Chef Candor

A Few Questions for Brendan McGill of Hitchcock

Perfecting his mojama, feeding Hollywood types, and one hell of a scandalous butt dial.

By Allecia Vermillion March 11, 2013

Side note: I still need to check out McGill's Monday-night pizza pop-up.

This year Seattle is fielding three contenders (well, technically four) for Food & Wine's People's Best New Chef award, often a shortlist for the magazine's prestigious Best New Chef award as well. We thought it would be fun to chat with all the nominees this week, especially since two of them are relatively new to the national award circuit.

Brendan McGill opened Hitchcock on Bainbridge Island in 2010. The Alaska native spent some formative culinary years working under Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez at Harvest Vine, traveled in Europe, and also runs an adjacent delicatessen that makes some ridiculously good bacon (and a Monday-night pizza pop-up called Bruciato). Here's what Food & Wine has to say about him.

And here, a few questions for Brendan McGill.

What were you doing when you heard about the nomination?

I think it was just one of those typical busy days in the restaurant when I felt my phone buzz in my pocket; I glanced at my e-mail to see if was important, scanned past some junk, and there it was.

How do you feel about these online poll-type awards?
I suppose it's obvious that, as a chef, you'd want to be nominated for the editorial award. The silver lining is: we actually have the opportunity to effect the outcome. It becomes somewhat of a campaign, which makes it seems less like a "best chef" contest and more of an opportunity for a magazine to see what a chef can pull off.

…And the whole national restaurant award scene in general?
F&W has done a great job over the years of noting the best early in the game - and I still romanticize a James Beard award. I think at the high end, the award scene is pretty legit. I also respect the awards from Slow Food, Chef's Collaborative… outfits that assess your restaurant in different ways.

How do you describe your food?
Pacific Northwestern, European influenced, creatively sourced… whole, wild, local, hand-made everything. I look for authentic sources, consider historical relevance, context within a cuisine… God is in the details. Ridiculous orange eggs and house-milled local organic grains make good pasta. Apply that to everything.

You're all about housemade components; is there one what was especially challenging to perfect?
Our mojama [a Spanish salt-cured tuna], I believe it's a unique program. When Joseba [Jiménez de Jiménez] was in town, we did a whole pig roast in the wood-fired oven.  I busted out the mojama and he told me later that to see it made him feel proud, which made me proud. At the Harvest Vine we used an import product, and now I've got my own.

On any given night, how many diners hail from Bainbridge Island versus, say, Seattle?
It really depends on the night of the week. Saturdays are our unofficial "Capitol Hill" night, maybe 80/20 Seattle/Bainbridge? Monday is 90/10 Bainbridge. Also, the season--at tourist high season there's the cruise ship and yachting set. And don't forget about the Peninsula...people come from all over.

Tell me about the regulars at Hitchcock.
We've got some amazing regulars from both sides of the water. I won't name names for discretion's sake, but one of our favorites eats a chef tasting at the bar as often as four nights a week. There's a famous poet (who actually lives on both sides of the water) who orders chicken religiously, with a bloody Mary; we go around collecting all our pickled items from the various stations to hook up his bloody Mary.

And how did Steven Spielberg end up coming in for dinner?
Another poet, David Whyte, was performing at Islandwood. He's got a big Hollywood draw - Marcia Cross wandered in the deli the same afternoon - and it happened that Steven (you know, my buddy Steven) brought his wife up for the weekend to take in the performance and have a dinner. It was Kate [Capshaw]'s birthday, and they did a chef tasting for sixteen. He told me the chef tasting format was "dining entertainment."

What percentage of diners go for the chef’s tasting?
That also depends on the night of the week. Some weekend nights the later seating can become straight tastings, which is great. Once in a while we get skunked. In the weeks after our Seattle Times review we were running as high as 80 percent.

Okay, now for a Favorite Things lightning round…

Place to eat on your day off:
Green Leaf, never fails
Dish to make at home: Roast chicken
Guilty pleasure: '90s R&B
Aspect of living on Bainbridge: Having a 1-acre pond (dock, canoe) on our property.

Craziest kitchen story that can be committed to print?
Oosh--that's the hard part, print! I once had a cook who would apparently go out after work and solicit prostitutes. One night he butt-dialed me while spitting game to a North Aurora hooker and I got the whole thing on my voicemail. I called him out the next day and he begged me not to play it for the other cooks--way too late buddy! I eventually fired him (that's the crazier story you could never print) and heard that at his next job angry sex workers would come in and demand payment, causing scenes…too much.

Uh...where to go after that answer? What’s next for you and Hitchcock?
For me, I've got a couple hair-brained schemes that are starting to flesh out. I've been eyeballing USDA production space so we can wholesale our bacon, pastrami, pancetta, etc. We're in the process of registering the deli's production area as a mini WSDA plant, and we're planning a line of shelf-stable prepared foods. There's a lot of interest in expanding the deli as a brand.

For Hitchcock, I want to focus on those 49 seats, and continue the work… I feel like we're just starting to make some sense out of what's all available to us and how to use it year round. We're planning more custom plantings with our incredible farmer/partners this year, we've got a really strong team right now… everybody's grinding together toward a common goal, and I'm exciting to see how that manifests on the menu, and on the plates. Starting this summer we'll have produce from our own farm, and we've got plans laid out for chickens and hogs. I want to keep exploring: we went from mussels steamed in beer to mussels steamed in our own mead… that only inspires me to start keeping bees and go a step further. I want the dishes at Hitchcock to be impossible to replicate anywhere, because of their sense of place.
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