What is a Chef?
Based on the definition above, one could easily develop a mental picture of a Chef, wearing a big, white toque presiding over a crew of men and women in a big corporate kitchen somewhere. The definition is formal, businesslike and specific. It is straightforward in describing the tactical nature of the job. In a word, it is boring.
Unfortunately, this common definition lacks anything related to creativity, passion, artistic talent, energy and desire that comes from truly great Chefs. There are many in this world that call themselves Chef simply because they cook in a kitchen. Not because they have any of the critical qualities that separate the merely adequate from the excellent. There are many of the former and few of the latter. In this day of reality television and shows like Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen, we see the truth – there are more posing as Chefs than those who can truly claim this honorable title. Who can forget the infamous Petrozza from Hell’s Kitchen and his signature dish…’Hen in a Pumpkin’?!
Fortunately for those of us that live in Seattle, we are blessed with more talented chefs than poseurs. Among the top shelf is none other than Dustin Ronspies, 2014 James Beard Award semi-finalist and Chef at Art of the Table in Wallingford.
Live to Cook
I’ve often struggled with the age-old conundrum of deciding to ‘Live to Work’ or ‘Work to Live’. Admittedly, I’ve spent more time doing the former though my years in Europe taught me the latter was a better way of life. Meeting Chef Dustin Ronspies made me realize that in the world of food, there’s a 3rd option to this life algorithm – Live to Cook. Go ahead, print it on a t-shirt. Michael Symon already has adopted this as the title of his latest book and I think it applies to Chef Ronspies as well.
I’ve met many great chefs in my lifetime and have interviewed a good number in the past 6 months. While they all have some similarities and key differences, they have one thing in common – they live to cook. They eat, sleep, breathe, and dream about what they are going to create for us and feed us when we visit their restaurants. They spend their off time conjuring up new ways to make something exciting. They truly live to cook.
#ChefLife at Art of the Table
I recently interviewed Derek Ronspies of Le Petit Cochon in Fremont and he was kind enough to hook me up with his brother to write this story. Dustin agreed to meet me on a Wednesday morning at my favorite place in the world for eggs Benedict – The Fat Hen in Ballard for some breakfast and conversation.
What struck me early on about meeting Dustin was that he possessed both an air of confidence and a devil-may-care attitude about his cooking. He was completely casual (admitting that he would figure out that night’s menu on the 10 minute drive over to his restaurant) and he is self-assured in his abilities. He knew that whatever he served that evening would be awesome.
While talking about the menu for that evening, Chef Ronspies mentioned that he’d saved every menu he’s every made at Art of the Table and has never created the same one twice. Impressive. Here’s what else he had to say…
So where did you get your start in the restaurant biz?
I got a job but wasn’t intending to have a career in food. I started as a dishwasher at 13 and just went from there. I worked in restaurants all through high school and then went on to college to learn how to become an architect. I spent a lot of time cooking and working in shitball restaurants.
I worked the line at Outback Steakhouse for 6 years and learned the processes of running a kitchen. I was in store #6 in Florida/Tampa and they were the busiest store in the country.
After Outback, I quit and said I was never going to cook again. I was burned out and sick of it. I ended up taking a delivery job for a restaurant that just did breakfast and lunch. It was a typical Florida mom and pop place that just did basic stuff. The owner Joe wanted me to set up the delivery process which was fine for me at the time. Unfortunately, his cook got thrown in jail one day and, because Joe couldn’t cook, he asked me to do it. The other cook never came back so I ran the place for another year and a half.
My brother Derek came along and we started to change it up. We started to make more from scratch, better soups and not some stuff poured out of a bag. All the love started off from here.
Did you ever go to Culinary School?
Yeah, I left Joe’s place and went to Florida Culinary Institute in West Palm Beach. It was a good 11-12 years after I’d started working in restaurants so school wasn’t difficult. I graduated at the top of my class and received the President’s award. During that time, I lived with a psycho girlfriend, worked 60 hours/week and went to school full-time. I felt like after that I could do anything if I made it through everything without managing to kill her.
So where did you get your big break after school?
I found an ad in the school newsletter – for a private chef position in Beaune, France working with a hot air balloon company. I applied, did a phone interview and got the job. I lived in Europe for almost a year and didn’t know shit but I made it work. I cooked my food, did whatever I wanted, shopped for ingredients on my own and immersed myself in the food culture.
I also traveled everywhere – Austria, Switzerland, Germany, and the Czech Republic. People always say that you should go to Europe to change your view of the world. It did for me. I was in Tuscany for a month with our crew and we stayed at this lady’s B&B. There were almost 30 of us in the crew and she made us lunch and dinner every day. Everything was out of her garden and I was totally blown away. I gained like 10 pounds in a month. The freshness of everything was overwhelming – every town had their own cheese shop, butcher, baker, etc. It was amazing.
How did you make it back to the States?
I started working for a billionaire as a private chef for a couple of years and honed my fine dining skills in the process. Even though I went to school, I consider myself more self-taught. I lived in New York between Southampton and Manhattan for two summers. It was awesome to go and eat wherever I wanted and experience 5-star restaurants regularly. All in the name of ‘research and development’!
What brought you to Seattle?
After that, I went back to West Palm and worked at a French brasserie for a year. I was floundering around and I hated that job. This was in 2004 when I lived with my friend Jehnny and her boyfriend who was a yacht captain. He had heard about a job on a yacht and he set me up with an interview to be the Chef. I got the job on a boat that did a circuit of Alaska, Seattle and Costa Rica. When I got here I fell in love with the place. I walked through Pike Place Market and was sold.
Wherever we went, I could source whatever I wanted to cook. I’m from Florida so I know a bit about tropical fruit and vegetables, but it was so cool to use tropical ingredients in Costa Rica. It was awesome to have a huge expense account. We had 10 freezers on the boat so I would put in like 30 grand orders with A & J’s Meats on Queen Anne for meat – all cut to spec.
Sounds like a great job – why did you leave?
After doing that for a couple of years I got off the boat and rented an apartment in Seattle and didn’t work for a few months. I just went to shows, hung out and had a good time. But I got a bit bored with that and started looking around for a job even though I didn’t want to work in a restaurant. Then one day, this lady shows up and was looking for me, stalking me. She knew I lived in my neighborhood but didn’t know where and was just driving around hoping to find me. Her boss needed a chef for a 2 week job on a yacht – a one-time gig, it was for Francis Ford Coppola and his family. I was like “fuck yeah”. He was awesome and would spend time talking to me, cooking with me. I ended up taking a job on that boat for a year.
Then one day, my day off, I’m strapping on my snowboard at Crystal Mountain and the Captain called me. He said the boss planned an impromptu dinner party and wanted me to drop everything and get to the boat immediately I was like ‘fuck that’. I was pissed. I left the mountain and was heading back to Seattle when I get another a call informing me the party was cancelled as ‘bossman’ couldn’t find any friends to join him. So, I steamed on that for the better part of the day. The next morning I woke up and started looking for places on Craigslist.
So this is how Art of the Table came to be?
Yeah – I found the Art of the Table spot in 10 minutes. The current tenants wanted to bail and didn’t want a lot of money. So, I looked at it, talked to my dad, talked to some people – many of which doubted me. They doubted the spot – it was a shithole. My dad was a big motivator – he told me I had nothing to lose and he was right. I walked in and took it for 17K.
I signed the lease and almost had a nervous breakdown after I realized what a mess the place was. Luckily I had a friend who was a contractor and we gutted the place and rebuilt it. It took 4 months and I had no idea what I was going to do there. We opened on July 1st, 2007 and began Supper Club, a communal dinner party hosted weekly. That’s how it all began. Now it’s way different.
What do you love most about the restaurant biz?
The passion I have is for cooking and for people. The best part of this whole job has been to be able to visit beautiful organic farms – done the right way. I’m helping a farmer pay their mortgage and vice-versa. It’s a lot more personal. I want that one-on-one relationship. I’m very into people and no bullshit. All these people are the same way I am – they are trying to make a living. They don’t want to be millionaires – they are just trying to live a good life.
What do you like least about it?
The fact that it is a hard, grueling career. It’s a career that you choose because you couldn’t make it in college. Or because you did too many drugs. Or because you did too many drugs while in college. [smiling]
What’s your opinion about the role of social media in the restaurant business these days?
I like that you can get something out on a moment’s notice and, if the stars align correctly, you can touch a lot of people really quickly. 15 years ago that wasn’t possible. If you wanted to do an event you’d have to put something out in magazine or newspaper to churn up interest. I don’t use it a lot but I see the benefit.
As far as sites like Yelp – I’m not a fan. Twenty years ago people professionally wrote for reputable magazines. They would tell you straight up what they thought of your food. Now everyone’s a critic.
What is your #1 goal with your restaurant?
I don’t know. I never had goals. To die with the most wine!
If I had to pick one it would be to try to be better every day. There’s no compromise. I’m not an asshole about it but I am always a critic and trying to be better. I love to keep a high bar and hold that level. That’s what keeps me going. I plan the menu every day and try to keep it real and good. The fast pace excites me.
Talk to me about the culture of your team at Art of the Table
We’re cool and we’re all tight. It’s hard to find good people who show up and have the same mentality and work ethic. Work ethic is #1. There’s 10% of people on this planet that really have it. I get angry at people who aren’t committed and who aren’t dedicated.
I don’t manage people – everyone does their own thing and they know what to do. If I get someone in there that is constantly asking questions then I can’t deal. I’ve gone through so many people the last year and I don’t have much tolerance for ineffectiveness. Everyone here knows their role.
What does it mean to you knowing your brother has a great restaurant right down the road?
He has to succeed! I want to see him do well more than anything. I try to put effort in every day to help him do his thing too. We kind of consider our restaurants each other’s. There’s no competition at all. We order things together, split them up, trade things and help each other. This isn’t a competition – it’s a collaboration.
What is your philosophy about food/cooking?
Basically that my ingredients dictate our menu – every day. The menu changes daily and it’s based on what’s fresh and local. It’s truly of the moment and inspired by what is happening now. Everything is so ingredient-driven and influenced by my creativity with putting flavors together. I never looked at it that way until the past couple of years.
The things we come up with seem very normal to me, but to other people they seem out there and over the top. Preparations turn from one thing into another and there’s hardly any waste at all. Everything gets used to a point where there’s nothing left. I love that people come in and are so enthusiastic and learn from eating here.
What would you like to see more of coming in from local farmers/growers?
I get the most beautiful, fresh things every day. I now have hardcore relationships with farmers and every one I work with. You get these companies and corporations that want my business and tell me they can get me mass-produced product for way less than what I’m paying for my pristine, small batch loveliness. They don’t do their research on a place and they don’t know what we’re about – they just want to be there for the PR. Now, I have this system of sending one sentence emails where I basically say ’thanks but no thanks’.
We have good relationships with our suppliers from Local Roots, Alvarez Farms, Skagit River Ranch, Kurtwood Farms, Olsen Farms, Alex from Northwest Bounty for our fish, Foraged and Found Edibles, and Jones Family Farms too. It goes on and on, there are just too many to list.
What advice do you have for people looking to get into the food business?
Be dedicated. Dedicated enough to give up everything to get to a point where you can get it together. Then bring things back into your life gradually. The hard part is accepting that it’s going to be your entire life – if you are going to do it right. I suppose that goes for anything your passionate about though.
What would you have done differently when starting out?
I wouldn’t have done a damn thing differently. The way it all worked out was exactly the way it was supposed to work out. Back in 2007, when we started, I envisioned getting to the point we’re at now. I wanted it then but I would not be here now if it happened that way. I would have quit.
What/who is your inspiration?
My grandmother cooked for the family. We were always peeling vegetables, washing dishes, working with her in the kitchen. The creative/flavor foundation was learned from her. She is the key ingredient in my whole situation.
My Dad is the voice of reason. My Mom is a dreamer and very creative. Dad tells us now that we know what we’re doing and that we should take risks and be independent. He lets us know that we can make our own decisions. I love my parents, they are huge support.
What is your favorite ingredient?
Fish – definitely. Mushrooms are definitely up there as well as beautiful produce. I love seafood. I was blessed growing up with the variety of fish in Florida and I went fishing almost every day.
What trends in the biz do you see on the horizon?
I think what should be evolving is people’s awareness of the food system and what’s going on. The food system needs to be severely overhauled. It may need to be accompanied by some type of revolution. I think it’s starting and it needs to continue.
I do like the trend evolving from fine dining into a more casual aspect. As long as you are cool you can come to my restaurant. I don’t care if you come in wearing a t-shirt and flip flops. But I do have some rules – I want you to be comfortable and enjoy that moment with the people you are eating with. Put your phones away and enjoy yourself for two hours. Isn’t that what it’s all about? Isn’t that why people want to go out? To get away? Put your phones down people!!!
What trends/fads are played out?
When something has been declared played is when I do it. I get totally creative with it.
If someone invites you to their home for dinner what should they cook?
I’ll have anything as long as we’re having a good time. I’m the least picky person. It has to be seasoned well though. I am down with a seared chicken breast and a salad. I go home and eat grilled cheese like 5 times a week. I’m not going to say I eat shit food but I don’t think my sodium level is in any normal range. I also eat more salumi than anything else.
Who is the best chef in Seattle now?
Nathan Lockwood at Altura. I love what he does at that spot. Also, Mike Easton from Il Corvo.
What is your last meal?
Probably a cheeseburger. I love them. When it’s right, it’s right.
Food is Life
My wife and I went to Art of the Table and we were fortunate to be seated at the bar overlooking the kitchen and Chef D. We ordered about two-thirds of the menu which is simply broken down by type, e.g.: cheese, veg, cow, lamb, fish, etc. One dish for each main element. Each dish was prepared in a thoughtful, artistic way with multiple elements on each plate. There was a predominance of pickled and cured items which added zest and flavor without overpowering the dish entirely. Chef let us know he pickles and cures all year round allowing him to break things out when the creative spirit strikes. Each component on its own had a singular purpose. It all came together with each bite that combined every element on the plate. There was nothing that shouldn’t have been there to improve the overall dish.
The show was an enjoyable one and we were able to see everything being made as we ordered it. We were also lucky enough to be able to talk with Chef D and his crew throughout the night which made the experience all the better. Constant banter, honest feedback, insight to the dishes; all valuable and enjoyable for us as diners. As an added bonus, we were entertained throughout the evening by a crew of wannabe ninjas practicing outside a nearby dojo – a strange but delightful contrast to the food ninjas inside. It was a good reminder that hard work, dedication, commitment and practice makes perfect.
If you enjoyed this interview with Chef Dustin Ronspies of Art of the Table then please check out my other articles in the series at Chef Interviews and stay tuned for future conversations with more of your favorite well and lesser known Seattle-based Chefs! Next up, Thierry Rautureau of Loulay and Luc coming soon to The Hungry Dog Blog!
For the pork and brine: For the grits: For stock: For the goodness: This dish is our funky twist on a favorite classic: surf and turf. ‘Shrimpy goodness” is an unorthodox version of the creole staple étouffée. We think its super yummy and that you will too. Instructions Pork Belly Grits Stock For the ‘shrimp yum’ To serve family style for 8
A Recipe from Dustin and Derek Ronspies
Roast pork belly and southern grits with shrimpy goodness
For the pork and brine:
For the grits:
For the goodness:
This dish is our funky twist on a favorite classic: surf and turf. ‘Shrimpy goodness” is an unorthodox version of the creole staple étouffée. We think its super yummy and that you will too.
For the ‘shrimp yum’
To serve family style for 8
Great and thorough interview.