The Carnivore’s Dilemma with Jason Wilson
Walking into Miller’s Guild in downtown Seattle is akin to entering a huge iron forge. But instead of making heavy equipment and hearing the clanking of hammers on anvils – you hear the roaring fire, smell the primal odor of grilled meat and listen to the sweet sound of searing flesh getting ready for your belly. It’s a near medieval experience sitting in front of the massive wood fired oven and one that shouldn’t be missed if you are to eat meat in Seattle.
I recently sat down with Chef Jason Wilson to talk about Miller’s Guild and their approach to grilling meat. Wilson is well renowned in Seattle culinary circles with his first restaurant, Crush, being a mainstay on the scene for the past 10 years. He also comes from a long line of family butchers. Here’s what he had to say about his oeuvre of meaty goodness.
So tell me about your background and why you became a Chef.
I started cooking professionally at 18-19 and that’s when I decided I wanted to do it as a career. I was living in the Bay Area and discovered the world of cooking while living in Hawaii. I’d gone to surf there after taking a year off in college. So, I came back State side and went to college at the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco.
Where did you start working in San Francisco?
I worked for Michael Mina at Aqua and Albert Tordjman at Flying Saucer. I also worked for Jeremiah Tower at Stars. He had helped get Chez Panisse going along with Mark Miller. I remember going to Chez Panisse when I was 21 or 22 and it was still like you were going to where food was invented.
After that, I worked at a Chinese restaurant, as a butcher, a line cook and then I went to Singapore in 1996 for 2 years before I came to Seattle. When I worked with Susur Lee in Singapore – he’s an extraordinary cook and his sensibility with food I’m still in awe about. His sensibility has helped me to identify with where I can make and create boundaries with food. Restraint is one of the most important things that we can have.
I went to Stars at Pacific Place and left in 2000 to become a personal chef for a few years while we built Crush and which opened in 2005. I did some other consulting work as well with wineries and cafes and then I ran the food program at the Google campus in Kirkland in 2012-13. We opened Millers Guild in December 2013.
Miller’s Guild is a completely different genre than Crush. Why did you decide to open a steakhouse?
Well, I think I figured this out at Crush early on in 2007 and I remember thinking about it here as well. At Crush, I find that I innately cook to a sense of place and time. 100% of the time my food was crafted around the interior of the restaurant; the blending of classic and modern and the elements of food and stylings were very much through that place.
When this opportunity came up, I spent 4 or 5 days coming into the restaurant that was here before. They had built restaurant on top of restaurant in this space for 40-50 years. A drop ceiling covered up all the windows and moulding. It was like 6 a.m. and I was watching traffic go by feeling like I was in New York or Chicago.
I felt the place and space were like the 20’s and art deco and I wanted to talk about that and the time period. I don’t mean dressing people up like they’re in that time period but we talk about Miller Guild being influenced by importance of a craft, craftsmen, and the intensity of an old-school guild.
How about the massive infernal oven? Where did it come from?
This place used to be the Vance Lumber Company hotel back in the day. We had to have wood and we decided to do something that paid tribute to the history of the place and that it was going to be an impactful ‘wood experience’.
My partners and I wanted to look at one of these big grills and it became what we have here now. I’d seen the one at Blue Hill at Stone Barns (in Tarrytown, NY). Obviously, bringing in the perspective of the architects from Graham Baba helped and we were looking for an intangible thing that would bring out in the ambiance in the space.
You come from a long line of butchers right?
My mother’s father, his father and his father before him were all butchers. I wanted to bring in whole animal butchery and dry aging of meats in this space. Working with the whole animal gives you the chance to work with ‘off cuts’, sweet breads, brains and other offal that you just don’t see many places.
I think it’s so important to learn about the slaughter process and where our food comes from. People could go to Whole Foods and live their whole lives not knowing about the process of food raising and processing animals for food.
Tell me about Butcher Block Sundays at Miller’s Guild.
Our original idea was to create an evening dining experience where families could go out together. My wife and son and I had gone out to John Howie Steakhouse on Sunday’s and I love it. It’s a great place and I like his restaurants quite a bit. I thought – we ought to dress up like this and go to Miller’s Guild.
There’s not a lot of family businesses downtown – mostly really young Amazonian’s or empty nesters. We already served big dry aged stuff on butcher blocks and one of our Partners, Jake Koseff, was like – what do you want to cook? I said let’s do prime rib and coppa.
The prime rib is there to capture sensibility, not too adventurous. It’s delicious but it’s also for the folks who come to Miller’s Guild and think that hearing rock and roll playing on the sound system might be too much – that’s the comfort zone. Then we throw out something completely uncomfortable for most people like grilled tongue and cheek.
What about game?
I’m going to play with some rabbit and in later in September/October wing shooting season starts and I want it to be naturally assimilated into the menu. We use Jeff Rogers for whole lamb and we do head on/feet on quail and squab from Ephrata. I want to cast iron roast it but have also taken them and wrapped lard around them.
Our pork sometimes comes from Egg and I and Phil will drop whole and half pigs that are hazelnut finished Tamworth’s. We use Tails & Trotters pork for tenderloin, cheeks and belly and Niman Ranch for double cut pork chops.
Do you serve any fish on the menu?
We started doing Idiot fish and Sea Robins. We’ve done these big halibut steaks on the bone for two. The fish part is fun and you can do some cool stuff. We had this big Louvar in the other day and served it with the head, rib bones and put it in this big barbaric form on the board.
Any plans for doing charcuterie here?
We’re doing recipe testing and then we’ll end up doing whole muscle stuff and bacon. The Health Department is anti-nitrate which is fine with me. Then we’ll move into the HACCP stage and we’ll finish up our testing proofs.
What’s your view on training and retaining staff?
These guys that are working for us are the most important aspect of our business. Holding on to the good ones is the most important thing I can do. The more I teach them, the better off they are and I am. And the more allegiance they have to me. When $15/hr and healthcare costs settle down in Seattle, when all that adjusts; you’ll go back to ‘how much do I know and how competitive can I be?’
Who’s the best butcher in Seattle? Where do you buy your meat?
Really all over the place. I live in Kirkland so I bring most of my meat home from Miller’s Guild or Crush. We do go to Metropolitan Market and Rain Shadow as well as A&J on Queen Anne.
There are a lot of ways to cook a steak. What’s your preference?
A 22-24oz bone in ribeye – prime that’s been dry-aged 75 days. I do a slight freeze, rub it with coarse sea salt and vacuum seal while it’s still chilled. Then I put it into 128 degree bath for 4 hours. I arrest cooking and finish it over a wood fire.
I let the fire slowly warm the beef from 126 to 138 degrees and I like my steak medium rare. The ribeye has connective tissue between spinalis muscle and I want to denature that which is why I like it at a higher temp and why I sous vide it.
Where do you like to go out to eat?
I love sushi and I go to Sushi Kappo Tamura on Eastlake. My wife and I love that place. I look at it like ‘where do I want to go to relax?’ When I go out for work; I’ll go to other really great chef’s restaurants as I go there to learn.
What’s your opinion on grass fed beef?
I think some people are doing an incredible job and some of them – well, they need to learn a bit more about it. I’m reluctant to call it out though. I was at a friend’s recently and he got some beef from the guys on Vashon that was dry aged – it was really tasty beef.
Grass fed doesn’t always have to mean ultra-lean muscle. When you take an animal that can mature into a bigger animal and keep it lean – even the primal cuts can’t be identified them. They just don’t look right on some grass fed cattle.
People make choices about what to spend their money on – and some people will drop a bunch of money on things that don’t matter instead of taking care of themselves and feeding themselves goof food. People need to support it when they find someplace that has great product.
When you find someone that does it well – they need to be supported. Skagit River Ranch has a great beef and pork program. The word needs to get out that people need to support their product. Their pork is delicious.
Tell me about CoffeeFlour.
I’m the Executive Chef for CoffeeFlours and I do a lot of R&D work for them. We presented at TEDx this year and we’re in Tokyo next month.
We’re basically taking waste product from coffee processing and producing food and resources for the regions where coffee is grown. It will be nutrient and supplement rich food for entire world on a grand scale. We’re an Intellectual Ventures partner and we have an opportunity to make a global impact.
What’s your guilty pleasure with food?
Peanut butter and jelly. And ice cream sandwiches.
Who are the Top Chefs in Seattle in your opinion?
Taichi Kitamura at Sushi Kappo Tamura. John Sundstrom at Lark and Thierry Rautureau. I’ve had a long friendship with Thierry and I have a lot of respect for him. Also Roy Brieman and Mark Bodinet at Cedarbrook Lodge as well as James Sherrill at Single Shot.
Final question – What’s your go-to karaoke song?
I will not sing. Probably something from the Doors. Because of Morrison’s low voice!
*portions of this story originally appeared in Eater Seattle
** Photos credited to Rina Jordan