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It All Comes from a Fucking Farm

Matt Dillon and Kurt Timmermeister

Matt Dillon is a James Beard Award-winning chef whose restaurants—the London Plane, Bar Sajor, Sitka & Spruce and the Corson Building—celebrate local and foraged foods prepared simply but methodically. Kurt Timmermeister, a friend and mentor to Dillon, sold his beloved Café Septieme in 2004 after 18 years of operation and relocated to a dairy farm on Vashon Island where he produces the most renowned cheeses on the West Coast. He’s also the author of the books Growing a Farmer and Growing a Feast. The two talked over wheels of cave-aged cheese at Dillon’s own Vashon farm.

Matt Dillon Restaurants are funny. Today you can be exposed to restaurants without ever having to eat there. You know, you get to go eat Bar Tartine because you see everything that they’re doing via your phone or your computer—and cooks are influenced that way.

Kurt Timmermeister And you don’t have to actually ever be in San Francisco.

Matt It’s different than the direction I thought things were going, where, like, you’ve traveled, you’ve read, you’ve experienced things. Then you romanticized about that, and then you tried to put it out there in a way that really meant something personal to you.

Kurt When you walk into a restaurant—where ever it is, whatever city, and especially if it just opened—you know it’s going to fail or not fail. That it has no integrity, it has nothing special, and you walk out. You also know when you walk in and you’re like, Aha! This is really good.

Matt I’m really into my own idea of what I want to achieve out of feeding people. I want people to feel comfortable. For me it’s not even about a singular dish. It’s about, am I participating in the world through food? And am I giving a healthy and happy experience to a broad range of people? I’m looking at it more holistically, which is not necessarily the healthiest way to run a business. As you get older your experiences start to change you a little bit, you know?

Kurt I feel like I’m older than almost everyone in Seattle. I saw this in 1974 and ’78 and ’82 and ’86, and so much doesn’t look new anymore. To see kids who are 22, 24, 26 who are like, “You can forage for mushrooms! This is exciting!” It’s like, yeah, that started before you were born, before all of us were born.

Matt I guess that’s what I mean—my experiences are changing me to where I’m just trying to think of everything with my eyes wide open. Whether it’s growing a vegetable or making a plate or feeding the pigs or designing the space, it’s all the same intention. I don’t care if they think it’s the greatest restaurant in the world; I just wanna eat food that I like or cook food that I like and hope that everybody has a great time doing it. And I wanna participate in it on a lot of levels, whether it’s designing a restaurant or building a space or growing the food or cooking the food.

Kurt I still get excited when something opens—I wanna see what they’re doing. I wanna see if someone has something to contribute that’s new and exciting and valid. I do get tired of listening to the chatter. I don’t care anymore. I really don’t want to hear “farm-to-table.”

Matt Isn’t all food farm-to-table?

Kurt That’s been my argument for decades. It all comes from a fucking farm!

Matt People like [Le Gourmand chef/owner] Bruce Naftaly or Jerry Traunfeld [of Poppy and the Herbfarm] have been doing their thing forever, using wild food and having great relationships.

Kurt For decades! I think that’s the unfortunate nature of the media. That’s not a good story. I still think that Pecos Pit is the best restaurant; it’s perfectly consistent. Or the place that can make perfect enchiladas every single day for decades. It looks great, it’s still fresh and it’s still exciting.

Matt Paseo.

Kurt Paseo! I want to see longevity in things. I deliver to restaurants every week. Every week I go to the same 25 restaurants. They start out with this amazing staff for the opening. And then one gets hired away, then one leaves and another gets hired away. And it takes three years, and I’m still delivering the cheese, but it’s like, this place is soulless. Still busy—but what happened?

Matt I’ve been really lucky—my staff’s the shit. I don’t have any turnover. I think I’m really good to my staff and I pay them well and I give them a lot of autonomy. The difference between the dishwasher and the chef is nothing. I want them all to bring themselves to work and have a good time. As much as they want to move up, they can move up.

Kurt And they’re all getting a raise next year. [laughs]

Matt They’re getting a raise next year, and the year after and the year after that, which is fine. I mean, everyone deserves to make more money. I worry about it because I want to make sure that my businesses stay afloat and people keep coming in. But I don’t really have a formula for what we’re doing.

Kurt All I care about is authentic. I don’t really give a shit what’s on the walls. I want some integrity in there. It’s so much of what I look for and I can find it now. It was hard before.

Matt But you and I are entrenched in this world. I mean I’m 40 years old and I’ve been doing it for 27 years. I started when I was 13 in a restaurant on Capitol Hill.

Kurt I started at 17.

Matt Nothing has changed. But nowadays, the communication lines are so cluttered. I just went to this restaurant called Phnom Penh in the International District. A Cambodian restaurant. It fucking blew my mind. I sat there with my girlfriend and I said—

Kurt Your fiancé.

Matt —she brought me there and I was like, You’ve just taken me to the best restaurant that I’ve eaten at. Easily, in all of the four-star restaurants that I’ve eaten at.

Kurt I’d rather go to Ping’s for dumplings than go to Canlis. Because there’s an authenticity to it and it’s casual. I can see the cooks. I can see the food. A little scared about the meat, but that’s a whole other issue.

Matt But they’re doing exactly what they say that they’re doing.

Kurt So I’m opening this ice cream store [in Capitol Hill’s Chophouse Row building, which is still under construction]. There’s a direct connection: There’s my cow, there’s the cream, there’s the ice cream. Now you get a scoop. I control the entire supply chain.

Matt The problem is you might get one couple from Renton eating at your place and they’re gonna be like, “Kurt’s ice cream is so great, let’s go try another one of these young ice cream people!” And they’re going to search “ice cream” on the phone: Oh, Molly Moon’s. Handmade ice cream. Then they’re gonna go there and they’re gonna see it, even though Molly doesn’t have a cow, she doesn’t have an egg, she doesn’t make it, she doesn’t milk it.

Kurt When I’m thoroughly confident and I don’t worry about paying the bank, then I won’t really care. I just want to make some nice shit, and if people like it, that’s great, and if they don’t I’ll go do something else. But if I think, “Oh my god, I need to write a check every month to the bank,” then I wanna get this idea across to people. Do you have those pressures?

Matt Oh yeah. I think about making payroll all the time. I think we as owners see things that nobody else sees. I don’t have a strategy to say, “I buy local product.” Because there are times when that cheese from England is way better than that one from Ohio and it’s one-eighth the price. I don’t want that family cheese maker in England to go away. But because everything is so cluttered out there, even with this $15 an hour conversation—that’s crazy! But I want people to make more money.

Kurt I don’t have any trouble with it as long as the Seattle electorate realizes that they’re going to walk into wherever next year and that cheese [points to his Dinah’s Cheese wheel] is not going to be $15 each any more. It’s going to be $16.50 now. As long as you know you’re paying for that. Your coffee’s more expensive, your cheese, your lunch, your dinner, your cocktail, your beer, your haircut. It all jumped.

Matt If I sat in a meeting with all my managers and was like, we need to increase sales over the next few years because of some cost overrun that was happening, it would take a long time to plan that out. So to implement something super quickly like 15 bucks an hour, well…it’s not easy. You raise your prices and all of a sudden your restaurant is crickets.

Kurt And there’s people who think, “Oh, that restaurant in Pioneer Square is really expensive because he wants to make more money.” I don’t know how to explain it to people. That’s why I like to write books about things.

Matt Once you start doing things for yourself and owning what you’re doing, you see how much other people are having the wool pulled over their eyes. You try to live with some integrity, you try to figure it out and do the right thing. Your new expression is the ice cream place and for me it’s whatever it is I’m going to do next. This is what’s real here—and we can actually prove it because we’re doing things that are closer to the origins of that thing that we’re doing. We’re participating from the ground up. So it’s almost like a grassroots movement for us, trying to show people this is real. We just happen to be doing it through food rather than making a movie or writing an album or making a piece of art or being a political activist.

Kurt If we want to make money, we’re morons. This is the dumbest way to make money. It’s way too much work and not paid well enough. Obviously it’s important to us.

Matt I don’t make 15 bucks an hour. Do you?

Kurt Of course not. No one’s getting rich here. It’s just important to me. I still remember this lamb that I slaughtered at the farm 15 years ago. I barbecued it and I was like, this is the best food I’ve ever had. It’s not in a restaurant; it’s around the fire at the farm. I was like, everyone should have this experience.

Matt I went spot prawning on Saturday off the west side of the island. I did it for the exact same reason that I have the farm, the exact same reason that I have the restaurants: I just want to eat food in this way. I have this idea in my head that the way I want to participate in the world and a lot of it comes through food. Maybe I romanticize that if I lived in some part of France…

Kurt I would say, maybe naively, since it’s been a while, but I think this place is better than France. I remember driving through Germany and France and coming to a village that had 10,000 people and being like, “Oh my god, this is the best bakery I’ve ever seen in my life.” That’s the only thing that we still lack, and I still don’t understand why it is.

Matt Food is not ingrained in our culture. You can’t just open a bakery or a restaurant on Vashon Island in this perfect place. I think people want that in France. It’s not that the restaurants are better or the food is better, it’s that the culture is ingrained in them.

Kurt It’s the whole culture, not just this little sliver.

Matt That’s what makes that experience way better. We’ve been influenced by this thing that makes us want to have it, because we want to show people like, “No, no, no, no, it’s really better.”

Kurt But I’m hopeful. I see friends of mine’s kids who started eating that way when they were two and now they’re 15 and they want to eat at London Plane, they don’t want to eat at Dick’s.

Photo: Matt Dillon, left, and Kurt Timmermeister horse around in the goat pen at Dillon’s Old Chaser Farm on Vashon Island. By Megumi Shauna Arai.

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