For every chef who earns national acclaim or opens a second, third, or 13th restaurant, there’s a crew of dedicated cooks putting food on plates night after night, honing their own skills along the way. Some of Seattle’s rising culinary stars work their way up in established kitchens; others find new ways to bring their food to the public (like, say, a permanent popup in a Broadway dive bar). For the third year, we present five men and women—40 or under, and not the owners of their restaurants—poised to be Seattle’s next big names.
Former Chef at Mkt. and Soon-to-be Chef at the Four Seasons
When Ethan Stowell approached Joe Ritchie about running his new restaurant in Tangletown, the 36-year-old chef wondered if his potential boss might be a little crazy, opening a place this tiny. But within Mkt.’s 600 square feet, Ritchie revels in each Northwest season, letting flavor trump elaborate technique or fancy plating. That lesson came from four years working under Jerry Traunfeld at the Herbfarm, where Ritchie arrived straight from culinary school and worked his way up to sous chef. After a stint at Michelin-starred Cyrus in Sonoma County and chef gigs in Vail and the Columbia Gorge, Ritchie returned to Seattle, and to Traunfeld, who had just opened Poppy. Lessons here involved the interplay of spices and the world of difference between cheaper bulk offerings and the good stuff. Recently Stowell approached his chef again, this time to head up a kitchen on the other end of the size spectrum: the 180-seat flagship Northwest restaurant he’s opening at the Four Seasons.
Seattle chef he’d like to cook with for one night “Nathan Lockwood at Altura: I like his work ethic. The food is at a new level every time I go in there.”
What he’d like to see more of in Seattle “Those over the-top, polished fine dining restaurants. I miss places like Lampreia and Le Gourmand or the old Mistral.”
What the boss says For Ethan Stowell, Mkt.’s grilled green beans illustrate Ritchie’s talents: “It’s very simple —green beans, sea salt on the grill, a little lemon juice, a little olive oil. A lot of young cooks would get tired of this and have to mix it up. He coaxes flavors out of something while keeping it simple at the same time.”
Line Cook at Lark
Sure, he’s a line cook. But Spencer Coplan has impressed more mentors and packed more experience into his 25 years than many twice his age—starting with a stint at a Bainbridge restaurant when he was just 15. From there he spent a summer cranking covers at Etta’s (“traumatizing”), then learned proper mise en place at Ventana, worked up to sous chef at Michael Mina’s artful RN74, and helped Derek Ronspies open the admirable Cochon. He did drop out of culinary school, but for Coplan—who started watching Julia Child when he was two—life has been culinary school. In his current gig at Lark he’s soaking up the seasoned wisdom of Sundstrom and an uncommonly gifted trio of sous chefs—but Coplan has dreams all his own. “Last week I was on a dive-bar-with-good-Chinese kick,” he mused. “You know, well-executed kung pao chicken.” Make that precise and beautifully plated kung pao chicken, say bosses past and present.
Seattle chef he’d like to cook with for one night “Hmm...I’ve already cooked with a lot of them! I’d like to hang out at Modernist Cuisine with Nathan Myhrvold. I like that it hits a different way of perceiving food.”
What he’d like to see more of in Seattle “Unpretentious food. I love cooking fine dining, but I’m tired of 15 things in my $15 cocktail.”
What the boss says “I’ve had cooks his age who still seem like teenagers,” says John Sundstrom. “Spencer’s someone who, if I say, ‘The duck needs a harissa vinaigrette,’ can make a great harissa vinaigrette. You can trust him to get it right.”
Chef at Neon Taco
When a friend advised Monica Dimas to “just try everything,” the young chef listened. The English lit student and first-generation Mexican American from Yakima—who begged her way into her first cooking job at 18—began her Seattle ascent in the mid-aughts, staging and later presiding at the late Campagne and opening Michael Hebb’s Fish Fry, going on to gigs at the wildly various Cascina Spinasse, Le Pichet, Monsoon, La Bête, Anchovies and Olives, and Mkt., which she opened as sous under Joe Ritchie (see page 68). Now, at 30, Dimas consults, cooks for the annual Smoke Farm think tank, and, since February, operates Neon Taco, the “permanent popup” inside Nacho Borracho on Broadway. There she produces it all, from careful flautas (her mom consulted) to tongue tacos on her own tortillas, with future menus to feature more tongue—the in-cheek variety—in the form of playfully fused combos like drunken chicken sweetbread tacos. Yeah, mischief is a signature; so are hard work and tightly disciplined conceptions.
Seattle chef she’d like to cook with for one night “Daisley Gordon [of the late Campagne] taught me not just how to think about food but how to behave. I was 21, I wasn’t listening or caring, but his attitude has stayed with me and influences how I interact with my cooks. I would like to cook with Daisley again.”
What she’d like to see more of in Seattle “Can we all get dressed for dinner?”
What the boss says “Poise is the perfect word for Monica,” says Rachel Marshall, she of Rachel’s Ginger Beer and Nacho Borracho who chose Dimas as her sublessee (and consulting chef at the upcoming Rachel’s on Capitol Hill) for her professionalism and “amazing peaceful energy.”
Chef de Cuisine at Cafe Juanita
I’ve kind of ping-ponged between Lark and Cafe Juanita for the past decade,” says Thompson. Which is basically another way of saying, “I am fanatical about seasonal ingredients.” Lauren Thompson, 40, is Zimbabwe born, Texas raised, and wrote the recipes for Lark chef John Sundstrom’s beautiful cookbook before returning yet again to chef Holly Smith’s kitchen. She has served as both bosses’ sourcer in chief, cajoling the season’s earliest morels or squash blossoms or tomatoes from local farmers: “You always want to be one of the first to put something new on the plate.” At Cafe Juanita, some dishes are so completely collaborative that neither Thompson nor Smith can remember who came up with what. A conversation might begin with sunchokes and evolve into a flanlike -sformata with uni sauce. Thompson’s chef worlds recently collided when Cafe Juanita closed for a remodel, popping up in Sundstrom’s old Lark space on Capitol Hill through June.
Seattle chef she’d like to cook with for one night “Sophie and Eric Banh of Ba Bar. That’s an area of food I don’t know very well but that I love and is very comforting to me.”
What she’d like to see more of in Seattle “Really good-quality, not incredibly expensive grocery stores. Like Ballard Market or Town and Country.”
What the boss says “We differ beautifully on a myriad of things, but she keeps me honest and grounded,” says Holly Smith. “If I wasn’t there, she could innovate and run the restaurant without question.”
Executive Chef at Girin
When the Korean-born Steven Han saw the sprawling space in Stadium Place that would become his Korean steak house Girin, he knew what it needed. “A badass chef”—and not one with Korean cooking experience. “Someone young and eager, with talent, who could learn the cuisine and take it to another level.” Someone like Brandon Kirksey, a friend from the days when Kirksey was running Tavolàta next door to Han’s Kushibar. And yes—Tavolàta and Kirksey’s subsequent gig at San Francisco’s celebrated Flour and Water delivered only Italian experience—but that turned out to be unexpectedly relevant. “Both are peasant-based cuisines; very simple, with lots of preserved elements,” Kirksey says. “Where I’d use salt, I now use fish sauce. Instead of chili flakes, fermented chili paste.” Han sent Kirksey to Korea for full immersion, and Kirksey has been wowing the boss ever since. “His egg custard and kimchi soup…” Han sighs. “Best I’ve ever had.”
Seattle chef he’d like to cook with for one night “Shaun McCrain [previously of Book Bindery, soon of Copine]: I’m a creature of discipline, and his food is so focused. I could learn a ton from him.”
What he’d like to see more of in Seattle “Diners being adventurous with new cuisines.”
What the boss says “I was surprised to find he’s very organized,” admits Steven Han. “He’s young, only 30, so I expected him to be a little wilder, have a little more ego. But he’s not at all. He’s humble and very determined to make his product right.”