Maria Hines of Tilth – Interview v. 7
Seattle’s Sustainable Food Pioneer Maria Hines
Several years ago I had a birthday. Yes, I know, I have one every year like most everyone else. But on this particular birthday my friends asked me where I wanted to go. At that time, I’d recently heard about this hip little bungalow in Wallingford that was all the rage. The Chef was a rising star and it embodied the farm-to-table concept brazenly and before anyone started using the term as a catchphrase. The menu was purported to be the essence of seasonal with everything being grown and procured locally. Given that my birthday is in the heart of winter, I was sure to experience a depth of creativity as the pickings that time of year are slim in Washington. Despite this, my meal was wonderful. I remember salmon from Neah Bay, and succulent winter squash delicately prepared so as to not lose its firmness and flavor. I enjoyed the environment as it was as if I’d been invited to dine in someone’s home. It all came together perfectly. Of course, this restaurant was Tilth and the Chef was none other than the lauded Maria Hines.
Tilth Restaurant in Seattle’s Wallingford neighborhood
Since my initial ‘Maria Hines’ experience, I’ve had the pleasure of dining at both Golden Beetle in Ballard with its lovely Mediterranean menu and bright color palette within. I’ve also enjoyed dining at Maria Hines’ latest Italian-themed venture, Agrodolce in Fremont which occupies the former 35th Street Bistro space. Both have creative menus with the stellar service we’ve come to expect from Chef Hines’ restaurants. I’ve also enjoyed watching her on shows such as Top Chef Masters and Iron Chef America. Indeed, she’s become a culinary star fully representing Seattle and the Pacific Northwest wherever she goes.
Earlier this month I was able to chat with Maria with the goal of getting a sense of what makes this influential and creative mind tick.
The patio at Agrodolce in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood
Where did you get your start in the restaurant biz?
I started cooking at 16 in a chain called Carlos Murphy’s in San Diego. I really loved working in a kitchen and decided that I wanted to pursue it further. So, I started handing out resumes hoping to find an entry level position in the kitchen and wound up there. I then got my Associates through a program at Mesa College in San Diego and spent 3 months staging in France before coming back to the States to cook.
Why did you get involved in food?
I wanted to do something creative. Photography didn’t seem like a good avenue – there was lots of competition and I felt like no matter what, I’d always have a job working in a kitchen.
Tagliarini from Agrodolce
What do you love most about the restaurant biz?
Working with my team towards a common goal. When I hire folks, I’m always looking for people who care about the business and, if they are working in the kitchen, that they are aspiring chefs. If so, they tend to come with their own motivation.
What do you like least about it?
The financial stress. I seem to have knack for this though. My dad owns his own business and I grew up around entrepreneurship. Spending time with him gave me some exposure to the workings of business and gave me the inspiration to own my own business.
What is your #1 goal with your restaurants?
Quality, creativity and creating an experience for the guests. I want to create something memorable – a dish, an experience, something that’s special to them. These are the guiding principles for all three of my restaurants. Great service, creative, inspired food, and creating a memorable experience.
The dining room at Tilth
What drove you to open three different restaurants with different genres of food?
I have a huge appetite for learning and being creative and I didn’t want to be pigeonholed into one style of cooking or a single concept. All three of my restaurants are at different price points which in turn lead to different concepts. There is a lot of creativity that goes into them as well as challenges/learning opportunities. I am trying to push the creative limits with each restaurant.
How do you split your time between the restaurants?
I try to split time equally between each place. Now, I’m focused more on the conceptual, creative aspects than working the line. And I don’t miss working the line much. I do so many different events and that’s where I do a lot of my cooking these days. Whether I’m in NY, here or overseas; I get to cook a fair amount. With demos, classes and such I’m still always cooking. If I’m cooking for the restaurant it’s more experimentation and recipe testing nowadays.
What is your philosophy regarding food/cooking?
I would say giving 100% to the process and being really consistent with the food. Staying true to the concept – stay focused on whatever cuisine it is you are working on.
The cassoulet at Tilth
What advice do you have for people looking to get into the food business?
I would say go work in a restaurant for a long period of time first before putting money into it. If you are in a restaurant for a year you will have a good grasp of what it’s all about. A lot of kids go straight into culinary school, then get into a kitchen and don’t realize the most important things about working in a kitchen. Cooking is only half of it. A certain temperament is required to understand that this is what their life is going to be like.
What would you have done differently when starting out?
I would have liked to have spent time doing baking and pastry. It’s not to say that I wouldn’t open a bakery but I don’t have any aspirations to. That said, I’ve learned to ‘never say never’.
What/who is your inspiration?
I would say it’s a combination of many things – the seasons, the food coming out of the ground around me and my staff. My cooks, my servers. Travelling too. I do a fair amount of travelling, eating out and reading books. It’s all because I’m excited about what I do. If I hated my job I wouldn’t be able to find inspiration anywhere. If you love what you do you find inspiration wherever you go. It doesn’t matter if it’s some hole in the wall in a little town in the middle of nowhere. If you are passionate about something it doesn’t matter where you are.
What is your favorite ingredient?
Fish – any and all of it. My favorites vary depending on the season and the temperature outside. It has an effect on what I do with it. Whatever is in season – fall spot prawns, spring and summer are great for salmon around here – it just depends on what’s available.
St. Jude’s Albacore Tuna at Golden Beetle
What trends in the biz do you see on the horizon?
Healthier dining choices. People want healthier options that fit into their diet whether it’s whatever diet is working for their body or if it’s something that they need to do to deal with a health issue. For example, a lot of people are eating gluten free but aren’t celiac.
The effect that overly processed food has on people’s systems is catching up with them. There’s a lot of scientific information surrounding health issues regarding your diet and people are focusing more on this. We’ll see more vegans, vegetarians, celiacs in the coming years. It’s emerging nationally and there are way more gluten free products and vegan products in metropolitan areas. You also are starting to see such a wider variety of vegan and raw food. And they’re coming up with better products. Organics of course continue to expand.
What trends/fads are played?
I don’t know if I’m just burnt out on it and don’t know if I ever really got on board with it – and this is more of an opinion than a statement – but the over the top meaty meat rich ultra fatty stuff. Like a burger with a piece of foie and poutine drizzled with demi glace. To me – there’s no balance to that. It seems like you are trying to see how over the top it can be. Each thing on its own can be fine and delicious but putting it all together doesn’t highlight any culinary talent. Especially with all the health issues we’re up against. It’s up to us as chefs to help shift that tide and move to a healthier agenda.
What would you like to see more of coming in from local farmers/growers?
Organic proteins – there’s a great variety of organic produce and dry goods in the northwest and we’re fortunate that we can find a lot of grains and even ancient grains. Organic protein is something I just can’t get enough of. I get my pork and beef from George and Eiko Vojkovich at Skagit River Ranch. And I get organic duck and chicken now from Jerry and Janelle at Stokesberry Farm. And I just got organic duck for Agrodolce. But I also want goat. I want rabbit, boar, quail and pheasant and it’s hard to do when you are certified organic.
Mini-duck burgers from Tilth
If someone invites you to their home for dinner what should they cook?
Whatever they cook best – it doesn’t matter. Too many times when I go to someone’s house and they try to do something they haven’t done before, then they apologize. Don’t put that pressure on yourself – do what you do best and we will all eat happily together.
Where do you go out to eat?
I went to Loulay a couple of weeks ago and had a great dinner. Canlis is amazing as well. I like to try out everything from taco trucks to new stuff. There’s just too many places to list that I’ve got to go to and check out. And I don’t have that much time to eat out.
A selection of dips from Golden Beetle
Who is the best chef in Seattle right now?
I would split my vote between Jason Franey from Canlis and Rachel Yang from Joule and Revel.
What is your last meal?
It would be a Japanese dish called chawanmushi. It’s an egg custard with a little bit of dashi broth, seafood, and mushrooms. It can vary but it’s always egg custard with a dashi broth. And I’d most likely be drinking sake.
A Recipe from Chef Maria Hines
Caramelized Fennel Salad with Golden Raisins, Walnuts and Arugula
Served at Tilth
- 4 ea fennel bulbs, trimmed
- 1 C white wine
- 4 C water
- 1 ea bouquet garni
- 1 C golden raisins
- 1 C white wine
- ½ C water
- ½ C canola oil
- Fresh lemon juice
- Salt and pepper
- ½ C walnuts, toasted
- 2 bu arugula, washed
For the fennel:
Cut 3 bulbs in half lengthwise. Cut each half into ¼ inch wedges leaving the core intact. Combine the white wine, water, and bouquet garni and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and add the fennel. Cook until tender. Drain the liquid and let fennel cool. Heat a sauté pan and add 1 T canola oil. When the oil is hot, add enough fennel to cover the bottom of the pan. Cook until browned on both sides. Repeat with remaining fennel wedges.
For the golden raisins:
Reserve ¼ C of the raisins to garnish the salad. Cover the remaining raisins with white wine and bring to a boil. Reduce the wine au sec, or until almost gone. Let cool. Transfer the raisins and wine to a blender and add the water. Blend the raisins on high speed. With the blender running, add the canola oil in a steady stream to make a vinaigrette. Adjust seasoning with fresh lemon juice, salt and pepper.
Using a mandolin, shave the remaining fennel bulb thinly. In a bowl, combine shaved fennel and arugula. Dress with golden raisin vinaigrette. Arrange four caramelized wedges on each plate and top with fennel and arugula salad. Garnish with toasted walnuts and golden raisins.
To fully grown…
To understand Chef Maria Hines is to know what a pioneer she is in Seattle and the food world in general. She was one of the first here to truly focus on cooking seasonal, organic, farm-to-table food. Upon opening Tilth, Chef Hines applied for the restaurant to be certified organic with the Oregon Tilth board – and succeeded becoming one of only two restaurants in the country to achieve this status at the time. Since opening and succeeding with Tilth she has quickly evolved and expanded her reach into other cuisines and cultures all the while maintaining her focus on quality, local ingredients and putting smiles on the faces of her clientele and memories in their minds. I can’t wait to see what she comes up with next!
If you enjoyed this interview with Maria Hines 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! Next up, Matt Lewis from Seattle’s homage to New Orleans and creole cooking – Roux.