John Sarich: Culinary force.

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John Sarich spent most of his career promoting the wines of Chateau St. Michelle. What I’ll remember him for is his fried calamari with skorthalia.

The native Seattleite was Croatian by heritage. And after an early career at the then little-known winery in Woodinville, he opened a restaurant in 1980 to showcase that heritage, a beautiful destination called Adriatica.

The house restaurant, perched on the Queen Anne slope above Lake Union, immediately fired on all cylinders. I remember being struck even at that early point in my career at how both front- and back-of-house were equal draws: The front all twinkling and romantic, with charming lake views and the young Jim Malevitsis at the helm; the back a consistent and admirable source for the glistening grilled meats and fresh pastas of the Balkans. In the ‘80s there was no finer romantic evening in the city.

In its 21-year life Adriatica prefigured trends that would become commonplace in Seattle, like honoring peasant food  as destination-worthy, or emphasizing the Mediterranean’s lesser represented cuisines (see Agrodolce, see Westward, see Mamnoon). Out of an authentic passion for the cuisines of the Balkans, Sarich steered those trends, giving Seattle not only some of its first fried squid (with a garlicky dipping sauce I still dream about), but one of its first glimpses of itself as a global city.

Time passed, Sarich returned to Ste. Michelle (ultimately to become Culinary Director, a title rare in a winery), Adriatica closed. But he continued to influence Seattle’s culinary scenes in his cooking show Taste of the Northwest, five resulting cookbooks, and an engaging public persona.  I never met him—I can’t know the folks I review—but two anonymous encounters in the last few years were revealing.

On his cooking show he did regular on-camera cooking segments with kids. Once, through her Girl Scout troop, it was my kid, who with a friend donned their aprons, sashayed onto the kitchen set—and instantly went mute.

Through what had to have been an excruciating ten minutes trying to coax even one word out of his petrified co-hosts, Sarich was a pro: Charming on-camera, patient with the kids. Not long after I found myself seated next to him at the dining bar of Cantinetta in Wallingford, where he was enjoying a plate of pasta.

“Hey—you guys are doing a great job,” he shouted out to the chefs on his way out—a generous gesture and, considering the source, the most meaningful compliment those chefs got that year.

Sarich died Sunday after a brief bout with a rare cancer. He was 67.

 

 

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