Tyler Palagi – Co-Chef of Radiator Whiskey in Seattle
Welcome back to The Carnivore’s Dilemma, a column by Jason Price that features recommendations on how to prepare and where to eat meat from Seattle chefs that venture well beyond steak and burgers.
In a city where culinary ventures can border on being too precious, tragically hipster or uber milquetoast so as to not upset anyone; it’s a welcoming sight to read a menu from a restaurant that literally doesn’t give a fuck about what’s ‘popular’. Seattle’s Radiator Whiskey borders on irreverent and bucks the trendiness of plating dishes with tweezers and squeeze bottles. Here, you’ll find no foam, a welcome under-abundance of pickled goods, zero $4 oysters and few spreadable concoctions. Instead, you’ll find is a kitchen filled with bad ass cooks who want you to enjoy, as Anthony Bourdain put so well, ‘The Nasty Bits’.
Co-Chef Tyler Palagi, along with Co-Chef Charlie Garrison, have created a place where the truly carnivorous can go to indulge in all manner of Animalia. Since 2013, they’ve been dishing up some of the meatiest plates in town; including the pièce de résistance – the Smoked Half Pig Head accompanied by Crispy Fried Ear, Braised Tongue and Roasted Loin. Once a special only served on Tuesday’s, it’s now become a mainstay on the menu and is available every day of the week (if ordered in advance). If you want good (pig) head, then go to Radiator Whiskey.
I caught up with Tyler Palagi to talk meat and learn about how he came to create Seattle’s palace of pork. Here’s what he had to say…
Tell me about your background and why you became a Chef
I grew up in Montana and got into the industry bussing tables when I was like 14. I was working on rooftops, sanding cars – lots of redneck shit like that – and then I started at a restaurant. One summer my parents were going on two-week family vacation and they told me that I had to go with them unless I had a summer job. So I went to the Burger King to get a job and stay at home to party with my friends while they were gone.
Awesome – the sacrifice of working in fast food to enable partying. Brilliant.
Well, there’s a lot more to fast food than meets the eye. If you take that mindset and put it into a better system – you aren’t going to have one-hour ticket times on a roasted chicken because you know how to do it faster.
I worked there for about a month and realized it sucked. I was promoted from firing cheeseburgers and Whoppers to running the whopper line – which was like the coup de grace of BK. I realized that I had ‘made it’ and quit. I started busing tables at a Sidney’s Pizza Café. It was there that I slowly learned that all the cool people were in the back of the house and all the assholes were up front. So I started cooking by the time I was 16.
The restaurant was at the end of the mall and was running live fire pizza ovens – so I not only had to learn to cook but also do it with fire which is a whole different beast.
Well that is certainly ‘trial by fire’ so to speak. Where did you go from there?
I finished high school at 17 and didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was a super black sheep of the family – my sister was super smart and my parents both have post-graduate degrees. So I went to culinary school in Portland to start my new life.
I did an internship in Bend, Oregon on a private golf club because I wanted to play golf. I wanted to end up there really bad and was going to move there as soon as I was offered a job by the Chef. But as I was packing my truck to go he called me and told me he was fired.
Did you have a ‘Plan B’?
Fortunately, the first chef I had worked for at Sidney’s was opening a restaurant in Green Bay, Wisconsin. In February. It was crazy. I was sleeping on floors, working 16 hours a day, drinking for four more after that, sleeping for four hours and then waking up doing it again. It was great.
Then I ended up back in Montana with an old high school sweetheart. This is one of my favorite parts of my life story – I was bummed that I didn’t know what I was going to do so I went to a bar to get drunk and play pool. I thought I saw one of my teachers from culinary school – but the guy was all tatted up and I didn’t think it could be him. Lo and behold, it was his twin brother who told me I needed to call his brother who was opening a place in Portland. So I went and got my first sous job at this weird, waterfront lobster/fish place. It opened and closed in 10 months – it was that good. Those are invaluable lessons which you cannot put a price on.
Sometimes you learn more from failure than success…
Yeah, I hit the streets and got a shot at being Sous at a super busy restaurant/hotel but the Director of Operations didn’t think I was ready as it was a big job. So I worked on the line for six months and then finally got the sous job. I stayed for three years and learned the corporate chef lifestyle while making it Executive sous chef which basically meant that if there was a Chef job open anywhere in the company I would automatically get the offer.
I ended up meeting my wife there who made her way up to the Assistant GM position. A GM position opened up at Tulio here and she got the offer. I saw the light at the end of the tunnel and was able to go somewhere to cook again. I started working at Union with Ethan (Stowell) and within six months I was offered a Chef job that I couldn’t turn down over on Vashon.
Vashon has never really been known as a mecca of fine dining. Why did you go?
It was a unique opportunity with tons of hurdles to leap. It was supposed to be a fancy Northern Italian restaurant but there was a catch – the guy who opened it was Jewish and didn’t want any pork on the menu. That was tough. But I got to meet tons of awesome farmers and had a collective with 7-12 different farmers who would bring me their bounty of the day. However, it was like petting a cat backwards and fancy doesn’t go well over there.
I guess the old adage ‘Location, Location, Location’ really rings true right?
Yeah but the silver lining was that I got to meet Charlie Garrison who was my co-chef there. After that, I went to Italy and travelled for a little while. Rome was my favorite and I went to every place I could find that was serving my favorite dish – Bucatini all’Amatriciana. I had every rendition of it everywhere I went.
I came back to Seattle and worked at Kurtwood Farms with Kurt Timmermeister helping with his private dinners. I spent three years on the farm and I was also working with Mark (Fuller) at Spring Hill (reincarnated as Ma’Ono) a few days a week.
What a whirlwind of change for you. Did you end up settling down?
Well I started working with Mark on a more regular basis for about 2 years and then got commandeered to open a Jewish deli on Mercer Island. I was the second chef of what would become three or four before it closed. I also had a newborn and I just couldn’t do it. The people that opened the place were from Microsoft and they had expectations of how to run the place that were just too structured. It just wasn’t for me.
So when the baby came, I was in Seattle Metropolitan magazine as the #1 chef to watch in town. And then I disappeared for a year and a half to be a stay at home dad. But being super competitive, I felt like I was stopping my momentum as a chef and leader while watching all my peers continuing to go. As much as I loved that time with my child I was torn. It was really hard. I don’t think anybody can really understand it unless they do it.
So tell us about the concept behind Radiator Whiskey and how it came to be.
So Charlie was working at Matt’s in the Market and we had been trying to do something together since Ferrara closed. We knew that we needed to work together. Dan Bugge (the owner of Matt’s) offered to all do something together as an experiment to see if we could work together and be successful.
As it turned out – this place is the most successful one we’ve ever run. It’s the most casual environment we’ve ever built and it takes the same mindset of how fine dining restaurants treat their products – but we do it with chicken livers, testicles, beef lips and pork shanks. We present our clientele a creative, casual experience with a fine dining mindset without charging $30 for an entrée.
We also serve things like tater tots at the same time. We joke that we are sending people to college by serving tater tots and gravy. There’s always the same common denominator though – if it tastes good, it’s good. We have no pretense.
What are some of your favorite cured meat preparations?
We don’t do a whole lot of highly processed dry aging because we just don’t have the space to do it or store it. However, we do a lot of old world charcuterie things like confits, braises and terrines. Our beef lip terrine is boiled for about 30 hours because they are tougher than a two-dollar steak. Our style is more ‘rustic country’ but we’re trying to incorporate a Southern style, Kentucky state of mind.
Where do you get your meat?
We work with EC Wilson and Steve Nobles. He’s the best man in the industry.
The coolest thing about our relationship with our meat vendor is that: #1 – we pay our bills when they bring us a bill. We don’t use credit, and #2 – once a month we call him and he sends us a sheet of what he needs to get out of storage. It can be fucking goose beaks, Rocky Mountain oysters, chicken feet, cockscombs – whatever nobody else is using. And we’ll take it.
Tell us about the idea to do a half pigs head on a plate.
Well, when we started we did them once a week but now we do pig heads every day. We sell 16 pigs heads a week and we also do our “Whole Beast” dinners every Wednesdays which have been sold out for two years running. We took same mindset of Kurt’s (Timmermeister) dinners where he allowed only 20 people at the first dinner. At the end of it, there were something like 5,000 people on his mailing list.
We kind of took that idea to see where it would go and we wanted to see if it would take off. Then it went viral and it was badass. It’s kind of like a midweek party where 12-16 people will show up and get down with a whole hog. Now if you sign up, you will probably be waiting a year and a half to get in. Last night we had a bunch of people dressed up like characters from Game of Thrones for their Christmas party and they came in for the Whole Beast Feast. It was awesome.
What chefs have inspired you?
Early on when I was a snot nosed culinary nerd – my first Chef crush was Charlie Trotter. I never got into the molecular game that much. Having an Italian background – it doesn’t really play a role in that mindset. When you believe in that mindset you are true to your core. It’s been done that way for centuries because it’s fucking good and you aren’t supposed to mess with it.
We all got involved in the Thomas Keller and El Bulli stuff – you follow the cult as everyone does. When you find yourself at a juxtaposition – I want dirty beets and not some spherified foam. You get this culinary schizophrenia. Charlie and I grew up the same way – he ran Tra Vigne in Napa. We pretty much learned the same way.
I think that you really need to step away from what everyone else is doing and find your own identity.
Who are some of the Top Chefs in Seattle?
What inspires me the most – Japanese food, sushi – there’s great culture, skill and technique bred into the preparation of that cuisine. I also love really good Mexican food. But with running a restaurant and having kids – it’s tough to get out. I just want to go where I know I’m really liking the food.
My friend Ed Jordan’s place Salare – that was our last date night and it was very good.
What’s your guilty pleasure with food?
The double cheeseburger at Loretta’s for sure.
What kinds of food or preparations would you like to see more of in Seattle?
Wow that’s a tough question. It’s more of a global thing with Chefs opening so many restaurants and quality control becoming an issue. Yes, you can trust your employees to a certain extent but how can these people be cooking your food when they are on TV 24/7? It’s the Food Network culture that really bothers people in the industry. Most of us that just want to make really good food and not become superstars.
In one word, how would you describe the Seattle restaurant scene?
Final question – What’s your go-to karaoke song?
It’s gotta be a country song. Probably “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys”. But I’d replace ‘Cowboys’ with ‘Line cooks’.
* Photos credited to Nick Jurich
** Portions of this story originally appeared on Eater Seattle.