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Picture, if you will, the year is 1990. A young Chef Kelly McCown, fresh out of the California Culinary Academy, arrives in Seattle just as the grunge music scene is exploding. He has worked in some of San Francisco’s most famous kitchens, Fleur de Lys, La Folie, the high-end places young cooks aspire to cook at in a world famous restaurant city. He has come to Seattle by way of the tiny Oregon coastal town of Manzanita, where he has helped a Chef mentor open a restaurant, just to check it out briefly, and then he plans to return to San Francisco. The Seattle he finds is, aside from the music, a pretty quiet city. It has yet to become synonymous with Microsoft, and although as a major port city it sees its fair share of fresh seafood, it’s still basically a “meat and potatoes” town with a lot of run-down neighborhoods and no restaurant scene to speak of. It certainly is not a destination for a young, hungry chef ready to make his mark. Of course, salmon is everywhere, and still is, McCown says in a resigned and amused way that tells us he’s seen his fair share of salmon over his career, and is probably over it.

What no one, including McCown, knows, is that, like its music scene and soon-to-be tech scene with the rise of Microsoft, Seattle’s restaurant and food scene is like a powder keg of young creativity, about to be lit. As McCown explains it he just happened to be in the right place at the right time and was fortunate to be able to fully experience a truly unique moment in time, especially for a chef just starting out.

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Seattle’s Public Market as it is today

One of the first local chefs to stick his neck out by opening an ambitious and creative new restaurant in Seattle was also one of McCown’s biggest influences and early mentors. Chef Scott Carsberg opened Lampreia in 1991 in the run-down, downtown waterfront neighborhood of Belltown. At the time, McCown was a Pastry Chef at the Alexis Hotel, but he went to work for Carsberg at Lampreia, where the pioneering chef and restaurateur was cooking the food he had learned to love in the Northern Italian city of Torol, where the cuisine, like all Italian cooking, employed hyper-local and fresh ingredients to shape and inspire its food’s taste and character. Chef Carsberg learned to use a light touch, a restraint that lets the ingredients shine, but that also is so simple that it exposes any flaw in the cooking technique. There is, as McCown says, “nowhere to hide,” when you cook like Carsberg taught him to – with restraint, with moderation, and with deference to the product.

Chef Kelly McCown circa 1992 at Chef Scott Carsberg's Lampreia
Chef Kelly McCown circa 1992 at Chef Scott Carsberg’s Lampreia

Aside from techniques and approach to cooking, Carsberg also infused into McCown’s sensibilities as a young chef a bit of the grit, integrity and singular vision that can make McCown an iconoclast in this age of chefs who want to please everyone all the time. Carsberg did things his way. He did not necessarily think the customer was always right and was known to sometimes pay for a guest’s dinner and politely ask them to leave and not come back. He was cooking Michelin-quality food and serving prix-fixe menu in a small 40-seat dining room in a dilapidated Seattle neighborhood, when this was a new thing for the city, and not at all a sure bet. But luckily the city, its influx of young talent and ambition, and its dining patrons would catch up quickly, and Carsberg continued to cook and influence the scene at his iconic Lampreia. As a “chef’s chef,” in McCown’s words, he did not receive the most media attention in the long run, but he is widely respected by chefs who have worked alongside him, his recipes have been included in the seminal “Modernist” book series, and he has received a James Beard Award, among other accolades.

McCown recounts humorously that it was Carsberg’s influence that convinced him to never serve risotto on one of his restaurant menus. Risotto, he asserts, cannot be done right in a restaurant because it is so labor intensive that it should take one person dedicated to tending to it for about 20 hours, and you can only serve it during a very finite window, making it a fete virtually impossible to achieve in a restaurant setting. Now, McCown will make the recipe Carsberg taught him at home for guests, but you’ll never see it on one of his menus. Risotto is too special a dish to be served “wrong.”

Of course, moving through the 1990’s, the Seattle food scene just continued to gain creative steam, with more groundbreaking restaurants opening all the time and with national recognition growing for its chefs. McCown himself received many accolades during his career at this time, including being named a Bon Appetit “Rising Star Chef” while working at the acclaimed James Beard Foundation’s’ Flying Fish restaurant. The Seattle cuisine of the time was influenced by the “fusion” movement that was popular nationwide, but McCown notes that this was more of a natural and organic occurrence in Seattle because of the fact that it is a coastal port city that is heavily influenced by the cooking and immigrants from the Pacific Rim, Southeast Asia and China.

So, naturally, you saw a lot of influence from those cultures and their cooking, plus seafood, seafood, seafood, and the ubiquitous salmon. Geoduck and oysters were quite prevalent on local menus as well, as they proliferate everywhere in the region. Chefs were working with other local ingredients – caught, grown and foraged – and they were making their mark. It didn’t hurt that the “Microsoft effect” created an influx of more relatively young and affluent people who had the time and money to go out to dine and experience food.

Oysters were - and still are - everywhere in Seattle
Oysters were – and still are – everywhere in Seattle

McCown notes that it seems to him that the Seattle food boom of the 90’s was heavily influence by female chefs, perhaps more so than usual. He points to his wife at the time, who influenced him and pushed him forward in his career while a Pastry Chef at the highly regarded Campagna. She went on to Earth and Ocean at the W Hotel and now works in R&D for Starbucks, naturally. He also calls out Chefs Chris Keff of Flying Fish, Tamara Murphy of Campagna, and Emily Moore at the Alexis Hotel, just to name a few. McCown knew Seattle had really made it mark when not only was the local and homegrown talent shaping the food culture and moving the needle on the national radar, but when Seattle was also able to start attracting outside proven talent to move there and join the renaissance. Then he knew the city had really come into its own.

Seattle's ubiquitous salmon
Seattle’s ubiquitous salmon

No “Seattle in the 90’s” story would be complete without a grunge music anecdote, and this one is no exception. Wouldn’t you know it that aside from all the cooking McCown was doing at the time, he also found a creative outlet in playing in a band on the side that actually shared billing early on with groundbreaking bands like Soundgarden and Screaming Trees at local venues. McCown was the lead singer and his band was named – wait for it – HogFat! He also recalls cooking at dinner parties with such now-famous musicians as Chris Cornell, the lead singer for Soundgarden, who is also a well-know “foodie.”

In all, McCown says, it was truly a perfect storm of place and time to be at the epicenter of the birth of a food scene that began, grew, and came into its own, while he was there. To be around so much talent and passion at that early point in his career was both a stroke of luck and an experience that shaped who he became as a chef, with the food, the music and the tech worlds all coming together to create a singular unforgettable experience for a young chef.

Coming next: A Tale of Three Cities Part 2: Napa Valley. Chef Kelly McCown’s story continues in the Napa Valley, by way of Costa Rica…