UPDATE May 5: It's clear that I haven’t been clear. Renee Erickson is an outstanding chef. My esteem for her skill is long-standing (my Seattle Weekly review of Boat Street in the late ‘90s remains the single purplest piece of praise I’ve ever written), heartfelt, and deepening---as my recent review of Bateau reveals. In this piece I simply meant to point up the irony when a chef this talented is nominated via her least auspicious property, which I believe the Whale Wins to be. Since the award is clearly for the chef, not the restaurant, this point is more niggling irony than significant commentary—and any suggestion otherwise was unintended. The headline of this post has been changed to avoid any further misunderstanding.
As you surely know by now, Renee Erickson took the prestigious Best Chef Northwest title in the James Beard Awards this week, for her work at the Whale Wins.
My first response? An unabashed Yay Renee. The woman is an art form unto herself, a self-taught culinary intuitive whose Francophilic instincts pass through a sensibility so original and so lush, you can identify one of her plates (and that of the chefs she’s trained) at twenty paces. Profusions of herbed produce; deep respect for the essential goodness of good meat; a rustic chef’s way of transforming the earthiest simplicities into sophisticated complexities; a democratic devotion to not just headliner fish, but all creatures of the sea—all offset, bien sur, by her signature pickles.
At the late Boat Street Kitchen we met a Renee Erickson who knew how to compose a harmonious dinner plate, followed by the Renee of Walrus and Carpenter who knew how to create an elegant nosh of unexpected components, and now a Renee whose Bateau is a damn near perfect exemplar of how to craft a restaurant.
And along the way came the Whale Wins—less coherent than any of the others in vision, and less memorable in its satisfactions. Not a seafood restaurant, only ostensibly a dinnerhouse (with just four entrees), and not set up to be an intimate destination, the Whale Wins frustrates expectations of virtually all of Erickson’s strengths. Its small plates almost recreate that Walrus/Carpenter magic—only here, without the vivid and intimate cocktail bar vibe and with the shared tables, they add up to something more like a picnic than a memorable substantive experience. No matter how good they taste.
Among Erickson’s Seattle competitors for the prize was Mike Easton of Il Corvo Pasta—a terrific and creative chef whose very limited pasta repertory at a lunch-only restaurant rendered him no real competitor at all—and Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi, the Korean-fusion geniuses who were nominated for their best restaurant, Joule.
If this prize were given for restaurants, Joule should have by all rights run away with it. But it’s given for chefs. Make no mistake: Renee Erickson is a great one.
Only, ironically, not for Whale.