The Price of Passion
Over the past year I’ve interviewed several Chefs in the Seattle area. While their personal stories vary, there is one constant that rings true for each and every one – none are in it for the money. Working in the food business as a profession is hard. For every Julia Child and Mario Batali out there – there are thousands of unsung people creating meals for us to eat every day. For many people, it’s an industry that nearly guarantees employment. You might even add ‘food service’ to the old ‘death and taxes’ quip as life’s constants given everyone needs to eat.
One might say that Chefs are the ‘starving artists’ of our day – pouring their creative hearts and spirit into their work every night with little to show for it from a physical reward standpoint. Why do they do it then? Well, the other constant among all Chefs is passion. Passion for what they do. Passion for what they are able to create. Passion for seeing people full and happy. And, for most, it’s passion without physical rewards but with many intangible benefits.
Queen Anne’s Loyal Subject – LloydMartin Chef Sam Crannell
Sam Crannell lives to cook. He is the epitome of a Chef. Passionate, enthusiastic, creative, stressed, energetic, realistic, victorious, defeatist, conflicted and hopeful – all at the same time. His restaurant, LloydMartin in Seattle’s Queen Anne neighborhood, embodies this spirit. I guarantee if you talk to Sam for 10 minutes you’ll see each and every one of these traits appear if only for a brief moment. In one breath Sam talks about the success and joy of seeing people eating his food – happy and satisfied. In the next he talks about the tough realities of the restaurant business, the physical, mental and emotional toll it takes; and how most struggle to survive.
Our conversation was a roller coaster ride worth taking both for the insight into the world of a Chef as well as the view into the deeply human side of Sam as a person. Hop on and enjoy the journey…
Crannell kicked off our conversation with this manifesto:
We live in a culture that is afraid of food. Our restaurant is one of the only in the city that isn’t afraid. The fearlessness of knowing that I may put something out there in a combination that people may be scared of and I may lose. There’s a cerebral component of our menu – in this world of pizza, fish and chips and cheeseburgers – and people don’t want to pay for it. We are the supposed to be the richest and most powerful nation in the world yet we spend the least per capita on food.
I think we forget that going out to dinner isn’t just about getting full. It’s about communion, the exchange of ideas and education. That’s not to say it can’t happen over diner food but more than likely it won’t.
The restaurant dynamic is much different than 15 years ago. Cellphones are becoming a problem and nuisance. We are now in a time where some restaurants are bringing portable chargers to diners during meals so that they can use their phones to Facebook and Instagram. The business is also becoming less and less hospitality oriented. Within the very near future people will use iPads to order food, get the bill, etc. Servers, in most restaurants, are a dying breed. Restaurants like LloydMartin – places that cook from scratch with ethics – are already a dying breed.
Why did you get involved in food?
Because I couldn’t make it as a rock star! One night I was cooking dinner for my mom and she started crying in the middle of the meal. She turned to me and said, “this is what you should do – it’s what you are supposed to do.” So, off I went to the Cooking and Hospitality Institute of Chicago and did the 2 year program in like a year. I went and worked with Jared Wentworth and worked up from slave to sous. I staged around Chicago, hung out, hit the Green City Market, networked and then moved out here in 2004 where I started cooking at Semiahmoo Resort on the line.
Where did you get your start in the restaurant biz?
I started when I was 13 cooking pizzas and working at crappy mom and pop Italian shops. Yeah – I did my stint at Dairy Queen. Then I had a bunch of odd jobs like changing tires, telemarketing and working as bartender in college before I went to culinary school and landed a gig at Trader Vics. When I got to Seattle I staged at Union for a short period of time when it was still very new. It wasn’t what I wanted to do so I didn’t take the job and ended up cooking at another resort. It was my first chef job at Homestead Golf and Country Club and I was there for like 3 months. I was 25 and they had no idea what they were doing –nor did I.
Then I went to a little place called Manino’s and that was probably the beginning of what I would call the beginning of a 9 year fight for ‘real food’. It’s where Dan Matthiesen (my sous chef at LloydMartin) and I started together. It’s where my development and ideas started to happen and it’s shaped a lot of what we’re doing here. We were so far ahead of the small plate curve it’s sad. Same with international flavors curve. It’s what’s been happening now. We were doing it long before it became popular.
The place went out of business because Bellingham didn’t understand it. We were making things like truffled cotton candy to go with seared foie gras, basil foam injected cherry tomatoes stuffed with mozzarella puree. We were playing then but now that we’ve gotten old and wise our risks are more calculated.
How did you find your way down south to Seattle?
I spent the next two years at a very high paid, wild experience at a casino where I met my wife and we made a shitload of money. From there we moved to Seattle and it just so happened that my friend Jared was working at the Paragon here on Queen Anne. It was a good way to get into the city. He kept asking me to come over and I finally relented. Jared left after 6 months to go open Quinn’s with Scott Staples and I soon followed.
Why be a Chef?
If you talk to any chef who’s been in the business for over 10 years and they tell you they’re happy they are fucking lying to you. The lifestyle is grinding and to the rest of us – until you aren’t cooking any more – you probably are still pretty miserable even though cooking is the part of the job you enjoy the most.
The reality is that for you to be successful you must be out in the public and not cooking all the time. It’s a tough business to make money in. People will come in constantly asking for gift certificates and donations – but I rarely see any of them dining in my restaurant. It’s like this society tax. But you’re really asking for something from the poor themselves.
This is a slave job – just getting to do your art should be enough but it can also be a mechanical job. The creative problem solving aspect is important a well. As an owner you are dealing with constant drama – like the ratio of pay between front and back of house – it can be awful. Sure – you have the Punk Rock tattooed chef, the Fat happy chef, the Drugged out chef, the Celebrity chef – but there are very few Grant Achatz’ of the world. It’s probably just who he is – same with people like Thomas Keller. You’re battling real world isolation and you’re making less than the mechanic who just worked on your car. It’s fucked up – but if I charge enough to make a good living then people think I’m an asshole and they don’t come into my restaurant.
Chefs are all suffering from the same things – lack of free time, lack of head space, making decisions for everyone all the time and so on. Even the top guys in the city – are they really making any money?
Wow. So what do you love most about the restaurant biz?
I don’t know. It’s a really difficult question. I really enjoy looking in my dining room and seeing the proverbial ‘head nod’ while people are eating. You know right then and there that you’ve connected with people without talking to them. In a way, you may be hitting a childhood cord or a memory – when you eat that’s what happens. Whether it was a trip to Europe, your mom’s house, or something else. That connection might be why I cook.
I genuinely want people to enjoy their experience and the work and effort I’ve put into something. I’m completely, emotionally connected to every single plate. I love to cook and I love finding great product. I like the idea of being connected. It’s something we can all relate to. My happiest moments in life have been centered around a table. I asked my wife to marry me during dinner. I remember all my birthdays being around a table. Many of the happiest times in life are based around a moment where you’re at a table.
What do you like least about it?
In a bizarre way I love all the parts I don’t like. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t. It takes a very specific type of person to overcome all those things. I look at only the negatives because the positives are already there. I try to change the negatives into positives and focus on improvement.
The part I don’t like the most about this business is, and the late Charlie Trotter said this, “the world of restaurants is a beautiful place if it wasn’t for the staff, the kitchen and the customers.” It’s very true – because the restaurant itself is an idea. It’s passion. It’s love. And it’s comfort. That’s what a restaurant really is. It’s more like chaos and a hurried existence. It’s never calm or boring. It’s its own beast. You’re hoping that the things you do you bring back the comfort and love for the diner.
It sounds like a very conflicted existence. How can it become more palatable?
I believe the negatives in this industry, in order for it to survive, need to change. What’s the difference between a 10 year chef and a 10 year lawyer or surgeon? The reality is that Chefs need to get paid. I heard Tom Douglas on the radio the other day say that some of his front-of-house people are making $50/hr. And that they are working 3 days a week for 25 hours. I don’t know anyone back of house making that kind of money. That’s where the economics of restaurants need to change.
I guess the biggest thing that upsets me is the overall group education of the public. So many restaurants have just stopped trying. They just sit on their laurels and continue to do whatever. It’s easier and maybe more economically gratifying. But is it good for the community? I don’t know. Even well-known chefs in this town – if you cross-reference their menus across all of their restaurants you will see many of the same things because they are ordering in bulk. You have to go see Blaine Wetzel to see a true interpretation of northwest coastal cooking.
What’s in a name? Why LloydMartin?
Lloyd Crannell and Martin Boyer are my grandfathers. They were the two first entrepreneurs in my life that I knew about. Lloyd was a cattle farmer and had groceries in Polson, Montana. Martin had an insurance company.
Before I opened the restaurant I was in a car driving to see Lloyd as he was sick. I had this mental conversation with Martin who had already passed and then I thought of the name. It just made sense to me as a way to honor the both of them.
What’s it like to own a restaurant in Seattle vs. a city like Chicago or New York?
The community of restaurants here is not like Chicago or NY or San Francisco. Chefs really talk to each other there and it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of that going on in Seattle. I have my guys I came up with but there’s not as big of a community here.
We also have a very young dining clientele – even the ‘older’ people are relatively very young. When I was growing up – good, sophisticated food was available. I remember eating at the Drake when I was 10 and having good steaks, oysters, lobsters and the like growing up. We don’t have that 3 generation thing here. It’s turned into ‘how much can I get for the least amount of money’. My restaurant is the exact opposite of that. It’s ‘how good can I make it for you and this is what it costs’. I think we should look at restaurants based on their profit vs. the price on the menu.
Given all that – How is it owning a neighborhood restaurant in Seattle?
Well, my prices have to be lower than downtown due to my location. LloydMartin is in a neighborhood that deems itself to be middle class but it’s not. When you look at largest competitors on the street you have How to Cook a Wolf and Betty. We’re competing for same dollar. My diners will eat at both of those places. But diners that will eat at those places may not come here. We’re a 1% restaurant and our goal was to be a neighborhood place with excellent food.
What’s Lloyd Martin going to be a year from now? Or what does it have to be to survive? Eventually the public votes with their dollars will tell you what they want. We are Queen Anne’s special restaurant – and we were deemed that because we cook great food.
I absolutely love Seattle – I love the mountains, the water and even the weather. But the ‘new money’ challenge is so huge here that many people don’t even know how to appreciate it. There’s always a ‘meh’ part of how people relate to dining out. I didn’t know about this until I moved here.
What’s your opinion about the role of social media in the restaurant business these days?
We use Facebook constantly – I use it as much as I can. I think that social media is a great way to let your regular clientele to know what’s going on that night. It’s a great way to communicate with a lot of people with little effort. I think we’ll see a lot more of it, then it will get diluted, and it will stop as eventually we won’t be able to advertise for free.
All that being said – it took a lot of getting used to. It can be one of the more annoying things in a day. You’re taking pictures of the food you’re making. It’s self-promotion and I equal that to instant gratification. We never had to do that before and it’s such a saturated market. You constantly have to say ‘here I am!’ because if I’m not in front of your face all the time you won’t remember me or my restaurant.
We have a cultural problem with thinking in that we’ve stopped thinking our way through problems. You’re sitting in a restaurant and you can’t remember if you like single vineyard cab franc so you have to ask your phone. It’s all ultra-short term and it’s bad for us. Trying to figure out where to go to dinner should be a discussion with your friends – not with Siri.
What is your philosophy regarding food/cooking?
My philosophy on cooking is to buy the best products and work to enhance them. However, at many times in my career I have had to buy run of the mill or less desirable products and polish them into a work of art. I am not sure that in this day that chefs get to really have a philosophy on cooking.
Does organic and sustainability matter to most of my clientele? Yes, I think it does and it matters to me. So it matters to both of us until I present the price…then it becomes about just that price. I guess that to me my philosophy of cooking is – ‘what will the market bear?’ How far can I push it until I am ostracized by the price of a dish? I don’t know if that’s philosophy but it’s how I cook.
What would you like to see more of coming in from local farmers/growers?
At this point in time Farmers are teaching me every week when I go to the market. They have really groovy varieties of greens, heirloom tomatoes, etc. They are keeping food alive in our State and country. They are the second most underpaid people with Chefs. Anyone who puts food in your mouth should be paid a living wage.
What advice do you have for people looking to get into the food business?
Make sure you know someone that has a shitload of money and they’re going to give it to you. Make sure you are willing to give up everything you currently hold dear in your life to do this job. There will be no more friends. Your girlfriend won’t make you happy. Your parents won’t understand why you miss holidays at home and family gatherings. And be ready to be beaten up constantly. Emotionally, mentally, physically – every single day. And when you crack – be ready for more.
The people that push you and beat you up are those you should stick with. The ones asking if you lied on your resume, or telling you that your plates look like shit and ask you to make it again – work for those people. And fall in love with the job. You have to love it. It has to become an obsession because if it doesn’t you won’t succeed.
What’s your opinion on all the food allergies people seem to have these days?
For one – people have no idea that when they ask to change something they don’t realize how much that fucks with what‘ve been doing all day. I’ve been here since 9am and now it’s 8pm and you want me to re-create your dish!?!
Celiac disease is an autoimmune digestive disease that damages the villi of the small intestine and interferes with absorption of nutrients from food. An estimated 1 in 133 Americans, or about 1% of the population, has celiac disease.
1% of the world’s population is celiac. How the fuck do I have 4 of them in here at the same time?
What would you have done differently when starting out?
I wish I would have found someone that would have pushed me to go work at The French Laundry or Chez Panisse or one of those top kitchens. I wish someone would have pushed me to Europe. Maybe I wouldn’t have wasted about 4 years just fucking off. But it also makes me what I am today. So I guess it’s not all bad.
What is your favorite ingredient?
Butter. It’s just beautiful. There’s so many types – goat, sheep, whipped, raw. If there was only one cooking medium left it in the world it would have to be butter.
What trends/fads are played out?
Nothing – I don’t believe in trends. I believe in a palate. I believe in flavor, texture. I don’t think anything is outdated. I think every single thing in our culinary world is useful for certain things. And that’s something I think trends forget.
Also – everybody talks about grass fed beef. And it can be really good but it depends on the supplier. When I want a steak it better come from Nebraska or Iowa. I want corn fed, tasty Midwest beef. There’s nothing wrong with a good field steak but it’s just not my taste.
If someone invites you to their home for dinner what should they cook?
Anything. I don’t even care what it is. It could be Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. Cook me something you had that your grandma or mom made. Or your favorite dish from your country. Cook what you love to eat. I love hot dogs. I come from the hot dog and pizza capital of the world. I’m a guy that literally has a palate that enjoys everything from caviar and foie gras to hot dogs and tacos. There’s nothing I don’t like to eat.
Who is the best chef in Seattle right now?
There’s a little rest in the market called Chan – they make like Korean tapas. And the food in there is just fucking awesome. Salty, spicy, sweet, sour – I’ve eaten there twice and it’s just fucking good. Out of anyone out there right now – I think Park’s taking a lot of very interesting risks. If I’m in Seattle and I have the night off and am in the mood for that kind of food – that’s where I want to go. I eat at places like Fu Man Dumpling House. I know Tyler Moritz took over Zig Zag – he’s a phenomenal cook. Can’t wait to try their new classical French menu.
What is your last meal?
It’s got to be a jumbo chili cheese dog from Portillo’s in Chicago. Maybe two with a large chili cheese fry and a jumbo root beer.
Food = Art
I believe Chefs are artists – starving or not. Art and food become life. Good artists can become great while mediocre and bad ones merely become forgotten. The same holds true for Chefs as good ones can find success and possibly have their own restaurants while mediocre and bad ones find the line at Denny’s.
As artists, Chefs have the biggest palette in the world to play with. The multitude of ingredients, colors, flavors, aromas and presentation styles is vast. A Chef’s skill is oft measured by his or her ability to work with the ingredients available to them. Some choose to focus on a specific set of ingredients, type of cuisine or region. Others delve into specific skill sets such as preserving or sous vide and then allow those to heavily influence their menus. And still others focus on things like fusion combining cooking styles and ingredients across geographical boundaries. The number of possible combinations is endless.
Chef Sam Crannell works with nature’s palette in a creative, passionate way that comes through in his food at LloydMartin. Go, experience, eat, appreciate, share and enjoy!
If you enjoyed this interview with Chef Sam Crannell of LloydMartin 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, Nathan Lockwood of Altura coming soon to The Hungry Dog Blog!
A Recipe from Chef Sam Crannell
BBQ Ribs without a BBQ
- 3 slabs of baby back ribs, we use Carlton farms or LAN roc
DRY RUB enough for multiple batches of seasoning
- 1/4 c chili powder
- 1/4 c salt
- 1/4 c cumin
- 1/4 c smoked paprika
- 1/4 c brown sugar
- 2T maple sugar
- 1T mustard powder
- 1T garlic powder
- 1T onion powder
- 1T dehydrated orange peel
- 1t cayenne optional
Maple Sweet and tangy BBQ Sauce bring to a boil and cool
- ¼ c chili powder
- ¼ c cumin
- 6oz of light beer
- 1/4 c katsup
- 1/4 c molasses
- 3/4 c prepared yellow mustard
- 1 c good maple syrup
- 1/2 c honey
- 1/4 c apple cider vinegar
- 1T brown sugar
- 2t Worcestershire sauce
- 1t hot sauce
- Rub pork ribs with a generous amount of dry rub and let it marinate from 6 hours to over night.
- Wrap with tinfoil and preheat oven to 350 cook on a sheet try for 3-3.5 hours.
- Baste with bbq and enjoy!