Chef Jason Stratton – Interview v. 4
Chef Jason Stratton of Cascina Spinasse, Artusi & Aragona
A Personal Mission
Ever since I spent my year in Provence and ended up making what seemed like monthly trips to Piemonte; I’ve been on a mission to find pasta that replicated what I found in towns like Barolo, Barbaresco and Alba. It has not been easy. You see, I was spoiled by what was commonplace there but is anything but in the States. I now sit snobbishly trialing pasta dishes at different restaurants only to be disappointed in most cases. This one is gummy, that one is too thick, the filling is falling apart. Damn. Why can’t I find such a simple thing such as silky thin tagliatelle in Seattle? There are a few notable exceptions: the agnolotti del plin is divine at Palace Kitchen, many of the lovely pasta incarnations that Holly Smith creates at Cafe Juanita, and basically anything Chef Jason Stratton makes at Cascina Spinasse in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood.
I’ve had the pleasure of dining at Spinasse several times and I never cease to be delighted by what comes out of the kitchen. Everything is lovely in its simplicity. Nothing is overdone. You don’t find 7 things on a plate. The ingredients and fine art of making pasta properly are on display. Mind you – there are other delectable dishes. Such as a spot prawn dish I had this past summer with whole prawns cooked over a bed of sea salt and herbs in a cast iron skillet. I ate it with my hands gleefully twisting off the heads, sucking out the juices, peeling the shell to get to the tail meat all the while getting the salty, herbal flavors in my mouth. It was so good I wanted it for dessert. Alas, I had ordered the last one. No worries though – I finished the night off with several glasses of Barbaresco, more pasta, a steak and a much-needed Uber ride home.
The dining room at Aragona
Meeting the Man behind the Magic
When I first conceptualized this series I made a short list of names. Chef Jason Stratton was at the top of it based on my love of his food and his reputation. I had spoken to Chef Holly Smith, whom Jason had worked for earlier in his career, and she had nothing but praise for him. After finally finding a bastion of Piemonte in Seattle I had to meet the man. I had to know about his creative drive, his passion and why it was that he decided to make the best damned pasta in Seattle.
I knew he was busy so I remained steadfast in my pursuit for about six weeks until I was finally able to set a date in Jason Stratton’s newest restaurant Aragona in downtown Seattle. It’s a lovely Spanish-inspired restaurant with an eclectic menu that will make you think and try some things you may never have had the chance to before.
Jason Stratton arrived to meet me dressed in a hip hounds tooth blazer. As I enjoyed a lovely carafe of fresh brewed coffee we dove right in to my questions. What follows is a lovely, thoughtful interview with someone I’ve now come to admire as much for his approach to life and set of beliefs as his food.
An Intellectual Feast
Where did you get your start in the restaurant biz?
I started as a dishwasher at Le Gourmand in Ballard. I wanted to make some extra cash and was looking for a job. Coincidentally, my art teacher was friends with Chef Bruce Naftaly so she put me in touch. At first, Bruce didn’t want to hire me because I was a boy and he had only hired female dishwashers. He was afraid that I wouldn’t take good care of his dishes. However, he relented and hired me anyway.
After being there for a bit, I looked around and started doing some prep, butchering ducks, making profiteroles, etc. I think Bruce saw something in me and could tell I was interested in what he was doing, so he started sharing more and more. It was really a one man show there so he let me help.
I grew up poor in Seattle, the land of transplants, mostly in Ballard and on the Hill. I hadn’t had an opportunity to try many of the things being served at Le Gourmand: sweetbreads, venison, chanterelles, black currants, nasturtiums. Bruce took the time to introduce them to me.
Why did you get involved in food?
My mom always emphasized the importance of food in our home and she took the time to make sure we ate well. She really pushed the idea that making food was a process. It’s hard when you are low-income to make food that is valuable. Braising meats, collards, etc. – there’s a process to take something that not everyone wanted and make it palatable to eat.
Bruce really promoted this kind of joy and duty from making a plate of food. There was something about the beauty and simplicity that all made sense to me. Knowing that this was something that I could do and work at made an impression on me. The social aspect of a restaurant showed me that you could truly make someone joyful. A couple would come into Le Gourmand every year and it was a special experience for them. Seeing that you could make that kind of impact was weirdly addictive.
Chef Jason Stratton in the kitchen at Spinasse
So why the Northern Italian route?
I went to Evergreen and had an opportunity to study abroad in Spain. I was doing a research project on Federico Garcia Lorca and, at the time, I wanted to dedicate my life to writing and to become a poet. I went to Granada and was blown away by both the culture and food—the aspect of eating, feeding and cooking for people. How it is a quietly celebrated thing that is part of your life. Every aspect of the day is surrounded by these rituals of food and preparation.
When I came back, Holly Smith of Cafe Juanita got my resume from a friend and we set up an interview. She didn’t have a position at the time, but she asked me to stage for a night and I was totally in love with what she was doing. It was the first thing that I had encountered in Seattle that reminded me of Spain. I had just accepted a job at the Grand Hyatt and felt bad about giving notice. But then Holly invited me to dinner and I had my first bite of her iconic sweetbreads. After that, I knew I had to go there and work for her.
It was my first experience with Italian cuisine and Holly allowed me to bring a lot to the table. She taught me about wine, Piemonte, and I fell in love with the overall aesthetic of the cuisine and how, in a way, it mirrored the produce we have here in the Pacific Northwest. Going to Alba felt like meeting a distant cousin of Seattle.
Tajarin at Cascina Spinasse
What do you love most about the restaurant biz?
It’s this whole thing of people welcoming us (as Chefs) into their lives. This notion of genuine hospitality dovetailed into what I wanted to be. I learned from Holly and Bruce how to take care of people in a way that was genuine. It’s about creating a memorable experience for the customer and this resonated with me.
I think there’s a lot of lip service given to the Bourdain ‘Kitchen Confidential’ thing – like there’s a bunch of ragtag criminal people running around in restaurants. Which may be true. But this community – I feel like I’ve lucked out incredibly that this is my career path. How many people have you talked to that hate their jobs? I can genuinely say I honestly love everyone I work with. You meet the most interesting people. I looked at Carrie (Mashaney – Exec. Chef at Aragona) the other day and I was like – I’ve known you for 9 years! It’s a pretty cool thing to grow with people, meeting them and they become part of your lives. I think of Holly and the Cafe Juanita crew. They are this sort of family I’ve created over there. It feels like coming home when I go over there. It’s what keeps this sustainable for me.
When are you going to be on TV?
I don’t know – I’ve already done that a bit. I’m a huge Top Chef fan and it’s entertaining and serves to promote what we do. Ultimately, what people don’t realize is that we’re kind of construction workers. It’s nice to see it glamorized, but in the end it’s just food. Nobody is going to die if we don’t make a nice dish. Everyone has to eat.
What do you like least about it?
I don’t know that there’s anything. I could complain about Yelp or whatever, but it’s all fascinating about how it comes together. All things considered – it’s really exciting to anticipate the positive and negative and prepare to make the team better. It may be hard but it’s exciting and challenging. I always try to tell people that you can be upset about it or fix it. It’s what chefs do, we fix things – and you are either good at it or you are not.
What is your #1 goal with your restaurants?
Actually two things – originally it was to communicate through food and hospitality a certain experience I enjoy or found valuable. It can be something that I’m championing – such as a dish I think people should eat more of like tripe, or allowing people to have a space to enjoy for 2-3 hours of their lives.
The last couple of years it has weirdly become trying to communicate what I’ve learned from others. And people who I have had an impact on. Cooking is kind of a dying art – especially with families. I was lucky enough to have my mom who taught me things to do or not to do. I have had people like Bruce or Jerry Traunfeld or Holly who have taught me. And I feel like I can pass that on to them and see them evolve and open their own places and foster that community.
It’s also something that bums me out about the TV aspect of what we do. Do you think that if I’m not in the kitchen your food will suffer? It’s my goal to make sure the restaurant functions when I’m not around. It’s why I’m good at what I do – training other people to make good decisions. It’s all a team based effort. I want to champion my team as much as I can. I need to find good people who care about what they are doing.
The Dining Room at Cascina Spinasse
What is your philosophy about food and cooking?
I want things to taste like what they are. I want food to tell a story – whether it’s of me, or Piemonte or somebody who has been dead for 800 years. All those stories are things I want to tell. I think that ultimately food is a part of an experience. It’s not the end all-be all. It seems like it’s one of the things that is changing. People think that food is something that has to be understood. Ultimately, food can be a sensual experience or an intellectual puzzle for a guest – but it doesn’t have to be.
Octopus with Potatoes and Caramelized Cauliflower
What advice do you have for people looking to get into the food business?
Commit to a chunk of time where you are doing it for free to see if you find value in it. If the concept of doing it for free outweighs the value then don’t do it. When you add back in the monetary gain it’s not enough to justify the work. Are you going to be content to small dice 10 pounds of onions every day for the rest of your life? Or are you going to get bored or be above it? It’s a task that needs to be done. Anyone and everyone has to do it.
Culinary school is getting so expensive and people feel like they’ve paid for a career after they have graduated. The fact is that you get through that training to start at the very bottom. There’s a lot of humility that goes with that as you need to accept starting over.
Quail with Polenta
What would you have done differently when starting out?
I’ve often thought about a lot of cooks who jump around a lot in order to assemble a lot of technique and knowledge. I’ve been a camper in my career – two of my biggest positions I’ve had over 5 years each. And I’ve learned a lot from travel. I wonder if I’d jumped around more I would have learned more. I feel like I wouldn’t be the person I am now if I had taken a different path. I’m pretty happy with what I am now.
What/who is your inspiration?
I have many inspirations. Right now, my current one is my pasta guy at Spinasse. He started as a dishwasher and now he makes the thing that people literally fly across the country to eat. Abraham is my guy – I find myself wishing that people were more like him. He makes pasta for 8 hours a day, every day. But he approaches it with such intensity every day and is aware of everything else around him. If anyone needs help he’ll drop what he’s doing and jump to their aid.
What is your favorite ingredient?
I might say tripe. I’d say it’s the most rewarding thing that I cook. It’s such a process to cook it. The dish we do takes 3 days start to finish and you need to pour a lot of care and detail into making it right. When we opened Artusi we had a chicken dish and a tripe dish, and the tripe outsold the chicken. The staff was telling people – you have to get this. It’s very commonplace in other parts of the world and it’s gratifying to introduce this to people here in Seattle.
What trends in the business do you see brewing on the horizon?
I find that people are pulling inspiration from pretty diverse things. The idea of dilettantism in the kitchen that is both positive and negative. Cooks and Chefs are more willing to follow trends and expand their repertoire, which is great. But they may be losing something in the process by not focusing. On Top Chef, for example, chefs that specialize in one cuisine are often criticized for not showing diversity. Diversity can be overrated. I’d like to see more people doing something well vs. trying to do too many things just alright.
What trends/fads are played?
I hate bravado cooking. It’s something that just grosses me out. I’m against the whole macho kitchen environment in general. There’s this whole ‘dude I’m totally going to put bacon on that’. Or ‘yeah, well I’m going to put bacon and cheese on that!’ There’s this whole ‘bro’ type cooking thing that is this ‘one-upsmanship’ game that is just gross.
Squid with Black Rice
What I would really like to see more of, and I think it’s happening, is local winemakers listening more to what chefs are doing. There are some who are really bucking the trend and making wine that is more about the style of food. But the buying public is still gaga for high alcohol, over-extracted jammy wines. It’s one of the divides I’d like to see bridged. It’d be great to have a broader spectrum of wines from Washington State that could pair with the Pacific Northwest cuisine—which tends to be fairly delicate and nuanced.
Our local farmers have been great. For example, Jason and Siri from Local Roots Farm ask what we’d like them to grow and for feedback throughout the season. I don’t necessarily feel like many winemakers ask those questions, and maybe they shouldn’t. But it would be great to have those types of relationships with them.
If someone invites you to their home for dinner what should they cook?
It can be anything. People are always so intimidated to cook for chefs. Having someone else to take over that aspect of an evening is such a blessing. Even a simple salad – I’m a sucker for simple salad.
Who is the best chef in Seattle now?
For being somewhat not recognized for what she does – Emily Crawford at The Corson Building is mega-talented. She awesome, influential and aesthetically lined up with Chef Matt Dillon. She sort of flies under the radar and deserves more credit for her influence on the food of this city. I love what Jerry Corso does at Bar del Corso as well. It’s my favorite pizza in Seattle.
What is your last meal?
Grilled langoustines or red prawns in Spain, with olive oil and sea salt. And I’d probably be drinking sherry or champagne with them.
A Recipe from Chef Jason Stratton
Roasted Cauliflower Flan with Parmigiano-Reggiano Fonduta
and Toasted Pinenut Sauce
For the cauliflower flans:
- 3 heads cauliflower
- olive oil
- 2 c. cream
- 2 c. milk
- 5 eggs
- ½ cup parmigiano-reggiano, finely grated
Trim cauliflower of leaves and core. Cut cauliflower into small pieces, toss in olive oil to coat evenly and salt evenly. Roast at 400° on a sheet pan or baking dish in a single layer for 20-30 minutes until very soft and deeply browned, but not burned. Remove cauliflower and let cool slightly. Puree cauliflower in a food processor until very smooth. Measure 2 cups of roasted cauliflower puree and reserve the rest for another purpose (delicious as a bruschetta topping). In the food processor blend cauliflower puree, cream, milk, eggs until very smooth. Pass through a sieve and stir in parmigiano-reggiano. Season well with salt, a few gratings of nutmeg and a flick of cayenne.
Oil 2 oz. ceramic ramekins. Add 2 oz. of flan base and tap each mold on the counter to evenly distribute base. Place molds in a large, flat-bottomed shallow pan and pour hot water in the pan to reach halfway up the ramekins. Cover ramekins with a buttered sheet of parchment and bake at 300° for about 40-45 minutes or until the surface of the flans feel firm to the touch. Remove ramekins from the water and let cool slightly before unmolding. These flans unmold much easier while still slightly warm.
- 8 egg yolks
- 2 c. cream
- 1/2 # grated parmigiano reggiano
- 1 tsp sugar
- salt and cayenne to taste
Whisk together egg yolks and sugar until the yolks have lightened in color and holds a ribbon shape when the whisk is lifted. Bring cream to a boil. Temper egg yolks by adding cream little by little to the yolks, whisking all the time, until the cream is all incorporated. Return the yolks and cream to the pan and cook over very low heat while constantly whisking until the mixture thickens lightly. Whisk in parmigiano-reggiano a little at a time until all cheese is incorporated and the fonduta is smooth. Season with salt and a little cayenne pepper. If not using immediately transfer to a container and press plastic into the surface of the fonduta while cooling to prevent the formation of a skin. To warm, heat a small amount of cream over low heat and melt the fonduta into it.
Toasted Pinenut Sauce
- 1 c. pinenuts
- 2 c. chicken broth
- zest of half a lemon
Toast pinenuts in a 350° until very deeply browned. Place toasted pinenuts, chicken broth and lemon zest into a pot and simmer at low heat for about one hour or until pinenuts are completely softened. Pour everything into a blender and puree until very smooth (You may need to add a little bit of water to allow the mixture to spin.). Season sauce with salt. Push the pinenut sauce through a sieve.
To serve the dish, rewarm the flans and fonduta. Spoon a small pool of fonduta down in the center of the plate and place two flans on top. Spoon a line of the pinenut sauce to the side of the fonduta and top with a few roasted cauliflower florets and shavings of parmigiano reggiano.
I truly enjoyed meeting Chef Jason Stratton and hearing his story. He is sincere in his passion for food, for making people happy and truly seems at peace with himself and his community. I’ve met many people who did not enjoy what they did for a living in my time and he is not one of them. The man loves his work, his colleagues and his mission to see you well fed and happy. Please do find the time to check our Cascina Spinasse, Artusi and Aragona. You will not be disappointed.
If you enjoyed this then please check out my other articles in the series at Chef Series and stay tuned for future interviews with more of your favorite well and lesser known Seattle-based Chefs coming soon including Renee Erickson and Josh Henderson!