Best Washington Food Towns

Washington's Most Fertile Region Finally Has a Restaurant Scene to Match

The Yakima Valley has a growing farm-to-table scene, thanks to a few tireless chefs.

By Allecia Vermillion March 23, 2023

Tokki-Ya’s relationships with local farmers augment its Korean-centered menu.

Image: Amber Fouts

Most of Crafted’s dinner customers are deep in their entrees when Kevin Follansbee walks through the front door with an eye-popping quantity of morel mushrooms. The kitchen, already busy, shifts into a new gear. Cooks weigh the elusive delicacy on a big scale while the bearded forager tries to stay out of the way at the busy pass. Co-owner Mollie Koommoo runs for the checkbook.

Follansbee gathered more than 22 pounds, all told, thanks to “a good tip and a strong hunch.” That should last through the weekend, predicts chef Dan Koommoo. It’s Thursday.

Image: Solji Lee

Sure, it’s a tad unusual for a purveyor to show up during dinner rather than transacting his mushroom bonanza before customers arrive. But it’s straight-up bonkers that guys like Follansbee had nowhere to sell these prizes before Crafted opened in 2017 in downtown Yakima.

The Koommoos came from Orcas Island’s Rosario Resort and Spa, where Dan worked closely with the island’s network of small farmers and foragers. “We were shocked that wasn’t in Yakima,” says Mollie, whose family lives here.

Most small farms have been swallowed up by large ones, which sell their produce commercially. These big operations still have precarious margins; it doesn’t make sense to engage with an individual restaurant. When Crafted places orders with Charlie’s Produce, the esteemed wholesaler ships fruit and vegetables from its Seattle headquarters. Often, however, stuff arrives in boxes labeled, “Grown in Yakima.”

The Yakima Valley is the Rose Parade of produce; its fertile land and 300 annual days of sunshine yield more than 40 different commercial crops, from asparagus to squash. Roughly 70 percent of the nation’s apples start here. But very little of what’s grown stays here. That might explain why Washington’s agricultural cradle has never had a restaurant scene as mighty as its food output.

Things seem to be changing. Not because sourcing local produce has become easier, but because a handful of chefs are willing to work extra hard at it. When Wapato native Greg Perrault returned to open a restaurant with his wife, Michelle Kim, local farms were happy to sell to him but couldn’t match wholesale prices for such a small order. Still, he kept trying.

Perrault says a high school connection is the main reason farmer Katsumi Taki sells exacting produce from his 37-acre farm to the couple’s restaurant, Tokki-Ya. Otherwise, most of Mair Farm-Taki’s Asian greens and Japanese cucumbers go to eager customers at Seattle’s University District farmers market. Taki’s heritage and heirloom plums go into coveted jars of jam from Seattle’s Ayako and Family.

Mair Farm-Taki can’t produce enough consistent cucumbers for Tokki-Ya’s signature salad. Instead, Perrault stands by for whatever becomes available at the farm each week—shiso, lettuce, delicate pak choi greens. He fashions these arrivals into weekly specials.

This additional effort feels worth it to support the sort of small farm community he grew up with. As a chef, Perrault also appreciates working with pristine produce hand-harvested that morning. “We need more small farms,” he says. Some folks have attempted farming, but many efforts don’t pan out. Which leaves chefs like him wondering, “How do we get them to stick?”

Laura McIlrath was driving the lower Yakima Valley in search of small farms. So far she had come up empty, despite the green quilt of crop fields and orchards that stretched in every direction. It was May 2018, and McIlrath was building a CSA box subscription service in Yakima. Finding farms had proved surprisingly hard.

“Not many farms exist, in the small family sense,” she says. Larger farms often grow a single crop—useful for entry into our large-scale food system, not so much for someone trying to introduce vegetal variety into her CSA business.

McIlrath sources fruit from her parents’ organic farm, but crops in their part of the valley ripen later. So she canvassed the region’s sunny southern half, seeking farms that might participate. Down an unfamiliar road, she stopped a man to ask for directions; he brought McIlrath to his wife, who spoke more English. That’s how she stumbled upon Isela and Blas Bautista, whose farm would become pivotal to her business. At the time, Isela was driving their produce three hours to the Tacoma farmers market.

The Yakima Valley is an agricultural powerhouse.

McIlrath met Crafted’s Dan Koommoo after he posted on Facebook seeking local growers. Now, produce she sources from Bautista Farm makes up a significant chunk of his restaurant’s menu. And Isela no longer has to drive for hours to find an audience for Bautista Farm’s produce.

These sorts of haphazard encounters, and sleuthing downtown Yakima’s small weekly farmers market, helped Koommoo build a network of roughly a dozen producers. During peak season, local ingredients account for maybe 95 percent of Crafted’s menu—“we go all out, nerding out on the stuff we can get.” Sure, that percentage might shrink to 20 come winter. But as Crafted has grown, so has its ability to buy from local farmers. “If more restaurants used them,” says Koommoo, “the prices would go down and they’d be more sustainable.”

His relationship with guys like Follansbee offer unexpected—and tasty—creative outlets. Like the annual bounty of chicken of the woods mushrooms that Koommoo turns into chicken (of the woods) fingers. “It’s so campy,” he says of the 11-herbs-and-spices fried chicken treatment that wows carnivores, vegetarians, and mushroom haters alike. “It’s one of those things that wouldn’t exist if we didn’t have that relationship with a farmer or a forager.”

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