move on”—it also reveals how far he’s come. From Wyoming, as a matter of fact, in a childhood spent watching Julia Child in lieu of cartoons—a fair distance from his current gig as chef de cuisine of the single most impeccable French restaurant in Seattle. 

Also the boldest, infusing the whole-animal steak house with classic French technique reminiscent of Renee Erickson’s original masterpiece, Boat Street Cafe. Both inclinations came naturally to this Europhile, who apprenticed with butchers in Spain and France, and whose predominant aesthetic is loveliness. Plates just don’t get prettier than Thornhill’s, nor compositions more refined—in dishes like milk-braised sweetbreads, mingling the potent tang of pickled elderflowers with the creamy elegance of beurre blanc. Throw in a calm demeanor that in the kitchen manifests as professionalism, and what you have is a culinary force with wisdom way beyond his 32 years.

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What the Boss Says

“The chef you hire has to think through your eyes—and make it their own,” Renee Erickson muses. “Taylor leans toward a finer cooking style than I do; he’ll cut the cabbage for the spot prawns into these perfect rounds. I’d never do that. But we have a fun time battling around. He’s a very respectful guy.”

Most Memorable Meal in Seattle

In his Harvest Vine days, Thornhill and the crew often ended nights at Maekawa, the izakaya in the International District. “The chef would take smelt, debone it, then put on a shiso leaf and some Japanese sour plum and roll it up,” Thornhill recalls. “Then he’d broil it and serve it with the fried fish skeleton; really crispy. In my mind that dish is perfect.”

 

 

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Image: Sarah Flotard

Kris Kim

Chef de Cuisine, Trove

It didn’t take Kris Kim even two years to ascend from lead line cook to chef de cuisine at Trove, Rachel Yang’s and Seif Chirchi’s Korean BBQ on Capitol Hill. About 30 seconds into his story—between the part where he was studying for the LSAT while working full time at T-Mobile and the part where he quit both to enroll in South Seattle’s culinary school while working full time at Revel—one starts to understand why.

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Image: Sarah Flotard

“I had never worked in a kitchen in my entire life,” says the 28-year-old. Though he​ grew up amid the Korean cooking of his mom and grandmother, ​Kim’s​ training at Revel opened up a new world of intensity. After 10 months of 80-hour weeks, Kim was looking forward to, perhaps, a day off—when Yang handed him a job at Joule. He began the day after graduation. 

“Korean food is muscle memory for me,” Kim explains. “I wanted to push myself.” So he innovates, applying new techniques to age-old flavors—a petit tender poached in tallow, then rubbed with smoky-sweet onion ash—and even opening opportunities for others to do the same. Earlier this year Kim launched Trove Trials, an in-house cooking symposium where chefs show off and share ideas.

What the Boss Says

“The ones who are going to culinary school while they’re working full time…they’re the ones you want to hold on to because you know how hard they work,” says Rachel Yang. “Kris is superlogical, very thoughtful. He thinks like a manager, not just like a chef. He has the big picture. It’s really rare to see.”

Most Memorable Meal in Seattle

“I just went to Eden Hill, and they’ve got the big picture down,” says Kim. “We had a brussels sprout dish with popcorn and lardons, which was fun and unique. But the whole thing—the space, the small kitchen, the blind tasting menu, the seasonal dishes—it just feels personal, especially when the chef comes out to talk to his guests.”

 

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Image: Sarah Flotard

Dezi Bonow

Chef, The Carlile Room

He attended Seattle Culinary Academy, but credit the real education of Dezi Bonow to 12 years across the Tom Douglas empire, rising from catering grunt to top chef at the Carlile Room. The 33-year-old chef believes he was tapped to recreate the freewheeling unpretentiousness of Palace Kitchen, which he helmed for five years, and which a Carlile visit on DJ night suggests he’s amply accomplished. But Douglas further admired Bonow’s conceptual style: busier than his own—by about a mile and five ingredients per plate—but ideally suited to the “interesting vegetables” theme the chefs decided should supplant the original steak house concept. 

The result is Douglas’s most original restaurant, built around a vegetable list Bonow assembles with bright attention to seasonality. Dishes like blistered sugar snap peas and pea sprouts in dill butter with a juniper-carrot “ginaigrette” not only call BS on the token vegetarian lists of other joints—“polenta with mushrooms and a farro plate,” Bonow groans—they crackle with sparkling innovation, Bonow’s trademark levity, and a consistency younger chefs don’t always prioritize this highly. 

“The word modern has turned into this thing about gels and chemicals,” Bonow says. “But I feel like the food we’re doing is just very fresh.”

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Image: Sarah Flotard

What the Boss Says

“He’s a character, one of the funniest guys in our company,” smiles Tom Douglas, recalling the pink short shorts and multicolor sunglasses the young chef rocked on a research trip to Miami. “At the same time he’s passionate about food. He’d have 15 ingredients on each dish if he could, and that’s really different from me. But I’ve learned that his quirky style should be cherished, not stepped on.”

Most Memorable Meal in Seattle

“I feel lucky that I got to go to Rover’s before it closed,” Bonow recalls. “I remember a squab dish with grapes, lightly pickled, that came from someone’s yard in the Madison Valley. It was such a refined meal—but it was so cool to have it feel really organic, to feel like it came from the community. That’s what we all strive for.”

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