It may seem strange to find a burger on the menu at a restaurant originally hailed for sashimi-style halibut and sticky rice crisped in a clay pot. But there’s a perfectly good—perfectly Matt Dillon—reason. He needed to slaughter a bull.
The burger at Bar Ferdinand is no conventional bun-and-patty situation either: a dense orb of beef next to two thick slices of grilled bread and petite stacks of pickles and onions. Assemble it and you’re rewarded with rich flavor and some supremely messy hands.
It was more efficient to grind up all 600 pounds of cow than dabble in fancy cuts. Dillon added bread after customers complained, then reverted to his original intent: beef on a plate with a salad and pickles, “like an older-school Parisian bistro.”
Even in matters of burgers, this chef hews to a rhythm all his own. His ability to unleash Northwest ingredients on a globe’s worth of influences earned him, and his first restaurant, Sitka and Spruce, a James Beard Award in 2012. Dillon grew up here and feels an almost civic duty to ply his craft in Seattle, even as challenges mount for restaurateurs—constant construction, rent surges, locavore diners who balk at a $16 burger. Some chefs adapt with more casual, counter-service places. Others relocate their culinary ambition outside city limits. Rather than expand his restaurants, Dillon has worked his way backward. He’s had his Old Chaser Farm on Vashon Island since 2010, but every year brings a greater ability to shape his ingredients long before they encounter a plate.
He’s stepped back from most other projects: Sitka remains remarkable thanks to a series of capable chefs. Chef Emily Crawford still wows at the Corson Building, where she and husband/front-of-house man Matt Dan are now majority owners. Dillon recently relinquished his already modest stake in Ciudad. London Plane hums with Ricardo Valdes in the kitchen. Across the street, Dillon put Copal, the woodfire taco successor to his Bar Sajor, entirely in the hands of chef Taber Turpin and manager Erin Counts.
Such arrangements let Dillon dig in, literally, where he’s happiest: his farm. “I want to be hidden, you know?” he says one gray afternoon as he walks the 20-acre tract in grubby Carhartts. He checks on a very pregnant cow, then points to some shoots of sorrel, destined to one day sauce filets of king salmon. In terms of culinary tasks, he says, “It’s no different than peeling a carrot or butchering a fish. It’s all part of the whole thing.” Old Chaser supplies the bulk of vegetables and proteins for Bar Ferdinand, where Dillon still cooks four nights a week. The restaurant and natural wine bar’s obscure location in Chophouse Row’s courtyard suits him. The kitchen, astoundingly, takes nearly two weeks to fill one garbage can. “It’s been less about being super creative with the plate and more creative with the system,” he says.
It helps that scraps can go back to the farm, but from these limitations emerge dishes like an earthen bowl of clams and leeks with breadcrumbs. Pizza—crackled from the wood-burning oven and carpeted with fennel fronds, chive pesto, and mozzarella—is a walk on his Vashon acres, distilled onto a naturally leavened crust. While Dillon’s not much for announcing his own evolution, his food says it all.