Chef Mike Whisenhunt of Ballard’s Brimmer and Heeltap Talks Meat
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 who venture well beyond steak and burgers.
Brimmer & Heeltap in Ballard is one of those quintessential Seattle neighborhood restaurants. A place “where everybody knows your name” and a hub for socializing with its loyal dining fan base. Opened in the former Le Gourmand space in 2013, Chef Mike Whisenhunt and business partner Jen Doak have made a name for the restaurant through the exceptional use of local, seasonal ingredients and whole animal butchery.
The restaurant also sports a private dining studio the can seat up to 25 as well as one of the sweetest hidden patios (complete with fire pit) in the city. Bonus – they have just begun brunch service Friday through Sunday from 9a until 2p each day.
I stepped into Whisenhunt’s world to learn about his background and passion for working with whole animals. Here’s what he had to say.
Where did you get your start in the food business?
I grew up here in Ballard and was washing dishes at Hiram’s at the Locks when I was 16. I remember showing up for the first day at work – I’d burned myself the day before and I had this bandage on my leg. The chef was like: “What do I do with you?” But he let me start the next week.
There was this intensity and all these unique people that worked there. In the 80’s there was this real cowboy type of thing happening in kitchens which is different than now. People were doing drugs, Chefs were drunk or worse and people were still smoking in the kitchens.
Sounds like an auspicious start in true Kitchen Confidential style…
Yeah after that, the following summer, I did an internship at a financial institution and I realized it wasn’t for me. I didn’t care how much I might make – I felt like a zombie and it was horrible. I wanted to have fun and energy.
It took a couple of years and I went to a place called Pescatore (which is no longer open) for Consolidated Restaurants. I think Ken Sharp was the chef (AQUA, El Gaucho) and he taught me the most about cooking mentality and how to carry yourself in the kitchen. I was doing prep and someone walked off the line so there I was. I started making salads, pizzas, etc. and was learning something new every day.
It felt like you could meet all kinds of people in restaurants and I fell in love with that part of it – interacting with really cool people. That job I actually got fired from – Ken left with some personal issues and they were left with two sous who were just angry at life. The new chef came in and cleaned house. All the while, the sous were telling me that I needed to think about another career that food wasn’t for me. Who were they to tell me that?
Nothing like a little bit of a challenge to motivate you right?
It was an ‘aha’ moment for me – and I decided to go to Western Culinary Institute in Portland which was later bought by Le Cordon Bleu. From there, I fell more in love with food. It gave me a basis of understanding for what food was.
How did you end up back in Seattle?
I came back and did an internship at the Four Seasons with Kerry Sears. Then I worked at Salty’s in the bake shop. At some point I made my way to Stars Bar & Dining when they opened and was there for two years with Jason Wilson. From there I went to Fuller’s at the Sheraton with Tom Black for a year or so but they closed 30 days after 9/11.
I ended up going to The Barking Frog in Woodinville with Tom after that. Bobby Moore was the sous then. I was sous there for two years and by that point I knew that I had to get out of hotels. Sure, there were great benefits, flexible schedules and whatnot but it wasn’t what I wanted to do. I wanted to open my own place one day and I wouldn’t be able to do that in hotels.
So I skipped around for a bit working at Lark then at Union off and on, and then made my way to a little place called Coupage. At that point, Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi (of Revel, Trove, Joule) had just moved to the city. I met them and they wanted to do their own thing at Joule in Wallingford on 45th. I also helped them open Revel in Fremont and was there for almost three years.
How did you come about opening Brimmer & Heeltap?
When I was working at The Barking Frog I met my business partner Jen Doak through Tom Black. I think she kept me in mind and she had a vision for opening a small bar with good food. She reconnected with me when I was at Revel and knew I wanted to move upward.
I was really motivated by all the things happening in the city. I knew I wanted to do it but I didn’t know the right questions to ask. Working for Rachel and Seif, and then later here with Jen really helped. She knew how to navigate things like getting bank loans and setting up the business.
It was really re-inspiring for me to work with Rachel and Seif – their work ethic and flavor profiles are excellent. I was thrust into their world and I knew I liked Pan-Asian food – but to really get to know it and see it firsthand was inspiring.
What’s the food philosophy of Brimmer and Heeltap?
Bold, playful and relevant. Those are the core components of our business. That falls right into food, service, and everything we do. I know we’re always trying to identify new flavors and develop new combinations of things. But at the same time, keeping it playful is important to me because I want people to have connection to the food. Something they’ve eaten before with a different take.
Last fall we had a celery salad but we simply put some peanuts with it and then people began to relate the celery and peanut butter flavors together. They are surprised that they get it. It’s just having fun – not genius. Trying to create flavors and textures and that all the components are in each dish. We try to get texture, spicy, acid, salty, sweet, umami and smokiness into every dish.
Why do you emphasize umami in your cooking?
There are dishes that need some kind of umami to pull it together. Other times, it just sort of happens. It comes together. I’ll talk to my sous, to Jen and other friends about flavor combinations – I feel like I have a lot of sounding boards. If you just close yourself off from everyone your food will become stale and stagnant. I like to listen to other people’s ideas are and learn what the best of everything is.
Why is it important to you to work with whole animals?
I go to back to my days at Revel again and in the summer they do wood fired grill meat platters. I found that most of the time it was me doing that. No one taught me how to butcher meat. I just watched a lot of YouTube videos and somehow made it work. And I sold it and people actually liked it.
Obviously there was some direction in flavors with Rachel but I developed some too over time. I would develop flavors within the range of how Revel operated.
We’re strictly using meat from Heritage Meats out of Rochester, Washington here. I’ve tried over and over again to use small farmers and every time they have let me down. Something was always happening – the USDA couldn’t be there on time, a guy slept in – whatever. Then you wake up and call Tracy (Smaciarz – the owner) and he’s like – “I got you”.
At Revel we were using 2-3 hogs a week. At one point we were up to a whole cow a week because it was so busy all the time. I knew that if I were to do something similar here our beef program needed to work with the whole cow. Someday I do want to move into whole pigs but I’m in no rush.
What are some of the more creative things you do with the ‘odd bits’?
Well, today my sous is putting together some tongue dumplings. All the round we have we try to age as long as we can and save it for the tail end of things. The shanks make it to the end as well. We try to keep the ‘Hollywood cuts’ a bit longer as folks want that and people kind of get sick of odd cuts they are unfamiliar with.
We tend to wet brine tougher cuts to add moisture and flavor. I think sous vide is probably one of the best ways to do it. Wet brined brisket, cold smoke and sous vide – it’s amazing. One of the best briskets I’ve ever had. And I’m a brisket guy. You don’t get the bark – that’s my only gripe.
Where do you get your beef?
We use Burk Ridge Farms up in Whatcom County. The flavor in this cow is just unreal – people are flipping out over it. I don’t even know how to explain the amazing flavor coming out of it. It’s Angus beef that is grass-fed all the way.
All of their cows are brought to over 30 months which means – and I didn’t know this until recently – that the USDA won’t let them send the spinal column in any way shape or form due to the age. So, no oxtails. It’s close to Wagyu – super marbled. We’re just finishing through the skirt right now and a lot of pieces are just white with a little bit of pink in them.
What is your most interesting dish or creation that you’ve made here?
I have a pretty firm concept that I probably won’t ever bring anything back. I might bring a component of a dish back but I want to evolve and grow. There are dishes I’m deeply in love with but I need to challenge myself and I don’t want to get stale. I want the food to evolve with me.
When I look at the food we were serving when we opened and what we are doing now – it’s very different. We’ve learned how to use umami a bit better. We’ve brought a lot of balance to the food and continue to be inspired by different chefs and what’s going on in the world in general.
You should be constantly wondering how to elevate a dish. Putting something different next to something else. I would hope every chef out there is doing this. I see my sous revising dishes all the time – even throughout the night – trying to make it better.
What advice do you have for people looking to get into the food business?
If you’re in this for money, you’re in it for the wrong reason. Don’t expect to get rich. Think about it in terms of movie stars. I mean, how many are out there and how many are making these mega million dollar flicks? A very, very small percentage of those in that business are wealthy.
If you have passion and are willing to sacrifice everything you have to be amazing – money might follow. I think that our goals here – we’re a neighborhood restaurant and community are important. 80% of our customers walk here and we have relationships with them.
They are our friends – we’ve had weddings here, funerals and everything in between. Break ups, make ups – it all happens in a restaurant. It’s amazing to be a part of that. That’s what is satisfying. Money is a byproduct and keeps us afloat but it’s not what it’s all about.
What is your favorite cut of meat?
Man, I really love brisket. It’s hard to pull away from that. There’s some unique stuff, and my guys miss it sometimes, but we get spider steaks sometimes.
What kind of music is playing in the kitchen during prep?
I like funk, a lot of times hip hop is playing. But we listen to all kinds of stuff. 80’s punk, Violent Femmes and stuff like that.
What is your last meal?
It has to be BBQ – I wish I could eat it every day. I would never get sick of brisket but I would definitely like to throw a spicy smoked sausage in there too. And pulled pork. And bourbon. And Texas caviar.
Who are some of your favorite chefs in Seattle?
Obviously any of Rachel and Seif’s places. And Chester Gurl at Gracia. He’s bringing a culture to life a little bit more. He’s modernizing but still kind of keeping old and traditional products. He’s grinding his own masa – to me that’s bold to be able to do that efficiently and well. He’s only going to get better at it. Everyone I’ve known that’s worked for him is really loyal to him.
I’ve known Jason Stoneburner forever – he’s very intense and he expects the best out of his people. His kitchen is just run really tight. Everyone knows what Chef wants and he’s in it every day.
What is your karaoke song?
I never do the karaoke – but believe it or not Seif is one of the best people I’ve ever seen do karaoke in my entire life. He ad libs during songs and it’s amazing. You would never guess it if you know him. But God, I really just hate karaoke.
If you enjoyed this story you can read about more chefs and their love of meat in The Carnivore’s Dilemma series here.
*Portions of this story originally appeared in Eater Seattle
** Photos courtesy of Brimmer and Heeltap