RockCreek = No Salmon or Halibut Allowed
If you’ve ever eaten out in Seattle chances are you’ve been presented with a variety of seafood options – most always focused on salmon and/or halibut. They are considered pre-requisites for any menu in this town and I, for one, am tired of it. Indeed, these are fine fish and I do love me some Copper River salmon each May when it first comes into the market. But do I need to see ‘Salmon served on a cedar plank with a corn relish’ ever again? Must I endure another pallid piece of halibut drowned in glistening butter moisturizer? No. Definitely not. And neither does Chef Eric Donnelly of Seattle’s RockCreek in north Fremont’s burgeoning gourmet ghetto.
This is why you will never find salmon or halibut on the menu there. You will often see lesser known sustainable seafood options and ‘bycatch’ on the menu and things such as skate wing, sardines and bluefish. Chef Donnelly prefers to both highlight and introduce diners to flavors and sea creatures they may not normally encounter. This makes dining at RockCreek both an enjoyable and enlightening experience. At any given time, you’ll find between 15-20 different types of fresh seafood on the menu. In a town where many seafood menus have become tourist-driven and pedestrian – RockCreek shines as a beacon of creativity.
The Fishmonger’s Friend
Chef Eric Donnelly has been to the proverbial ‘show’. He’s a 20+ year veteran of the restaurant world and has seen the good, bad and ugly in his time.
He’s lived the chef life and has experienced everything from working in hole-in-the-wall restaurants to being the Executive Chef at a resort to running multi-million dollar operations. It’s this well-rounded breadth of experience that has given him the perspective and experience needed to build RockCreek into what has become one of Seattle’s best restaurants. It has also given him the talent and drive that has won him accolades such as a 2014 nomination for Best Chef in the Northwest from the James Beard Foundation.
As a former fishmonger myself, I was very interested to meet the man behind one of the hottest tables in Seattle now. Chef Eric and I met on a warm, sunny spring day in May to talk about his story. Here’s what he had to say…
Tell me why you got involved in food in the first place?
It’s kind of interesting – I wanted to be a chef since I was a kid. I went through all the typical things a young man would want to become – like being a cowboy. Maybe I watched too much Urban Cowboy and Bonanza. But it was the 70’s so whatever?! I remember going to the The Georgian as a kid and I was awestruck by the chefs. I’m sure there were awful, dated things like aspics and jellies and chaud froid salmon floating around. But still, I was amazed about the magic of food.
I’d also go spend summers with my aunt in San Francisco and eat cool things, experience different types of seafood and the like. So, I was exposed to food at a young age which is a good and bad thing. When you know what you want to do that early on you tend to focus on it and forget about everything else.
Where did you get your start in the restaurant biz?
I started in high school working in shitty restaurants and took a job that also allowed me to skate and snowboard with my buddies. I had intended to go to culinary school and I started getting better jobs which helped me realize I could make a career out of it. In the latter 90’s I ended up going to work at Sazerac downtown to eat with a girlfriend at the time. In what ended up being a brazen maneuver –I talked to the sous chef and told him I wanted to come there and work. I just explained my path and that I didn’t know much and he gave me a shot and said “I’ll see you tomorrow at 3, come with your knives.” I was like – holy shit! So I started working for Jan Birnbaum and I sort of fell into that.
It was a great experience and I stayed there with Jan and worked at his place in Calistoga. It was a very fortunate path and it allowed me to become exposed to a culinary scene outside of Seattle. Here I was doing dinners with Michael Chiarello and there was David Burke was in the back making cheesecake lollipops. It was so cool and I was blessed to be able to experience the food world outside of the traditional landing spots for chefs in Seattle. People at Saz were out of state. They weren’t locals and they were interesting to me. They gave me exposure to different influences and techniques that I hadn’t seen before.
So where did you go from Sazerac?
I was at Saz for 8 years or so and went from prep cook to sous. At that point there was nowhere else to go. Jason McClure had taken over and he’s still there. Kevin Davis from Blueacre and Steelhead Diner was there too and we became friends – more on that later. Then, I went to Semiahmoo to become their executive chef. I was 26 and was like – holy shit, this is a great opportunity. I was there for 365 days and was at the end of the world – young, hungry and aggressive. In the end, I was a bit too driven for them and I then found out about what an HR department was for and the rest is history [smiling].
How did you make it back to Seattle?
Well, I saved a bunch of money working up there since there’s not much to do in Bellingham. Kevin had opened the Oceanaire and he started pestering me to come work for him. At first, I wasn’t sure if that’s what I wanted to do as I thought it was too big. But I relented and decided to just be the saute cook at lunch. That lasted less than a month. Then I ended up going on at night, then night lead, then sous, etc. etc.
So I invested myself and learned how to run a $7M/year rest. I did every job in the place and learned it all from the ground up. It was a very busy place and I’d never experienced that type of environment before. It was a zoo – 7 line cooks, 3 people doing prep, a pastry guy, a butcher and so on. I immersed myself in it and it worked out really well. I learned a ton and fell in love with cooking seafood. I had a background in California and New Orleans-style nouveau food – and found that I could be creative with flavors using many of Paul Prudhomme’s techniques.
That sounds like an amazing experience. Where did you go from there?
Oceanaire did a lot of southern/low country type of dishes and some classics like oysters Rockefeller. It was a great experience and at 30 years old I was essentially running a huge operation. I got promoted to executive sous chef and then Kevin decided to open Steelhead Diner. I had been really closely working with him and one day he threw me the keys to the car and said, “have fun – you deserve it.”
I ran Oceanaire as the Executive Chef for nearly two and a half years and loved it. A while later I was approached by a mutual friend about an opportunity to open a southern style restaurant – which was funny because that day I was making a pot of duck and collard/turnip gumbo. So, I packaged some up and sent it back with my friend to see what the owner thought. That place ended up being Toulouse Petit in Lower Queen Anne.
Teach a Man to Fish…
What was running that place like?
We started to open the restaurant as a dinner only place. Then we added a New Orleans-style brunch program and eventually lunch program. It just got busier and busier, which was cool.
The long and short of it is that it was a very good experience to learn how to put together a restaurant. I met a slew of really talented people – good and bad. Some of these folks we picked up along the way and it worked out. Some didn’t. To know now as a businessman how you want to treat employees, patrons, and how your food should look were important lessons I learned there.
What do you love most about the restaurant biz?
There are a lot of things. At the end of the day – the reward to me is to look out and be like “oh my god – I built this place that people come to.” It’s also the staff which is my extended family. And the networking and ability to have a vehicle to help charities.
I like the basketball team aspect of it – how are we not going to lose today. My friend Aaron (the sous chef from Sazerac) told me this thing one time when I was young – an Olympic athlete trains for one performance his whole life but a chef trains to do it every day. There are a lot of small scale rewards along with some great ones including owning my own restaurant.
What do you like least about it?
With such a great local food scene it can sometimes be tough to find staff that’s a good fit and stay long term. Being surrounded by people that inspire you is sometimes a hard thing to accomplish. My team here is great – each individual that works for me inspires me. The people that are here are here for a reason – because we deem them compelling individuals. These guys work so cohesively together – they go out together, come back in together and they are friends with each other. Everyone here has been with me at points along the way and has demonstrated loyalty.
What is your philosophy about food/cooking?
I treat each dish like a scientific equation – acidity, brightness, fat, balance, ph components, depth. And I typically focus on using three ingredients done very well. The whole molecular gastronomy thing is not for me – but a lot of things are influenced from early in my career and working with Jan.
Talk to me about your views on over fishing and fishery management
That’s a really touchy subject these days. In all honesty – is there a true statistic out there? Everyone markets their stuff to make it sound great – beef, pigs, fish, etc. And that’s why we focus on a lot of bycatch. My fish guy will call and say I have #20 of whatever and even if I don’t know what to do with it I’ll try it out. Low end-of-food-chain items like smelt, sardines, and so on. I don’t want to say we are sustainable per se; but our focus is on well-managed fisheries and things that are not drag caught. We only buy line-caught fish, use diver scallops only and support fisheries that are not damaging to the environment.
What’s your opinion about the role of social media in the restaurant business these days?
These days it’s an important piece of connecting with our customers, and just a part of the restaurant’s life. We can share new dishes, information, and get feedback on what people are excited about. Sometimes the opinions aren’t what you want to hear, but overall it’s a good thing and people are excited about what they see. And people love their food pics! Our Facebook and Instagram accounts are always blowing up with them. I actually don’t even do Twitter – we have a restaurant account and honestly I have no idea how it works.
What is your #1 goal with your restaurant?
To continue to have life and energy and to be a success story. There are so many flash-in-the-pan things and sometimes Seattle is good about talking about a place for 3 months and then moving on. I want to create something with staying power. The beauty of this restaurant is that we have a lot of tourists, neighborhood folks and people that have followed me coming here to eat. If we stay true to our values and what we do well, hopefully we will be here for a very long time.
I still consider myself young and ambitious and right now I’m excited about the success of RockCreek. I can’t ask for much more. I want to make this place an institution and not a one shot deal.
What would you like to see more of coming in from local farmers/growers?
I would like to see fishmongers focus on things other than salmon and halibut. That’s one of our rules here – no salmon or halibut. We focus on other things like cool Atlantic fish, some local stuff, some bycatch – uncommon things. There’s are just so many more interesting fish than salmon and halibut. I understand what fishermen are trying to do from a financial perspective but there are other options. For example, I work with a guy who brings me things from natives in Neah Bay – Alex Spencer from Northwest Bounty. I always tell him to send all the weird stuff my way. I’m not dealing with some big company like Trident.
I guess I would say – don’t treat bycatch like the redheaded stepchild of the world. Don’t send it to get turned into cat and dog food. Sculpin, skate-wing, things like this are delicious. Send it to me!
Farmers are doing a pretty good job here – it’s very hard work and I wish it was a bit more price-point approachable but it stems from the amount of work that goes into it. I wish there was more of a way that they could combine their efforts for distribution to restaurants. These guys are some of the hardest working people out there and a lot of time the families are involved. I tip my hat to them.
What advice do you have for people looking to get into the food business?
I would say to find the best Chef or someone you are truly inspired by as a cook, Chef and mentor. Someone who’s hard working and not a lunatic – and work for them. Learn everything you can about that person and what drives them. Pay yourself to go to school – don’t pay someone else to school you. It’s about learning on the job – not paying someone for a piece of paper.
People don’t truly understand the day-to-day life of the food service industry. You have to be prepared to be truly dedicated to that life. Every day I think ‘How am I going to be better, make better food, inspire my staff, get cool fish, be steady and focused and consistent?’ I try to focus on these 4 walls right here and how we can be a successful team. I don’t care what everyone else is doing – I am worried about what we do and that people are enjoying that. You have to dedicate yourself.
If you are hopping around every 3 months from place to place it shows a lack of focus and dedication and loyalty. I don’t want that in my restaurant.
What is your favorite ingredient?
Thyme and shallots. They go into so many dishes. That floral backbone note that good, fresh thyme gives is amazing. We go through probably a pound of thyme a day here. It just adds a beautiful, floral note.
What trends in the biz do you see on the horizon?
I tell you one that I wish would go away is the whole food truck thing. When it started out it was cool but now they are just a dime a dozen. There’s just a bunch of loose cannon food trucks out there that are unique and doing their thing but there’s just so many. Who knows which are any good anymore?
If someone invites you to their home for dinner what should they cook?
Roasted chicken and vegetables. Nothing fancy, salt and pepper, butter basted, pan-dripping covered vegetables. And a nice bottle of white wine or something simple. Friends are always weirded out having me over for dinner but I would prefer that they just keep it simple. Don’t be apologetic – it’s silly. I mean – I don’t go to your architectural firm and start zapping out drawings. I don’t tell you how to be a mom. I’m a simple dude – I grew up eating some honky ass simple food. Chicken and dumplings, brisket, pot roast – whatever.
Who is the best chef in Seattle right now?
I really enjoy what Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi do at Joule and Revel. Dustin Ronspies is very talented. Jason Stratton at Spinasse is very good. And Mike Easton’s stuff from Il Corvo looks pretty amazing. He’s built a strong following, doesn’t do traditional restaurant hours. If you want his stuff you just come in. Keeping it simple is really important. Balanced and focused. Nathan Lockwood at Altura also makes very beautiful food.
What is your last meal?
In all honesty, only because I’ve been craving it lately – it would be me and 8-10 of my best friends and a big old table down at Sea Garden in the ID. A rack of Tsing Tao with salt and pepper crab. It’s about the experience and enjoying the time you have. It’s the people you are with.
The bounty of the Pacific Northwest is formidable. We are privy to a choice of produce, meat, fungi and fish that is nearly unparalleled in most parts of the world. We are fortunate to be able to pick and choose from an amazing selection that consistently changes with the seasons.
We are also fortunate enough to have some amazing Chefs here in our fine city to turn this embarrassment of riches into some damned fine food. Eric Donnelly is one of them. His passion for creating a down-to-earth fine dining experience is seen in both the creativity of his food and heard in his voice. He’s dedicated to bringing you the best that Pacific Northwest can offer at RockCreek – check it out when you are craving something new and interesting from the sea.
If you enjoyed this interview with Chef Eric Donnelly of RockCreek 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, Dustin Ronspies from Art of the Table and Thierry Rautureau of Loulay and Luc coming soon to The Hungry Dog blog!
Mushroom Stock In a stainless steel pan, on medium to high heat, sauté mushroom ends. Add ginger and chicken stock to the mushrooms, bring to a slow simmer. Cover the pan and keep the stock at a slow simmer for 30 minutes. 5 Spice Sauce – Thai Style In a stainless steel pot, caramelize palm sugar. As sugar starts to brown, add wine, 5 spice, Madera, fish sauce, lime juice, water and tamarind paste. Bring to a boil and stir until tamarind paste is dissolved. Turn off the heat and let the mixture steep for 30 minutes. Strain the mixture though a fine mesh sieve or chinoise and put to the side. Seasoned Wondra or Rice Flour In a medium size bowl, mix all of the ingredients together. Recipe Ingredients Method Fish Braise
A Recipe from Chef Eric Donnelly
Neah Bay Yelloweye Rockfish – Thai Style 5 Spice
In a stainless steel pan, on medium to high heat, sauté mushroom ends. Add ginger and chicken stock to the mushrooms, bring to a slow simmer. Cover the pan and keep the stock at a slow simmer for 30 minutes.
5 Spice Sauce – Thai Style
In a stainless steel pot, caramelize palm sugar. As sugar starts to brown, add wine, 5 spice, Madera, fish sauce, lime juice, water and tamarind paste. Bring to a boil and stir until tamarind paste is dissolved. Turn off the heat and let the mixture steep for 30 minutes. Strain the mixture though a fine mesh sieve or chinoise and put to the side.
Seasoned Wondra or Rice Flour
In a medium size bowl, mix all of the ingredients together.