As the chef behind The Whale Wins, The Walrus and the Carpenter, and Boat Street Café, Renee Erickson, 42, is one of Seattle’s most outstanding food luminaries. That she has no formal kitchen training and degrees in painting and printmaking from the University of Washington isn’t so surprising: Her restaurants are inviting, intuitive compositions of warm light and elegant angles, a masterful balance of space and sustenance. This month Sasquatch Books publishes Erickson’s first cookbook, A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus. We spoke with her in the kitchen of The Whale Wins while she hand-shredded beef short rib meat for a farmhouse dinner.
This book is as much a collection of recipes as it is a handbook for a from-scratch, labor-intensive lifestyle. How do you find time to live like an artisan and run a bunch of restaurants?
Well, this happened over a long period of time. Most of the relationships we have have grown—it’s not like we decided to open up, like, “OK, I’m gonna make a lot of friends and buy their food. “I’ve been doing this for 17 years now. And the food industry has really changed a lot in the last 10 years. There’re way more farmers and farmers markets and access to the kind of person who’d grow something super special.
Cooking at this time has made that part of our life at the restaurant. We try to buy almost everything from the farmer that we can, from shellfish to meat to produce. It’s the best part of our job, too—I don’t know if any of us would do this if we just stayed in the kitchen. No one in their right mind is gonna become a cook to have a leisurely, peaceful life. It’s chaos and it’s hot and you work terrible hours and you miss all the fun parties, but on the flip side our job is really rewarding and—without gloating—we’re really fun people. We’re pretty lucky.
You describe traditions from your childhood that have been lost, like buying spot prawns in a paper bag off the fishing boat, but you also profile new purveyors and producers, young people preserving old ways of doing things.
I don’t know if you’d be allowed to sell spot prawns off a boat on a beach anymore. I think the whole world has changed a lot. And not everyone cares. But for all of us here, food isn’t just our job, it’s how we live.
There’s so much information here, from quick recipes for salad dressing to instructions for preserving fruit to lavish menus for entire meals. How do you suggest people use the book?
I think about menus a lot, what things go together; the whole picture is always in mind. But people eat what they want, so I would say if they find things that sound good together and it happens to be the way I put it together, great, and if it’s not, the style of the food is cohesive, so it’s not like they’d end up with a terrible meal. I’m not forcing anyone to have it a certain way. I don’t think that my recipes or menus are what everyone would do, only that it’s what’s authentic to me.
You get very specific with some of the food items you mention. It’s not just rosé, it’s Corsican rosé, or Ligurian olive oil or vanilla bean salt. I get the sense that those are recommendations more than requirements.
Yeah, we list other things in there, too. There’s a whole range of cost and style in mind. Like my desert island salt wouldn’t be a fancy salt, it would be a gray sea salt—you can use it in so many different ways and it’s cheap. Rosé from Corsica is extra decadent and special, but there’re also perfectly delicious $9 bottles from Provence that I drink all the time.
And a lot of Rainier beer.
[laughs] Yeah, beer! I just like it. I worked a summer at the Beaux Freres Winery in Oregon and the joke was that to make a lot of wine, you drink a lot of beer. It’s the same thing with food. Like, at the end of a night of working in a hot kitchen you don’t want a glass of red wine, you want a cold beer. It’s a matter of knowing what’ll satisfy you.
A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus is available from Sasquatch Books on Sept. 30
Illustration by Shannon Perry.