Le Petit Cochon’s Derek Ronspies – Interview v.6
Le Petit Cochon’s Porkmeister General – Derek Ronspies
This Little Piggy Went to Market…
If you are in tune with the food scene in Seattle then you have undoubtedly heard about, and hopefully dined at Le Petit Cochon – Chef Derek Ronspies’ brainchild housed in the former Showa space in Fremont. I was turned on to Derek by friend and fellow foodie Jen Chiu who authors the infamous ‘Roll With Jen’ blog and is an expert on all things food in Seattle. With her recommendation I had to try it out.
My wife and I were fortunate enough to take advantage of one of the rare occasions we have been able to procure a sitter. If we’re lucky, this happens about once a month and we make our dining choices wisely. Taking our chances on an unproven entity can ruin ‘date night’. Fortunately, we had no fear of that happening at Le Petit Cochon. I was ready for some porky goodness created by Chef Derek.
Hmmm…I wonder what kind of food they have in there?
We arrived and were seated in the intimate dining room with a full view of the kitchen and bustling Fremont Ave. The menu was eclectic and interesting making use of various uncommon cuts of meat in playful, creative combinations. It also emphasized the ‘Farm-to-Table’ concept that Chef Ronspies is so passionate about. I was immediately drawn to a Lamb’s head dish (which turned out to be the best of the night) and could simply not resist getting the ‘Phat Ass Pork Chop’ from one of my favorites – Olsen Farms. The latter was served on a wooden board with sublime apple butter that was in complete synchronicity with the massive chop. Oh, and lest I forget the Tempura Masa Pork Bellies – served on a stick (how else?) complimented by a tomatillo vin and red cabbage slaw which would give Chef Roy Choi’s amazing trucks in East LA a run for their money. Needless to say, my wife and I were pleased with what was on offer at Le Petit Cochon.
This Little Piggy Stayed Home
Chef Derek Ronspies with some other guys from Seattle
Chef Derek and I met at the restaurant on one of his few days off. In a world that is perceived by outsiders as high strung, high pressure, high stress (thanks Mr. Ramsey and Top Chef) – Derek is anything but. He was relaxed, uber-casual and excited to talk about his passions – food, farm to table and nose to tail cooking. He exudes both a confidence and devil-may-care attitude about his food as well as a humbleness that is easy to recognize. I’m always excited to talk to people who are passionate about what they do and I was eager to hear about what makes Derek Ronspies tick.
Where did you get your start in the restaurant biz?
I started at Outback steakhouse in Clearwater, Florida. I was going to church a lot and my brother (Dustin Ronspies of Art of the Table in Wallingford) was working there. He thought it would be good to get me out of church so he helped me get a job. He in a way kinda “saved me.” I had washed dishes at a pizzeria before that and did the same at Outback for a year and a half. Then I worked my way up the line – fry station, salads, saute, etc. My career at Outback peaked when I moved to the blooming onion station and was making like 200 onions a night. I liked it a lot but quit and worked at a couple of other places cooking. My brother was a kitchen manager at a diner and I followed him there.
Then, I decided that I didn’t want to cook anymore. I saw the Front of House people making a lot more money and I went to do that. I went back and forth from Florida to Colorado waiting tables and I realized I hated it. Those people deserve to make a lot of money and it definitely takes the right type of person to do it.
Lamb Brodo, Treviso, Chanterelles, Tallegio Agnolotti, 6 Min Egg, Lemon Confit, Herby Vin
So why did you stay involved in food?
After my front of house experience I decided to go to school to learn to do computer animation. I soon realized that too many good people were doing it and was having a hard time finding a job. At the same time, I realized didn’t want to sit behind a computer all day. So, I told my girlfriend at the time that I was going back to the kitchen. I decided to take less money and worked at a salad bar and made $10 bucks an hour. Even though it was a salad bar I made it look damned good and I talked to people while they were making their salads – I was King of the Salad Bar.
Then I started at Go Fish grill in Cherry Creek, CO. They were doing food like I’d never seen. It was a Chef-driven restaurant and I got on the line and started cooking again and I realized – this was it. So I went to culinary school at 28 decided to get serious. I stopped partying and being a fool and went to school full time plus I worked full time @ 50 hours a week. Then I got into Suite 160 in West Palm Beach under Chef Sean McDonald who was the first chef that blew my mind. I saw things and was like – how do you do that? How are these dishes in your mind? I really enjoyed working for him.< After Suite 160 I moved on with Sous Rob Goodhue to a place that went under. Rob sent me to Café Boulud in Palm Beach and there I saw the top of the game. They had 50 people in the kitchen at the same time and we all had about 18 inches of cutting board space each. When prep was done almost all of those people would leave and we would do service with 8 people on the line.
Smokey Pig Face Fritter, Fennel, Penn Cove Mussells, Rockwell Beans, Zatar Whippy, Lemon Oil
What do you love most about the restaurant biz?
I love that it’s always different day to day. I love the creativity and putting smiles on people’s faces. When people are f***ing stoked I love it. It blows my mind that people come in here to eat. I’m always thinking – who the hell am I? I still don’t get who all these people are and why they come to eat here. I was telling Spencer, my kickass sous chef, that I look at my job like it’s a professional sport. I just do what I love. It’s just putting things together that I love to do.
What do you like least about it?
That every day it’s different…
The stress of not being busy. The possibility that I can fail scares me a lot. But I think I’ve already succeeded and money is already coming in. Oh, and the insomnia.
Have a porky Halloween!
What is your #1 goal with your restaurant?
I would like to win a James Beard Award in 3 years. I want to be one of Seattle’s best restaurants. I want to learn, create, and educate the public on nose to tail and farm to table. I also want to keep it local in dealing with farmers. To me, it’s about the culture here in Seattle.
Also, remaining creative in putting flavors together. I might get a few bad constructive criticisms to take a few things off the plate. And sure, sometimes I do go a little crazy and put an extra flavor that shouldn’t be there. But it’s what I want to do. I don’t want to do really simple food – I want to be different. Sometimes things don’t go perfectly but it will still be good, it’s not going to be lousy.
6 Minute Egg with Fennel Salad, Caviar, Creme Fraiche, Orange Saffron Vin
This Little Piggy Had Roast Beef…
What is your philosophy regarding food/cooking?
I want to achieve utilizing the entire animal. I went to Argentina a few years ago and stayed with a family. They just took me in as this gringo dude who showed up and stayed the whole weekend. We slaughtered 5 lambs and used everything but the entrails and the stomach.
We put wool up to dry, the intestines were thrown on the roof and dried out, things were fed to the dogs, etc. Right after we finished the Dad had rack of lamb, with kidneys, liver, heart rolling on the grill and we ate all of that. The next day we grilled up the leg, the wife made blood sausage. Then the uncle came in and took me out to the grill. He had the head on and he took the eyeballs out with spoons. We toasted with the spoons, downed the eyeballs, cracked the head and spooned out the brains. It was an amazing experience.
My philosophy was defined when I was at Art of the Table and I started experimenting. I realized that all of these animals have souls – I really want a pet pig someday, sooner then later. But I also love eating and cooking them and we need to honor, utilize, and cherish them. I just don’t want to fuck it up. Also, I have this huge thing with octopus; I went through a time where I didn’t want to cook them. They are one of the most beautiful and intelligent creatures on the planet and I felt cooking them would be absurd, but they are being caught and killed. I feel if I get an octopus in I can honor its life by cooking it to the best of my ability and have people enjoy it, so at least it didn’t die for nothing. Or be served up dry and chewy on someone’s plate.
A divine porchetta from Le Petit Cochon
What advice do you have for people looking to get into the food business?
Law school is nice…
You have to know how to work and you have to want it. It’s not TV – its f’ing hard work. It’s daily, even as a cook. Spencer works his ass off but you can tell he loves it, you have to. If you want to do it you have to go above and beyond. Those music events you want to go to – it’s not going to happen. You’re not going to Burning Man for a week. It’s work – and that’s what the job is. It’s great sometimes and it’s awesome but you have to love it. If it’s a side job or there’s a ‘probably’ in there it’s not for you.
Go cook before you go to school…fuck don’t go to school – 6 months to a year at a restaurant that’s busy – not some lazy place. And wash dishes – that’s where you should start. If you think you are too good to do that you should not even start. I love washing dishes – I do it every day. It’s sort of Zen to me. Kids coming out of CIA have this attitude and they think they should start as a sous but they should just wash dishes and learn from the ground up like everyone else.
The raw ingredients – bone marrow gnocchi
What would you have done differently when starting out?
I would have stuck with it from the beginning. But I didn’t know and I was young. In hindsight, I would have gone to Café Boulud off the bat and washed dishes at 17. Stayed 2 years and then left to work for a new “badass” chef. That’s where my style comes from – kind of a combination of the 5 chefs I worked under and a lot of research. I credit all of them. My brother Dustin, Sean, Zach Bell, Rob Goodhue and Mike Lascola – what they taught me is what I use to generate ideas and come up with the flavors to sell it. I do a lot of research in books and on the internet to expand my knowledge. Sometimes people get stuck in one place and that’s as far as their knowledge takes them. I want to keep pushing myself always.
What/who is your inspiration?
My brother for a long while. He blew my mind – everything he cooked for me when I was younger was the best food I ever had. I chased him – we have an amazing relationship, best friends, and we know how to cook good food. People ask us where we get it from and I don’t know where it comes from. Sometimes we credit taking a lot of acid when we were younger (laughs).
Inspiration is just trying to do things a little different, new flavors, experimentation. The universe right now is my inspiration. I went through a bad breakup a year ago and had been super negative my entire life – and it hit home. I started reading some books, and just turned it around. A New Earth by Eckhart Tolle was very influential. All this (the restaurant) came from being grateful and saying ‘thank you’ every day when I wake up. And I’m so thankful I have this opportunity. That my father and his wife entrusted me to do this. And I have to do it, if I don’t do it, I can’t pay them back!
What is your favorite ingredient?
Pig of course! I like bringing a whole animal in, breaking it down. I’m not a professional butcher in any way. I’d like to learn how to break an animal down to primals properly someday. Also, I really like cumin as a spice – you can use a lot and know it, and quatre epices as well. If you give it a little bit, you get depth of flavor without really knowing where it’s coming from.
Pig Face “Cassoulet” Rockwell Beans, Duck Gizzard Confit, Roasted Garlic, Melted Leeks, Pickled Lamb Tongue Salad, Mustard Demi
What trends in the biz do you see on the horizon?
I have no idea. I’d like for the farm-to-table thing to catch on a bit more. I think a lot of people say they are doing it but they aren’t. If you are bringing a case of squash in once in a while from Local Roots you aren’t doing farm-to-table. When Charlie’s Produce is at your door every day you aren’t doing it.
Do the best you can with what’s in season. I would like to see it take off some more. If we support local farmers more, prices can go down a bit, they are being supported, and the price on our plates goes down as well. The food that we get – there’s a reason why it costs money. There’s a lot of work that goes into it. The animals and vegetables are cared for. Those vegetables that I get from Local Roots and Nash’s are the most beautiful things I’ve seen in my life. Organic produce without a bug or hole in them. That’s why I think people need to understand that they have to pay for quality.
What would you like to see more of coming in from local farmers/growers?
Spring – we need to get out of the winter! I’d also like to find a farmer that grows really nice herbs. Really, I think they do a great job. What they are doing here – they are hitting it. And they are always asking what they can grow for us, it’s support from both sides.
Alaskan weathervane Scallops, Korean Rice Noodles, King Trumpet Mushrooms, Black Bean Vin, Chili Jam.
This Little Piggy Had None
If someone invites you to their home for dinner what should they cook?
Home cooked anything. Don’t try to impress me. Something with love. Vegetables – I eat enough meat.
Who is the best chef in Seattle right now?
Dustin Ronspies – I’d say that not because he’s my brother but because he does great stuff. Nathan Lockwood at Altura is awesome. I like Greenleaf and Ocho a lot. And Chef Soma from Miyabi 45th makes me very happy.
What is your last meal?
Chicken wings. 50 of ‘em. Whoever has the best ones right now – probably from the prison guy who’s cooking them? And I’d drink a variety of Cascade sour beers with them.
Chef Derek’s Deep Fried Confit Chicken Gizzard Recipe
So, you’ve been saving those chicken gizzards in your freezer wondering when the next time you are going to make gravy…Well forget the gravy and pull ‘em out. Let’s confit them.
- You are going to make a basic dry cure consisting of 2 to 1 salt to sugar and some of your favorite spices you want to enhance the flavor with.
- Next, you’ll want enough cure to rub liberally all over the the gizzards …throw some herbs in there too and toss them around. (You can also add a little Instacure #1 (obtain online) to keep them pink in the middle)
- Let them cure overnight. OK – wake up and rinse them off….
- Now you are going to need fat to confit them in…my favorite is Duck Fat which you can purchase at Le Petit Cochon on most days for $10 a pint…you could also use chicken fat of olive oil.
- Make sure your gizzards are completely submerged in said fat and throw in a 280-degree oven until fork tender about 2 or 3 hours.
- OK – they’re tender…now is the time when no one is looking and you can shove one in your face!!!
- Cool them down ….Now all you have to do is throw em in a little buttermilk for an hour and make a flour mix…toss em in and fry in your little table top fryer or your grandmas favorite cast iron skillet!!!
This Little Piggy Cried Wee Wee all the Way Home…
I say ‘wee wee’ because I really enjoyed meeting Derek Ronspies and look forward to dining again at Le Petit Cochon. In a city whose cuisine has at times been defined by Salmon on a Cedar Plank; I found Chef Derek’s approach to food and cooking a breath of fresh air. He’s an unbridled spirit who is happy to be doing what he does best and that is cooking and serving you and me – the humble diners. He makes no apologies for his flavor combinations and is hell bent on experimentation. He’s willing to break the mold on what we have gotten used to as ‘good’ and throw creative curveballs at us like Bone ‘n Scallops (not your father’s surf and turf) and Blood and Foie – blood sausage and duck foie on the same plate. Damn those are compelling combinations that I can’t wait to try. Call the babysitter!
If you enjoyed this then please check out my other articles in the series at Chef Interview Series and stay tuned for future interviews with more of your favorite well and lesser known Seattle-based Chefs coming soon including Eric Donnelly of Rock Creek and Josh Henderson of Skillet/Westward/Hollywood Tavern!
For more photos of Chef Derek Ronspies’ beautiful food at Le Petit Cochon, check him out on Instagram: @_chefD