Seattle’s Seafood Maven – Renee Erickson
Renee Erickson is very well known around Seattle among Chefs, Restaurateurs, Farmers, Fishermen/women and diners. She has gradually developed a mini-empire of fine dining establishments over time which include the lovely French influenced Boat St. Café near Elliott Bar, the iconic The Walrus and the Carpenter in Ballard (with the newly opened Barnacle next door), and the sleek, elegant The Whale Wins in the Wallingford/Fremont neighborhood. Oh, and let’s not forget the venerable ‘Narwhal’ – a travelling raw bar/seafood-menu themed 1960 Divco Dairy truck with a design reminiscent of the elusive sea creature by the same name (sans tusk of course). You’ll notice a theme here – marine life, water, whimsical names – they all tie into Renee’s personality and upbringing in the Pacific Northwest.
I have had the pleasure of dining at Renee Erickson’s restaurants in Seattle several times. I always enjoy the simplicity of the food, the intimacy of the décor, and the attention to local ingredients. I also am delighted by seeing things on the menu that I haven’t seen since I lived in France and travelled through the Mediterranean. For example, I had an absolutely stunning chicken fricassee with dumplings at Boat St. Café in November only to return a week later to find it missing. A random kitchen special I was told. Damn that dish was good.
I’ve returned several times to have the delectable grilled sardines with walnuts, parsley and shallots at The Walrus and the Carpenter. It is the perfect combination of ingredients that allow you to taste the richness of the much maligned sardine along with its decadent umami flavors cut with a little acid from the lemon juice squeezed over the dish. C’est vraie. Taking something simple and making it taste complex without overworking it is a signature of Chef Erickson’s. And it’s one of the key reasons why her restaurants have been so successful.
A few months ago I was introduced to Renee Erickson at a dinner party hosted by super-realtor couple Kelly and Kian Pornour in their Wedgwood home. We spoke about local food sources, farming and my current desire to get back into the food/agriculture world. Fortunately for me, Renee agreed to participate in this interview series as well.
We met in early February at The Whale Wins and I was greeted by the host as well as loveliest meringues I had ever seen. They were massive and beautiful. As I sipped my coffee and waited for Renee my mind wandered off to faraway places in Europe where desserts were a work of art.
Where did you get your start?
I was traveling in Europe after college and was planning on becoming an art teacher. I have an art degree. When I came back to Seattle I got a job at Boat St. working front of house and I hated it. I was 20 then and I asked if I could prep instead. I worked my way into cooking after a bit of time but never with any real intent to continue though I thought it was more interesting than waiting tables.
I’d gone back to Europe for a year and then came back to Seattle to apply for grad school. Susan (the former owner) was offering Boat St. for sale at the time. I wasn’t initially into it but considered buying it for 6 months, talked to friends who told me I was nuts and then ultimately I decided to take it over and figure out how to run it at age 25. At the time, it was on Boat St. near Recycled Cycles near the water in the University District. We lost the lease and moved it to the ‘new’ location near Elliott Bar where it is today.
Chef Marie (Rutherford) at The Whale Wins never thought she’d get into food either. I can’t imagine being in another business I would like more. Despite the hours, the volatility, etc. it’s still great. I just love meeting people like fishermen, farmers, no matter what they do it’s awesome to learn about their lives.
What is the fascination with all things seafood and pickling about?
Well, I don’t really have a sweet tooth. When I think about what I’m going to eat next the acid component of food is something I enjoy. I found that it was used more often in Europe and while travelling there I was inspired and changed by the use of things that were fruit-based with less sugar.
As far as seafood goes, I’m from the Northwest and I spent my summers on the beach fishing, crabbing, and clamming. When considering ‘Walrus’ it took a long time – it was hard to imagine not cooking at my restaurant. Once I ended up getting the right partnership (with Jeremy Price & Chad Dale) I felt that I could do it. Like many chefs, I am too much of a control freak to let anything go. I was feeling like for me, the kind of places I was drawn to didn’t exist here. Wanted something intimate, small and relatively inexpensive.
When travelling in Paris I came upon this small restaurant where you basically had no choice but to buy a dozen oysters, some shrimp and scallops and drink a white wine that they served you – and that was it. They had passion about what they served and they wanted you to experience their passion.
I wanted a different representation of that place. One of the things Eli Dahlin, our Chef at ‘Walrus’ has done, is pay attention to lesser valued seafood. We rarely serve crab, which I love, or salmon but there’s so much other good stuff here to eat. (see intro re: grilled sardines!)
One word – Narwahl…
Well, we were asked to do quite a few oyster bars at weddings and it got us thinking about more interesting and lovely ways we could do that. Originally our plan was to have it be more of a catering outfit than a food truck. Sadly and fantastically we bought a 1960 truck which is now finally repaired and in working order. We continue to do events but we won’t be on any type of food truck circuit.
What do you love most about the biz?
I love my staff – everyday that’s the thing I love the most. I’m sure every chef you’ve talked to has said this – my part becomes smaller and smaller every day and they are such a huge part of what we do. If they aren’t your favorite people you are in trouble. I’m not standing by the oven until midnight anymore, thank God, but we are super social and we spend a lot of time together. We close the restaurants 3 times a year for a ‘family’ celebration. We had our first barn dance on Whidbey this year complete with square dancing!
I also value my relationships with farmers and being able to support businesses that way. We have great relationships with produce farmers, shellfish farms and meat purveyors. Knowing who’s fishing for you and seeing what the day produces is interesting to me on many levels. We get much of our produce from Willowood Farm from Georgie Smith up on Whidbey Island. We also work with Jason and Seri from Local Roots. Our seafood comes from a variety of sources including Hama Hama and Treasure Cove. Silvia Ettefagh and her husband John are fisherman and we get our spot prawns from them. And we work with Nick and his family at Jones Farm on Lopez Island for our lamb, pigs and oysters.
What do you like least?
Your work is never done. You go to bed worrying about something and the next morning you wake up and it’s something new. The Whale Wins is relatively new and we’ve had to repair the walk-in 3 times already.
We have a meeting every week with all the managers from our restaurants and we ask how service is, if customers are happy and what’s broken. Lately it’s the fan on our hood oven that doesn’t work properly. It can be exasperating but it’s part of the business.
What is your #1 goal with your restaurants?
Personally, it’s been growing into what I buy or who I buy from and any influence I can have on changing what consumers eat. Not that I’m perfect – we buy all sustainable and organic wines and we try to do the same with meat and produce. For example, we were buying this trout, and until I read this article recently I found that they were all being fed GMO grain. So, we stopped buying from them and started to search for another supplier.
We need protein solutions that don’t damage the environment and can sustain the population growth. I want to make people think about their food, what they buy and where it comes from.
What do you think of the whole reality TV/chef thing?
I’m not a fan. I was on Bourdain’s show when he visited Seattle and I have been asked to be on Top Chef and Top Chef Masters. I think I’m competitive but I’m definitely more of a team sport girl. I see the value of it but I don’t think it’s a driver for me. It all feels sort of fabricated and not authentic.
What is your philosophy re:food/cooking?
It’s very much based in traditional cooking. I’m not interested in molecular gastronomy. The people that make and write about food in ways that I feel inspired by are more about lifestyle eating. People that have a farm inspire me. If I was home enough I’d only want a wood oven in my house. Lots of old English and French grandma food. Simple slow cooking, braises, not a lot of ingredients.
What advice do you have for people looking to get into the business?
Read a lot. Figure out what you are inspired by. Read old books on simple techniques and why people made decisions based on the limitations they had. Stage – work for free in a restaurant and see if you love it. It depends on who you are and if you are a good learner in this environment. Go to farmers markets and talk to farmers. Learn from them and their ideas.
What would you have done differently starting out?
I feel like if I could do everything over again but know from the start that I actually wanted to do it – that would make a difference. I would have seen other techniques, how to run kitchens, etc. Being able to follow someone else around and see what they do.
What or who is your inspiration?
I think France is a huge inspiration for me. The lifestyle, attention to beauty, aesthetics, their big picture of life. For me, the interest is in their ability to absorb influences from other cultures into their cuisine. I find that really liberating with so many variations. But the French also stay within a guarded system of cooking and have respect for tradition.
I’m just now realizing more interest in Britain. England has also evolved a great deal. I get to go there in May for a book conference in Ireland and then to spend three days in the UK. I love to travel and to look at how other people produce food in different spaces. It’s all inspiring. Writers too – I would love the job of the ladies of Canal House or Nigel Slater.
Jeremy, who does the design work for our restaurants with me, allows me to collaborate and be creative. I’m so visually trained that I think that way about everything. We care about every single detail that happens in this space.
What I your favorite ingredient?
Seafood across the board. Right now, silverfish, anchovies and sardines. On top of that – herbs. They change a dish a lot.
What upcoming trends do you see on the horizon?
I have no idea. Maybe what happened in the 80’s?! More causal but moving to more formal and more ‘Americana’ would be good. Maybe more classic sophisticated food like soufflés.
What is played?
Bacon. For sure. Foie gras. If I never had to eat foie gras again I wouldn’t care. Uni too. I feel like it’s more of a popularity contest than it deserves to be. It’s like you are supposed to like it so you do. I would like there to be a caviar phenomenon to emerge. And I’d like people to get over their fear of cost. Compare the cost of your morning latte vs. a loaf of bread that is hand milled and you’ll start to see the value in that loaf of bread.
What would you like to see more of coming from local farmers/growers?
I’d like to see more natural or beach grown oysters vs. tumbled. I’d also like to see more new fisheries in our area for species like anchovies, herring and weird clams that show up on beaches.
If someone invites you to their home for dinner what should they cook?
I don’t care. Everyone is always afraid to cook for chefs! Something simple – roasted chicken. Super easy. Salad. Satisfying, delicious, easy.
Who is the best chef in Seattle right now?
Where do you like to eat when you go out?
Seafood a lot. I love seeing what other people do. Aragona’s octopus was awesome. I like going to Delancey in Phinney Ridge more than anywhere else. Lots of Asian. Japanese. I don’t eat out much and it’s mostly when I’m on vacation and generally it’s seafood.
What is your last meal?
I’m never good at picking one. It would have Bordier butter from Brittany with levain bread. I’d have an assortment of Washington and French oysters. The steak tartare from Walrus. And dungeness crab cold with butter or aioli. I’d also have all sorts of vegetables cooked in a wood oven. Things like endive, roasted raddichio and Cote de boeuf for two. Then I’d have sliced beefsteak tomatoes with olive oil and salt. For dessert, I’d probably have my mom Shirlee’s blackberry pie and homemade ice cream.
To top it off – lots of champagne – the real stuff. Gaston Chiquet Blancs de blancs.
Meeting with Renee Erickson was a delightful experience. She’s thoughtful, focused, driven and passionate about her vision and what she is doing. She emphasizes the importance of her team and the cohesive family unit that they have become in order to be effective at what they do. It’s refreshing to hear the sincerity of someone talk about the people that work with them and how grateful they are for their contributions. In a world that gets glamorized for macho braggadocio and labeled with monikers like ‘Iron Chef; it’s meaningful to see the gratitude of a successful chef and the willingness to bestow credit upon the team vs. their own individual contributions. This spirit is felt in each of Renee’s restaurants. They are places for personal gatherings whether they be a family dinner, a business meeting or a rendezvous. Go, have a taste of the sea, and enjoy whichever company you happen to be in.
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 Derek Ronspies of Le Petit Cochon and Maria Hines of Tilth/Golden Beetle/Agrodolce!
Canned is great – Matiz is what we use at Whale and Walrus and they are large fish with a delicious flavor One baguette cut on the bias to make 1 inch toasts. Brush the bread with olive oil and set aside till you are ready to grill Mint Sauce Verte Instructions
A Recipe from Chef Renee Erickson
Grilled Sardines with Mint Sauce Verte and Toast
Canned is great – Matiz is what we use at Whale and Walrus and they are large fish with a delicious flavor
One baguette cut on the bias to make 1 inch toasts. Brush the bread with olive oil and set aside till you are ready to grill
Mint Sauce Verte