Chef Renee Erickson Dishes on the Minimum Wage, Reservations, and Her Menus

"I feel really confident about the food we are creaing in Seattle. The more I travel, the more I am proud of what we are doing right here at home."

Renee Erickson was voted Best Chef in the 2015 Best of Seattle Reader Poll. To view the other winners, go here.

Renee Erickson is a James Beard Award-winning finalist many times over, and easily one of Seattle’s most inventive pioneering chefs, helping to set an incredibly high standard for her peers. The closure of her Boat Street Cafe caused much hand-wringing earlier this year, but Erickson has promised that her footprint will not diminish. With two perpetually packed restaurants—The Walrus and the Carpenter and The Whale Wins—and Barnacle, an Italian aperitivo bar, she continues to dedicate herself to her particular casual style of French food underpinned by a Pacific Northwest ethos. The Winner of our Reader Poll for Best Chef, Erickson took time out of her busy travels in Europe to talk to us about the state of Seattle dining and what she’s cooking up while abroad.

SW: I still remember seeing the splashy article in The New York Times Food & Dining section on Seattle’s restaurant scene in 2011. The main picture was of a server at The Walrus and the Carpenter. Some might argue that that article was a turning point for Seattle’s restaurant scene—that we were “officially” hot. Do you think that was indeed Seattle’s moment?
Erickson: It was really nice to be mentioned in that article, especially alongside Revel and the Willows Inn, but I am not sure that Seattle is “hot,” at least not in the way other American cities like New York, San Francisco, or Chicago are.

Since then, so many new restaurants have opened, and Ethan Stowell and Tom Douglas continue empire-building. Do you see yourself going down that path, now that you’re adding new restaurants to your quartet?
Ethan and Tom have done a really great job of creating diverse and exciting restaurants—pizza to fish ’n’ chips to burgers to tacos to upscale Italian to New American bistros to Tibetan dumplings and ramen. They are exploring new ideas, expressing themselves, and growing their businesses. More power to them! At the same time, plenty of new chefs have opened great restaurants. Having both room to start new restaurants and to grow existing restaurants feels healthy and vibrant to us.

Are we opening too many restaurants for our own good, or do you think the city’s massive expansion can sustain this capacity?
Doing the right thing with the right people at the right time and in the right place is a challenge to restaurant owners everywhere—Seattle is no exception.

What about the state of reservations? Many places you need to book at least a week in advance for weekends, and this seems to have happened just over the past six months. Is this a good thing for our restaurant scene?
Our restaurants, like most, have lulls before 6 p.m. and after 9 p.m. A last-minute 7 p.m. reservation or walk-in on a Friday or Saturday night is always going to be tough, especially for larger groups. We reserve about half the dining room at Whale. The other half is held for walk-ins. The seasonal patio is not reserved at all. Reservations between 6 and 8 p.m. have always been popular and continue to be so, especially on Fridays and Saturdays. We still are able to accommodate walk-ins, and we do everything possible to seat our regulars. I don’t imagine restaurants will be rushing folks to accommodate more diners, but in the face of greater demand, perhaps we will see more patios, more satellite bars (like Essex at Delancey or Bar Cotto at Anchovies and Olives), and more restaurants.

You and your partners announced back in the spring that you’d be adding an 18.5 percent surcharge to bills in lieu of tipping servers to help compensate workers, and to make sure that the front and the back of house weren’t paid so unevenly. You also stated that it will help cover benefit costs for your employees. How has that gone over with diners and your staff? Do you feel well-prepared for the hike?
Nearly all of our customers have been supportive. We were nervous, but the transition has been really smooth. We are proud to have among the best-paid and -supported staffs in the city. We believe that restaurant jobs are incredibly demanding, and that cooks and servers should be cared for like professionals are in other industries. To us this means real health insurance, fair wages, and matching retirement savings accounts. All of our employees now make at least $15 an hour, so we are definitely “well-prepared for the hike.”

OK, let’s get a little less serious. Menu writing: I think there’s a secret menu-writing academy that’s churning out menus for every restaurant. The formula is simple: main ingredient listed first, followed by a rote listing of every other ingredient in the dish, but without an explanation of how the dish is actually built. Where did that trend begin, and why is it the favored way for chefs to present their dishes?
We rarely have room on a menu to spell everything out. Even if we did have room—say a multiple-page menu—we think of a menu as a conversation-starter between our guests and their server or bartender.

Along these lines: Is the three-course meal dead?
The three-course meal is not dead. What has changed is that diners now have choices beyond this format at many restaurants—which is really great. We are all for more choice. Want a “traditional” three-course meal? Great—we can do that! Want to order a bunch of different things to share? Awesome—we can do that too!

Despite Seattle’s growing restaurant scene and its accolades, we still don’t get as much recognition as Portland. They take home more awards and get more write-ups in national publications. What’s up with that?
We don’t spend a lot of time comparing ourselves to Portland. I have a lot of respect for the cooks that work there, and love all of the great places they’ve created. I am happy with the national press we have received and feel really confident about the food we are creating here in Seattle. The more I travel, the prouder I am of what we do right here at home.

Speaking of traveling, let’s talk about where you are right now.
I visited London, Jeremy [Price, business partner] visited Rome, and [we] met up in Cassis [in southern France]. I’ll also be visiting Zurich.

What are you eating?
Currently we are cooking a lot at our rental. It is very warm in Cassis right now, so we are eating a lot of “cool” foods—salads, vegetables, seafood, tartare. Last night we made some pork chops. The other night we ate roast chicken and potatoes. We’re visiting some of our favorite ProvenÇal wine makers too—Clos Ste. Magdeleine here in Cassis and Tempier in Bandol. The wines are beautiful.

What’s inspiring you?
Fishermen catching and selling “ugly” fish. It is really great to see people buying and enjoying more uncommon, lower-on-the-food-chain fish. This is something we try to do in our restaurants . . . selling herring or shad instead of yellowfin tuna, for example. All the regional foods—things like bouillabaisse—are really fun. The regional ingredients too. Provence has its own olive oil, salt . . . you name it.

Anything you’ve never tasted before?
Dry-cured beef brisket and rump roast from the farmer’s market in Cassis. Really delicious and unique; not quite bresaola, not quite jerky.

What’s the best meal you’ve had?
The best dish was ravioli with brown butter stuffed with fresh ricotta and chard at Spring in London. The best meal was at St. John’s in London. We had a mint salad that was ridiculous!

So what might we see on your plates soon that is a product of your travels?
We are looking forward to creating our version of the mint salad when we get back to Seattle: mint leaves dressed with mustard vinaigrette, served with grilled bread and fresh chèvre/ricotta.

OK, final question! What are you most excited about in the coming year?
I am thrilled about our farm on Whidbey Island. Being able to bring meat, eggs, vegetables, fruits, and nuts from our farm to our restaurants where we can share it with our guests is really exciting. The quality and diversity of the food we will be able to offer is going to improve.

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