The Carnivore’s Dilemma with Chef Stuart Lane of Cascina Spinasse and Artusi
Before a few days ago many food loving folks in our fair city may not have heard of Chef Stuart Lane. But with Jason Stratton’s recent departure from Cascina Spinasse and Artusi – Lane is now the Executive Chef. He’s been the Chef de Cuisine for both establishments for the past two years and he’s ready to take the reins. And believe you me, you’ll not be disappointed in what he brings to the table – literally.
Lest you think Lane is some green newcomer to the Seattle food scene – that’s simply not the case. He won the 2009 Star Chef’s ‘Rising Stars’ award in 2009 while at Café Juanita and has honed his skills under the tutelage of local culinary masters such as Holly Smith, former Flying Fish chef/owner Chris Keff, Café Campagne’s Daisley Gordon and Stratton himself. Eater caught up with this meat loving chef to talk about all things Italiano, meat, offal and salumi. Here’s his story…
Tell us about your background and how you got into food.
I grew up in Edmonds, Washington but was born in Alaska and lived in Anchorage for a bit before my folks moved down here. My parents are from the south and my dad was in the Coast Guard. I went to Western Washington University but was always a UW fan. I’d applied to and was accepted at both but WWU did their visitation day first and it was just beautiful up there. It reminded me of home and so I decided to go there.
I graduated with a BA in English and Creative Writing. But where do you go from there? I was by myself in the summer and had to learn to cook for myself. During that time I was watching all these Great Chefs of the World episodes on TV and was both amazed and enthralled by what they were doing. At the time, I was into more sweet stuff – cakes, pastries, etc. but I felt like that was limiting and I wasn’t going to go as far in the world of food. Now things have changed but back then it felt limiting.
So how did you become a Chef?
I decided from there to go into culinary school and was going to go to the Art Institute but instead went to Bellingham Technical College. Back then it was pretty basic but it’s come a long way since. I went to work and school full-time and paid for it as I went. It was great but the only thing was that they didn’t really give me help in getting a job. When I came here to Seattle I didn’t get any love – I didn’t know the town, had no network or any restaurant connections.
So, I went downtown on First Ave. one day and just started walking down the street handing out resumes to every restaurant I came across. I got accepted at Fandango which was Chris Keff’s ‘other’ restaurant at the time. I remember working with these Mexican women in the kitchen who were so knowledgeable about food. I really enjoyed Mexican food and I respected them. At the time, that place was not doing well so (Keff) had me work at Flying Fish and I was working at Café Campagne as well – 7 days a week.
How did you end up getting into Italian cuisine?
I was saving up to go to Italy to go to the Italian Culinary Institute for Foreigners. It was a two month program in Costigliole d’Asti which held classes 6 days a week.
I really wanted to learn pasta and go to Emilia-Romagna. So they helped me get to this small hotel called Hotel Monte del Re in Dozza – which wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do but they cooked everything to order. I was there for four months which was great – an experience of a lifetime. I was a stage and they really let me do a lot. I got to butcher anything and everything, work on the line – they really threw me in there. And I got to learn everything from making pasta to desserts. The place was great and used really high quality ingredients from meat to seafood to truffles – everything you can imagine.
That sounds like an amazing experience – how was the experience culturally?
Well, I was taking Italian and I got to travel to the truffle festival in Alba and take in the local culture. One night I remember in particular was when we had this New Year’s Eve party and we were trying to serve this semifreddo which was practically melting as we’re doing it. All of the sudden the Chef was just like “Stop stop stop!!! It’s the New Year. It’s midnight”. He said, “Come on – let’s go outside.” And just like that, everything stopped and the kitchen staff went outside. I was so blown away. We stayed there for 15 minutes drinking Prosecco and celebrating the New Year. Then, we went back in and everything was melted – it was soup. But it was hilarious. That’s Italy for you.
That sounds like a scene right out of Big Night! So how did you adapt in coming back to Seattle?
When I came back to US the Café Campagne folks told me to work for Holly at Café Juanita. I went to apply to Scott Carsberg at the former Lampreia and to Holly. He pretty much was flat-out not interested and (luckily) she was randomly there that day I came in so I got to talk to her. She created a position for me and I said I’d do anything. After that, she kept adding more and more responsibilities.
I was going to be co-sous with Jason (Stratton) and then when he left she made me Chef de Cusiine which was the same year we won the James Beard Award. She’s like my mentor. We’ve all added things to our repertoire as we’ve moved on but it’s why me, Jason, Carrie (Mashaney) and Lauren (Thompson) could all just step in for each other and just go with it.
Where did you go from there and how did you reunite with Chef Stratton?
I’d worked at Café Juanita for four or five years which may have been longer than anyone had in the kitchen. I’m not sure. But I felt like I was ready to move on. I did a brief stint at the Four Swallows as Chef de Cuisine on Bainbridge but it just didn’t work out. Working with the produce and seafood purveyors was really a pleasure on that island but it just wasn’t a good fit for me.
At that point, I came to Spinasse before they expanded and was kind of like this weird ‘super-secret’ sous chef. Jason was the Chef, Carrie was the sous and it was their show. I did a whole bunch of different stuff for like 6-7 months and had every intention of continuing to do that until I got an offer to open Cuoco for Tom Douglas as their Executive Chef. And so I went and ran what was their biggest restaurant to date for about two years.
It sounds like you were able to get really good, diverse perspective from many Chefs. Why did you come back to Spinasse?
At that point I was just like what am I going to do? Several people called me and there was a lot of opportunity – the community really reached out to me. At that point, this place (Spinasse) felt like the right fit.
What makes Spinasse special for you?
We’re always trying to improve and we will change things that have been the same way for years. I also want to be the Chef – I want to be the leader. As you work in this industry and work in restaurants – you can see who the leaders and who aren’t. I like to have the ability to make changes and I don’t shy away from the interpersonal conflict needed to make things better. I am upbeat about working with people and giving feedback.
I think it’s important for everyone to have a positive experience working here. I look at all my staff as if I’m training them to be the next chef. Some of the work is about the food but a great deal is about the people, the personal aspects of the business and being honest about fucking something up – and then helping to correct it.
Tell me about the relationship of meat to Italian cuisine – the focus always seems to be on pasta but meat plays a big role right?
It’s probably the most extensive cured meat culture in the world. There’s so many things – whole muscle, fermented, dried for ages kinds of stuff. The thing with Italian cuisine is that it’s balanced. It’s not like every meal has a ton of meat in it.
When I was in school there everyone was talking about how surprised they were with the diversity of the cuisine. They were all focused on the south and asking “where’s the red sauce” and so on? Things are very different as you move further north with respect to meat being an integral part of a meal.
What are some common Italian preparations of meat that aren’t steak?
I’m so immersed in it so it’s hard to step outside of that realm – but maybe it’s that not everything is caramelized and browned so hard all the time. Sometimes they are real gentle with things – with minimal technique and simplicity. Maybe rabbit doesn’t need such a hard sear? Maybe you’ll get a different flavor out of it?
Hard roasted stuff with brown bits is very delicious for sure. But what I learned when I was there was that often they would make the same thing two different ways – one hard seared and the other more gently prepared – and they were do different.
How much offal do you work with?
We are constantly working with it here. We do a lot with rabbit livers and kidneys to make the pate for crostini. We’re going to keep messing around with rabbit parts. Every now and then we do different sweetbread dishes. We don’t tend to do too much with pork liver but have done some things with pork and goat kidneys.
Oh, and we use tripe constantly. We almost always have a tripe dish on the menu. Right now we’re doing a puff pastry with a stewed tripe in it with a nice tomato sauce on top. It’s delicious.
What’s the next big thing in meat?
What I hope for is that goat catches on. I love anything and everything whole, spit roasted over fire – it’s just fantastic. I once had this whole roasted goat on a spit in Italy that was just amazing. As you go farther north, they have a lot more of that type of thing.
For me, lamb can be almost too gamey for the masses – but goat is just damned delicious. I don’t know why it doesn’t sell out the door. It’s readily available. I don’t know what’s next but I wish goat would be it.
What chefs have inspired you?
So many. Of course, there’s Jason for sure. I’m also a big cookbook guy and I’m constantly buying them. I know it’s cliché but I don’t care – Thomas Keller for sure. The French Laundry cookbook was almost like my textbook in culinary school. He does everything the way it should be done.
Also, in the weirdest way – Heston Blumenthal. I don’t think I’ve cooked anything in the way he has ever done. He doesn’t take everything for granted or on ceremony. His mantra is to take nothing as absolute fact. He’s definitely got an openness to question what’s always been done. I really respect that and certainly his whimsy.
On a more specific note – the concept of having your shots of flavor with a dish. I’ve done it repeatedly and I really like the technique. We’ve done this huckleberry risotto which is very pleasing on its own. But then we made this juniper butter and put little spots on the dish – adding that shot of intense flavor makes it something different that jumps off the plate and it comes from Blumenthal.
And then there’s Nico Borzee from Hommage. I really enjoyed working with him when he was with us at Artusi and he’s probably one of the most talented cooks I’ve ever worked with. I really have a good connection with him and we’re able to collaborate and bounce ideas back and forth.
How often do you go out to eat and where do you go?
Not as much as I probably should for sure. I try places that are new to me a lot but when I’m at home on my days off I’ll usually get takeout one night and make something really simple the next.
Once a month my wife and I try to go out together in Seattle. I just went to Stateside and it was really good. I personally like Revel and Joule and the way they do things there. Nicely priced, good, solid food and well done. I also had a great meal at Altura recently.
What’s your favorite ‘non-American’ restaurant in Seattle?
Revel or Joule most likely. Stateside was great but I’ve only been there once. So I can’t call it my favorite just yet. I’m trying to learn more about Chinese cuisine – the history of it, the way they do things with their food. They also really change the way things are served. It’s not as linear as in other cultures with appetizers, a main and then dessert. It’s interested to see all the different flavor profiles come at you in an unexpected way.
What’s your guilty pleasure with food?
I eat chocolate a lot. Dark chocolate with Almonds. Cookies – I’m pretty weak with cookies. I’ll go for a while and hold off and then I’ll be like – I need chocolate chip cookies.
Beef, Lamb, Pork, Chicken, Goat or Other?
I’m sure pork – I know it’s a cliché or whatever but it’s just so versatile and the fat is so good. It just seems like there’s so many things that you can do. It’s a really fun thing for us here. I enjoy butchery a lot and I’m not a master but I enjoy learning things. We’ve been butchering rib-eyes a certain way and have separated it out at the seams, re-rolling it without the gristle and making a pure, perfect steak.
We’re also very into rabbit. We used to just put the forelegs in brodo, back into meatballs, and the liver and kidneys into pate. But because of the small bones in the forelegs they were just difficult to work with. So we started making confit with them. The reason we’re able to do it is because of the butchery of the forelegs. It’s fine work and you have to take these two little bones out which is difficult and time-consuming but we’ve figured out how to efficiently remove them with little to no waste of meat. Once they are out they are perfect for confit. That kind of thing is fun and gratifying.
Best non-traditional cut of meat to work with?
Sweetbreads are so good. We’re doing lamb sweetbreads shortly and I also like using tongue a lot. Lamb tongue is kind of popular now but a bit of a pain to work with. We use a lot of pig’s trotter and we like it a lot. We keep thinking about doing a zampone but we have to engineer it properly for service. We did the trotter ragu with tagliatelle. It’s just so lip-smacking good and super delicious.
What off-beat meat dishes should people look for?
Sweetbreads for sure. I think some people are weirded out about them but they are just so good. I don’t know how you could not like them. I also think liver is really good. We used to do a lot with it at Juanita and I just loved it. But it really depends on where you are eating it because if it’s done wrong it can be really terrible.
I think people should eat more offal in general. We do tripe all the time and people can be weird about it but if you do it right it is fantastic.
What meat should people learn to cook if they only know the standards?
Honestly, we take it for granted but a lot of our braising dishes are so popular. I’d personally rather have a braised beef cheek than a steak. It’s always more flavorful, built-in with its own sauce, and you can flavor it in so many ways. That kind of thing is so good and doing it right to where you get it perfect can be really satisfying and versatile.
What’s your go-to karaoke song?
I am not a singer – at all. But I’m a bit of a dancer. I’ll do it for hours straight and I love to dance. I love to dance to people doing karaoke. And I can back it up. Trust me.
*Portions of this story about Stuart Lane by Jason Price originally appeared on Eater Seattle
** Photos courtesy of Suzi Pratt where noted