Eating is easy. Talking about eating is hard.
The current state of ethics, economy and romance in food, as prepared by Seattle’s smartest chefs.
Food is delicious. Food is complicated.
This much has been true forever: We all gotta eat. Some time ago, eating evolved from something all humans must do—a biological necessity—to something some humans get to do—an acculturated reward. The rich dine while the poor subsist. The further we travel down this path, the closer we get to eating as an art form, and the deeper we delve into thorny moral issues.
And so we arrive at the state of eating in 2011. Eating is entertainment, economy, security and status. It’s elevated, debated, fetishized and romanticized. It’s essential and it’s misunderstood.
All the stuff great art is made of.
More than any other region, the Northwest and its food culture have popularized the four virtues of modern eating—local, seasonal, organic, sustainable. Specific directives, sure, but time and enterprise have yielded countless ways to apply them, all vying deliciously for your dollar. There are restaurants that operate like educational seminars. Restaurants that operate like the United Nations. Restaurants that operate like farmers markets. Restaurants that operate like mercenary bonvivants.
No matter how refined, each approach boils down to a single purpose: feeding people. At stake is, to put it dramatically but realistically, the health of the planet and its population.
“The big philosophical question that always got thrown at me across the dinner table when I was a little kid was ‘Who’s gonna feed the world, Cormac? Who’s gonna feed the world?’”
Cormac Mahoney is drinking a pint of PBR at Shorty’s in Belltown on a rainy Monday afternoon. It’s a rare day off for the chef and co-owner of Madison Park Conservatory, one of Seattle’s most heralded new restaurants. Digging into the details of his industry, he is right now a lot closer to the family dinner table than he will be tomorrow when he heads to work across town at MPC.
Mahoney is a big guy—not heavy but tall and muscular—with dark hair swept back from dark blue eyes, biceps sprouting from a black t-shirt, blue-black Japanese kanji tattooed on thick forearms. He smiles often, though he seems to dwell in a perpetual shadow. A hint of Liam Neeson in his craggy, deep-set features, but his slang and swagger are all-American. Born on a dairy farm in Centralia, Wash., he came up through Seattle’s culinary scene, cooking and baking in restaurants all over the city.
Mahoney speaks with the assurance of a man unafraid to be wrong or to punch you in the face. He says things like, “All food is farm to table. Period. You might not like the route it takes to get to your table, but ‘farm to table’ is a stupid fucking term.” And “You’re a foodie? Hey, asshole, we’re all foodies. Stop talking about yourself.” And “I don’t like stuff because it’s from Washington, I like it because it’s good. If it’s not good, I don’t like it. I’m not gonna suck your dick just because you’re my neighbor.”
This coming from the chef of a restaurant called by Frank Bruni of The New York Times “expensive but worth it, for serious new American cooking with exemplary local ingredients.” Bruni is right: Local ingredients or no, Mahoney is serious about cooking.
“This town’s high school,” Mahoney says. “There’s a lot of immaturity when it comes to discussing food. It prevents us from having the larger conversations of what is food for? Is it entertainment or is it sustenance? Is there a problem with getting lemons from California or olive oil from Spain or Thai eggplants? Where are our lines?”
Mahoney is accustomed to big ideas, wrestles them with an almost violent cognitive vigor. An hour after sitting down, he tells me his scheme to re-establish the national draft—for agricultural purposes. After two hours, we reach the crux of the conversation. Not our conversation, The Conversation, the one anyone who’s ever bought Honduran bananas in January or paid .99 cents for a cheeseburger should be having.
He says this: “To make money off something that’s not a choice is pretty despicable, and that’s why I cry myself to sleep at night.”
I laugh, he doesn’t. I tell him I don’t believe him.
“You don’t know me very well,” he says.
* * * * *
If there’s any one person responsible for Seattle’s unpretentious approach to conscientious eating, it’s Tom Douglas. For two decades, the Delaware-born, Ballard-dwelling chef and restaurateur has set the city’s earnest, earthy tone. At current count, Douglas employs roughly 630 Seattle food professionals in his 14 restaurants around the city, six of which opened in the last 14 months. Talk to any local culinary luminary and they’ll invariably, rapturously commend him. Over the years, Douglas’ cookbooks and TV appearances have broadcast his take on Northwest cuisine around the world.
“It’s a matter of trying to do the right thing,” he says, on his cell in an apartment in Paris, where he’s vacationing and eating as much French food as possible. “You gotta imagine, having as many restaurants as I do, I get smashed for being too big. It’s not about being big or small, it’s about the passion, the effort, the stuff you do every day. You have to marry the goal of local-sustainable, of doing the right thing, with effort. It’s not black and white.”
Preeminent Seattle restaurants have followed his lead, adapting the local, sustainable, organic, seasonable mantra as befits their tastes and ethics. Opened in 2006 by chef and owner Maria Hines, Tilth was one of the first restaurants in America to be certified organic by the super-stringent nonprofit organization known as Oregon Tilth. Hines was recently tapped to host a dinner under the banner of Michelle Obama’s Partnership for a Healthier America. She zealously backs what she calls “the movement”—the concerted push toward environmentally-sensitive organic farming with which she’s aligned herself and her restaurants.
“It is a movement!” she says. “And it’s got great traction. I think those who are passionate about it need to take risks and commit to making it happen. If everyone stands back and waits, no one’s gonna figure it out. And if no one figures it out, we’re not gonna have an organic, sustainable food future.”
Tilth opened the same year Wal-Mart began selling organic produce in stores across America. Wal-Mart was accused by environmentalists of greenwashing—using its clout to force lower standards in organic certification so it could slap the term on certain products to polish its image. For little guys like Tilth, going green was not a PR move.
“The decision to be 95 percent organic is not a marketing ploy, because I’d be marketing to make 20 percent less money than everybody else,” Hines says. “That doesn’t make business sense. You can call it politics, you can call it health, you can call it nutrition. I don’t know what to title it under, but I think it’s right for the environment, for people’s bodies, the local economy.”
Opened this past January, Local 360 devised its own super-stringent “manifesto” in sourcing its products, which you can read on the back of the Belltown restaurant’s menu:
Ideally, 90% of our raw ingredients come from within 360 miles of Seattle... Nothing we are doing is innovative or new—on the contrary, we are returning to a simpler way of functioning as a business. We have stopped asking, ‘what is new,’ and have begun asking, ‘what is best.’
“It’s a positive ethos and it is a marketing ploy,” Local 360 chef Mike Robertshaw says of the manifesto. Though he was hired after the concept was devised, he says he’s strived for sustainability his entire 16-year career.
“The challenge is fantastic because it means I have to go out and meet the people that make it happen here in the state,” he says. “It’s not us, it’s the people growing the food. We merely prepare their life’s work.”
Local 360 is contrived, the culinary version of a Washington State tourism board. But it’s smartly conceived and well executed, accessibly priced and warmly presented. Putting its ethos in its name designates it as an obvious example-setter but its gourmet comfort food and downtown location are equally appealing to tourists and regulars. “Hopefully more places like this will open up and get people excited about changing the way we look at food,” Robertshaw says.
Sitka & Spruce takes a more mercenary approach. Chef and owner Matt Dillon, who oversees the compact operation in the back of Capitol Hill’s tony Melrose Market, has amassed a fervent following in Seattle—and attracted his share of controversy. He buys local not out of a sense of ethical responsibility but sheer practicality. A tomato grown in Carnation arrives at his restaurant fresher than one grown in Mexico.
“You can say supporting your small, local, organic farm is the answer, but the pig farm in Iowa with 9,000 pigs living in disgusting conditions, that’s someone’s job,” Dillon says. “I don’t know enough about the situation to say I want that gone. I think it’s great what Local 360 is doing, and every person they inform will be better for it. It’s just not for me. We’re not trying to lead anybody any one way.”
Of all the new restaurants in Seattle, Sitka & Spruce is the one known for being callous with its clientele, leaving reservations standing at the host stand or refusing service late in the evening. An embodiment of its agnosticism, perhaps. Dillon’s dishes are alternately delicate and luscious, and he seems correspondingly vexed at the ethical contradictions he faces.
“It’s just not simple anymore,” he says. “It can’t be. There’s too many answers in your decision-making process about what you wanna put in your belly.”
* * * * *
A quintessential Madison Park Conservatory experience: On a balmy August evening, my mother and my girlfriend and I are sitting on the veranda looking out on Madison Beach. After dinner across the street at the Independent Pizzaria, we’re here drinking cocktails crafted by MPC’s masterful bartender.
Mahoney appears from inside, says, “We’re giving this out today,” and sets a plate of food in front of us. Some sort of salad, from the look of it. Then Mahoney explains.
MPC chef Zoi Antonitsas’ dad grew these desert king figs in his backyard; she brought them in today. The goat cheese is from Yarmuth Cheese Farm in Darrington. It’s coated in vegetable ash that Antonitsas made in MPC’s woodburning oven, and nested in purple shiso leaf that Mahoney’s mom has growing in a kiddie pool in the dumpster-lined alley behind the restaurant, which he calls Tijuana.
Of course it’s delicious. More than that, I think to myself, it’s romantic. It’s a story. These ingredients were plucked yesterday by family right up the road. They won’t be available tomorrow. This is performative, this is ephemeral, this is art.
“A lot of people would be like, ‘Who cares?’ Mahoney says, now onto his second beer at Shorty’s. “That’s just how it ended up on the plate—not through some kind of manifesto or politic where I’m like, ‘farm to table.’ What it comes down to is, Did you eat it? Did it taste good? Did it make you sick? No, it made you feel good? Awesome. That’s it. And I’m glad you remember it, but I hope you’re on to the next one.
“Does that dish exemplify MPC?” he asks. “Sure it does. But so does the Italian wine we have on our list that goes with all of our food. That ain’t local. That ain’t artisanal. We need to figure out a way where eating local is awesome because it supports our local economy and our neighbors, but we also have to understand that global trade has long been a means for lifting our society up. I love serving local shit when I can, but Spain’s economy is kind of crappy and guess what? Spain’s economy affects me because we are all in this little game together. Plus these guys are making olive oils that are fucking amazing.”
Mahoney’s vaguely defined meta-local approach stems from an awareness of global networks: Everything is local somewhere. It is an evolution of the high-quality middle ground Tom Douglas has tread for two decades. Delivered in person it’s a bit coarse but measured; delivered at MPC, it’s elegant and delicious.
Mahoney eschews extremism in ethos as well as economy; he repeats the line “immaturity breeds militancy” about a dozen times in two hours. Like Hines has done with Golden Beetle—where its $30-a-plate average is half of Tilth’s, she says—Mahoney makes his cooking available at a lower price point to attract a broader clientele. Every Sunday, Tako Truck, a counter-service social event at MPC, features the kind of inexpensive, gourmet tacos that first gained him a following in Seattle, served alongside cheap beer, movie screenings, DJs and live band performances.
Mahoney’s pragmatism couldn’t come at a more critical time. More than another overhyped fetish or underpriced combo meal, American eaters need a mature conversation about food. As with politics and pop culture, we’ve lost the grasp of nuance in the things we eat. Media-savvy as we are, we respond to an unending flow of novelty with dumb antitheses of love and hate. Even our sense of the past is clouded by a retro-obsessed media landscape that resists letting anything go.
Nostalgia and history both describe a time when the production system known as farm-to-table was de-facto standard rather than bourgeois premium. (It’s likely our great-grandparents ate more oat mush and turnips than we care to imagine, but where’s the romance in that?) The advent of industrialized farming, mechanical refrigeration and interstate highways wrought significant changes in the way Americans eat—processed food, fast food and convenience food rose from the spectre of World War II and the development of mass production technology.
“Get big or get out” was the call from DC to American farmers via Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture. In a matter of decades, standards changed, and the Big Mac assumed primacy within the American culinary experience. Rather than get our food from the source, or at least do the work to know where it was coming from, we chose to be spoon-fed. Through government subsidy, Madison Avenue maneuvering and general public laziness, agriculture merged with pop culture.
Opposing forces have gradually brought us to an intelligent middle ground. Our great-grandparents were deeply connected to the land but ate buttered mush. Their children discovered cooking (thank you, Julia Child) and lost it in TV dinners; they took to fine dining on Friday nights while spending the rest of the week at drive-in restaurants. The organic movement slapped at bad habits from the self-righteous hippie fringe while conspicuous consumption gave us the $186 Burger King burger. (Google it.)
Today, artisanal is in, from the rustic cheese sold at your local farmer’s market to the rustic folk music played at your local concert venue to the rustic cocktail crafted at your local bar. It’s the conflating of blue collar with white collar—handmade with high-end. What was once the province of the moneyed elite—fine dining, fine drinking, fine art—is today accessible to those who give a damn, regardless of finances.
At its core, artisanal is synonymous with DIY. If you can’t afford to buy farm-raised goat cheese or a $33 Old Fashioned, you learn to make it yourself.
* * * * *
“Inevitably it’s up to us, the new generation of cooks and chefs, to get people to resort back to the way it should be,” Robertshaw says. “We don’t have to do much to get it back where it needs to be, but it certainly needs to be focused on everybody’s mind.”
Trends toward conscientious eating make us smarter about the food we eat, but they’re easily supplanted by the next big thing. Those four virtues—local, organic, seasonal, sustainable—should be a matter of course, not a matter of privilege. Trendiness, and ultimately, economics, have hampered progress into mainstream America.
“I feel like an asshole because my check average is 40 to 50 bucks a person,” Mahoney says. “I don’t want to charge a person 27 bucks for a plate of halibut but I have to. And I start thinking, ‘Why do I have to charge this much for this?’ And it’s because it’s entertainment.”
We need to get used to the true cost of an ethical, satisfying meal at a good restaurant. And get used to the fact that, if we believe in the ideals of sustainability, we’re not eating at that restaurant every night or every week.
“It’s a choice,” Hines says. “People are not forced into eating at your restaurant. They’re voting with their dollars, just like anything else that costs money in this world.”
Says Dillon, “The only reason I’ll accept failure at the restaurant is if one day I open the doors and nobody comes in and on the front page of the newspaper is the headline, ‘People Decide to Cook at Home.’ I’d be like, OK, we’re done. People cook at home now. That’s the way it is.”
Barring that unlikely scenario, restaurateurs must integrate higher ideals regardless of cost. Seattle can lead that charge, sell those ideals wholesale to mainstream America. Or, better yet, give them away for free.
“What is the meaning of producing food?” Mahoney asks. “Is it to feed people or is it to make money? Do we need to make money off of food? Or do we need to feed people? All the romance over food doesn’t change the fact that at the end we still have to poop it out.”
Pictured above: Chef Cormac Mahoney stands in front of his grandfather's butcher block, which hangs on the wall at Madison Park Conservatory. He is holding a ribeye raised by Dr. Stephen Neel at Oregon Natural Meat. Both photos by Kyle Johnson.