La Vita e Bella: Cafe Juanita’s Holly Smith
I’ve long admired Cafe Juanita and Holly Smith’s cooking ever since moving here in 2005. Admittedly, I’m not the biggest fan of dining on the east side. True – it’s getting better but I’ve never understood why folks like me who live in the city would go ‘over there’ to dine out. There are notable exceptions though and, for me, Cafe Juanita has been the biggest of those for a very long time. It’s always in my ‘top 5’ list of best places to eat in Seattle and, until recently, one of the only places in this area where you could find truly authentic Northern Italian food.
For whatever reason, most Italian restaurants in the Seattle area focus on the South with their big tomato sauces and roasted meats. There are some good ones for sure – but Northern Italy holds a special place in my heart. I don’t know if it’s the nearly dozen times I’ve been there, the conversations with ‘Hall of Fame’ wine makers who carry themselves more like humble farmers than Napa Valley celebrity vintners, or the beautiful, foggy terrain so perfect for the Nebbiolo grape which goes into Barolo and Barbaresco. Life is made up of memories and dreams and Piemonte brings to mind fond ones of both types in my mind.
I met Cafe Juanita’s Chef and Owner, Holly Smith, on a typical cold and grey January morning. Meeting Holly is like meeting an old friend from college that you haven’t seen in 20 years. We had never had the pleasure of sitting together before but I will tell you – she is one of the most welcoming, cordial people I have had the privilege of speaking to in my time on this earth. After an hour+ of conversation I felt as if we’d known each other for years and I wanted to plan our next dinner together. In a word – she’s terrific.
Over the past ~14 years, Holly Smith has been the driving creative force behind Cafe Juanita. She’s been nominated for and won multiple accolades including Best Chef Northwest in 2008 by the James Beard Awards. Many local chefs have also grown under her tutelage including Jason Stratton of Cascina Spinasse/Aragona fame.
Holly is a driven person. It’s apparent from the start as you can sense the passion she has for what she does. While reflecting on a recent and well-deserved vacation to Florence and Rome, she volunteered that to be successful, “you have to get through allowing work become an obsession in order to able to have a life.” She added that, “Chef/Owner driven restaurants – people inadvertently get consumed. I have felt that I always had to be here. Believing you can be perfect is a tough thing to deal with.” Letting go and trusting the staff and the processes that have been set up at Café Juanita is a continuing aspiration.
Why did you get involved in food?
I liked the chaos and the resolution of chaos. I was a Poly Sci major and thought I wanted to be a lawyer for a while. Then, I took a job at Au Bon Pain. I’d been a bartender and server prior to that. I like to make people happy and I knew that I loved food and feeding people.
The cool thing about Au Bon Pain was that I had to proof and bake from scratch. I really liked the solitary time in the kitchen at 3 or 4 in the morning and I thought it was cool to walk in with nothing and 2 hours later have 5,000 croissant sitting in front of me. I knew I had to understand the kitchen and every aspect of the business to run a restaurant so I went to cooking school at Baltimore International Culinary School which got me the externship with Peter Timmins (more below).
Where did you get your start in the restaurant business?
I started cooking in Maryland at the Milton Inn. I chose it because it was the ‘fanciest’ thing nearby – and Robert Parker did all of his tastings there. It was early 90’s ‘East Coast Continental Cuisine’. For example, one plate we made was done on a cake circle that needed to be spun and spun while squirting different coulis on it. They tried to be progressive.
I had gone to Ireland to do an externship with Peter Timmins from The Greenbrier and who is now in Florida as the Executive Chef of The Everglades Club. I was always looking for quality. At the Milton Inn, there was an attention to detail that I wanted to learn. When I arrived in Seattle I worked for Tom Douglas at the Dahlia Lounge for 5 years before moving on to Brasa and then opening Café Juanita.
At the Dahlia, the process for menu making was crazy. Staff would arrive at 730am, and making the menu was an entirely collaborative process. We had to create everyday – it seemed really ‘communal’ in a way. Once we finished we had to send the menu to the printer by 1030a and get cooking. We’d repeat this process every day. The cool thing was that people could make whatever they wanted. It helped to shaped me and I think I benefited from the nature vs. nurture environment. All that creative license has allowed me to create food in a better way today.
What do you love most about the restaurant business?
Making people happy – genuinely. I love seeing people feeling good and facilitating people getting to and staying at the table. The hospitality part of the business is really what drives me.
What do you like least about it?
Most everyone in the world does not work at night. As a parent, it’s not the hours and length of the day, but my ‘go time’ is from 6-10p which doesn’t jibe with the rest of the world (or at home). Also, the ‘celebritizing’ of chefs if something I’m not into. And ‘cold calls’ – be respectful of my time.
What is your #1 goal with Juanita?
Trying to be the best restaurant we can be. I love the people I work with and making the guests happy. And I like to cook and the creative aspect of this work. I also like to write and wish I had more time for it.
What is your philosophy regarding food/cooking?
Simplicity – keep it simple. Honor the ingredients. I’m more likely to give you a whole fava bean than a fava bean puree. As I mature, I might give you the fava bean served on the puree as one would improve the other. Buy the best ingredient, don’t get in its way and please season it.
From a restaurant standpoint – it’s consistency. I have a hyper-vigilance towards consistency and I will go to the level of how you season to make sure the dish is done right and the same way every time.
What advice do you have for people looking to get into the food business?
Do some soul searching and try to figure out why you think you want to be in the food business. When people start in restaurants it’s really cool whether they are career changers or young kids. On both sides of the age spectrum there are those who have fallen in love with it and those who have realized they’d rather do something else.
Whatever you want to produce/make – make it deeply personal. Stick to that. You need to be flexible to your guests but don’t dilute your concept to the point of doing it just to improve business. It’s not a recipe for long term success.
What would you have done differently when starting out?
I wish I worked at more places to have seen more and had more experience. I think I’d be a better cook if I’d seen more/other things.
What/who is your inspiration?
For a while, I had Lydia Bastianich on a giant pedestal. She’s a formidable character with these giant forearms as big as my leg! That said, I think I am self-motivated more than influenced externally.
What is your favorite ingredient?
Sweet breads. I love sweetbreads. And Parmigiano-Reggiano. Anchovies. All the ‘Umami’ flavors.
What current trends in the biz do you see on the horizon?
Oh lord, I have no idea…I’ve been doing this so long that the things I hear people are saying are ‘new’ are things that I knew about 9 years ago. What I hope for is authenticity. I love when people cook the food they like to eat. The problem with trends, especially in a city of our size, is that everything starts to look alike at a point.
What trends/fads are played?
I hope that the casualness of service and delivery of food improves. The whole family style nature of service is getting lazy. I like that food that transports you to a place. I wish people would focus on new, fresh, something no one else is doing. For example, go to Walla Walla and eat at Saffron – you are going to want to know Chef Ainsworth.
What would you like to see more of coming in from local farmers/growers?
We all want more meat – its way better than it used to be for certain. All kinds – beef, pork, chicken, lamb. We are really lucky with the variety here though still limited by investment and mobile slaughter capabilities.
And geese – I can’t get geese anywhere. Cocks combs too – I can’t get them anywhere. I recently tried to get them in Florence and the special ran out 2 hours before I got there.
All this being said, the network of farms that we’re able to work with is really good in the Pacific Northwest.
If someone invites you to their home for dinner what should they cook?
I don’t care. Just cook for me. Anything would be ok. I’m always amazed that people wonder if it’s ok if they invite me to dinner. People would be amazed at what I eat at home. If you cook for me I so appreciate that act of cooking. I love when other people cook for me. Make whatever you like to make. I didn’t come over to critique your food.
Who is the best chef in Seattle right now?
I haven’t eaten out enough to feel like I can answer this. I love John Sundstrom’s food at Lark. I love going out for sushi. This is an incredibly talented city and I can’t think of anyone who’s not doing a great job. For sushi – I love Shiro’s and I go to Kisaku a lot. I also go to Tsukushinbo in the ID.
It’s tough to pick one person as there’s a team behind them – whole kitchens are doing great jobs. It’s great to see the depth of passion in Seattle for food.
What is your last meal?
Roasted goat from Ristorante da Cesare in the Alta Langa – basted with moscato vinegar. And I’d be drinking some crazy vintage of Giacomo Conterno Monfortino. And I’m going to have some risotto with that goat. I’d need some champagne and uni too. Is that wrong? Can I have uni? It would be a really long meal…
I love Cafe Juanita because it finds complexity in keeping things simple. Holly Smith and her team have created something special here that is so hard to come by – elegance in simplicity. There are no overwrought dishes that are contrived and drowned in sauce and spice. The ingredients are allowed to shine under Chef Smith’s watch and you know that everything has been thought through to the last minute detail. I once remember eating a ‘malformata’ pasta dish there made with a sweet, rich cherry tomato sauce. It was so good I did something reserved only for the best dishes I’ve ever eaten – I ordered it again for dessert. That, my friends, is something simple yet special indeed.
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 Nathan Lockwood of Altura and Heong-Soon Park of Tray Kitchen!
For an honest review of Cafe Juanita, check out the venerable Surly Gourmand’s post here.
If you enjoyed this story then read more about food, farming and eating locally in Seattle by Jason Price at TheHungryDogBlog.com!