Listen to Renee Erickson — chef-owner of four of Seattle’s most extraordinary restaurants and the author of a new cookbook — and you’ll hear her use one word more than any other: care.
“I want my customers to feel welcomed, to feel cared for,” Erickson says. “I want them to feel like they’re walking into a warm, inviting space, like a home.”
Erickson’s restaurants indeed seem to feel like home for so many in Seattle, but they’ve also earned a national reputation. The Walrus and the Carpenter, an oyster bar with a Parisian vibe, was named one of the best new restaurants in America by Bon Appetit in 2011. In 2013, the magazine called it one of the 20 most important restaurants in the United States. With all that attention, the restaurant consistently has a two-hour wait for a table — on weeknights, no less. At The Whale Wins, people return for lunch or dinner on a weekly (or daily) basis to sit in the spacious white room and wait for dishes like Hama Hama clams with dill, Serrano ham, fennel, brown butter and cream, roasted in the wood-fired oven. Barnacle, a tiny bar with fresh seafood dishes, charcuterie, cheeses and wine, changes its menu daily based on what is in season that moment. (Plan to be there on the day they serve octopus terrine with Ligurian olive oil and lemon.)
Even Boat Street Cafe, Erickson’s oldest restaurant, is filled with fervent followers, especially now that Jay Guerrero, formerly the sous-chef at New York’s Prune, is running the kitchen.
Erickson’s food — dishes with a decidedly French countryside bent, made with ingredients firmly rooted in the Pacific Northwest — is consciously simple. Lentil salad with nettles, mustard seed oil, currants and tarragon. Herring butter toasts with pickled fennel, lemon peel and parsley. Grilled whole favas over ricotta with honey, lime and Aleppo pepper. A tangle of roasted carrots and fennel, slathered with rose-petal harissa, atop a plate of thick house-made yogurt. Her food is warm, earthy and thoughtful.
“It’s the ingredients that are spectacular,” says Erickson. “What goes on our menus is what I was attracted to at the farmers’ markets. I don’t want to intellectualize food.”
One reason Erickson’s restaurants are so beloved must be the owner’s attitude toward her staff. Perhaps because they are treated so well, employees at Erickson’s restaurants seem to be just as warm and friendly as the food they produce.
“I’m . . . not a classically trained chef — actually, I’m not trained at all — so there aren’t a lot of rules about cooking in my kitchens,” she writes in the opening of her cookbook. “It’s more important to me that people are happy and comfortable than that they can crack an egg with one hand or slice a case of shallots in a minute flat. If I don’t want to do something, I don’t want to make someone else do it. I want my staff to have healthy lives and dynamic, interesting jobs that don’t entail someone hovering over them.”
As Jess Thomson, a Seattle food writer who co-authored the cookbook, said, “Renee isn’t like most chefs. In working with her on this book, it became immediately clear to me that she really does use a lot of care with the people around her. She treats them like family.”
Perhaps the reason Erickson, 42, is such an unusual chef is that she never expected to enter the restaurant business. In her early 20s, on the path to pursuing a graduate fine arts degree, Erickson started working in the kitchen at Boat Street Cafe, first as a waiter and then in the kitchen. Over time, to her surprise, she fell in love with restaurant life. “I had never worked in a place that was so hands-on,” she said. “It wasn’t a corporate structure. The camaraderie and the team effort on the line — we were all being creative. There’s nothing like it.”
Hooked on the life of a chef, Erickson still had no intention of owning a restaurant. So she was surprised in the late 1990s when the original owner of Boat Street, ready to leave the restaurant, asked her to take over the business. She thought Erickson would be ready for the challenge. “ ‘Do it,’ everyone said. ‘Jump in and we’ll see what we can do.’ ” And so, at only 24 years old, Erickson became a restaurant owner. Her father and brother built a patio and helped make repairs. Her best friend waited tables. Her mother made the desserts.
One weekend, shortly after buying the restaurant, Erickson closed down the cafe to remodel. She and her family and friends gutted and cleaned it, starting Saturday morning and finishing Monday night. They were open again for dinner Tuesday evening. A local restaurant reviewer called shortly after, confused. She had eaten at Boat Street on Friday, but when she returned for one more meal before writing her review, the place looked entirely different. Erickson explained, in a panic, that she had just bought the restaurant and was making significant changes. Could the reviewer please hold her review? The reviewer agreed and came back eight months later.
“It was really gracious of her,” says Erickson. “I was so lucky. No one can do that now. This was before cellphones, before Yelp, before the instant reviews. Opening my first restaurant now would be terrifying for the amount of attention I’d get.”
As Erickson wrote in the acknowledgments of her new book, “A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus,” “there is an ocean of gratitude upon which every restaurant floats.” That gratitude seems to infuse the dishes in her restaurants.
Her nurturing attitude also shaped the recipes in her cookbook. “She is open to the possibility of changing a recipe for home cooks,” Thomson says. “She knows that not everyone has a wood-fired oven at home, so the recipe in the cookbook will have to change. She wanted these recipes to have the sophistication of the restaurants but work for everyone at home.”
Unlike some restaurant cookbooks, which seem primarily concerned with documenting a professional approach and burnishing a chef’s reputation, “A Boat, a Whale & a Walrus” is organized for the home cook. Based on meals for particular occasions — “Sundays at Home,” “New Year’s Eve Party,” “Wild Foods Dinner,” “Fourth of July Crab Feast” — the recipes are arranged the way people truly cook. Instead of a chapter full of appetizers, followed by 12 salads and then all the meat dishes in the book, this cookbook contains menus for celebrations, the occasions when a day full of lingering in the kitchen with friends seems like joy. The meals sometimes call for specialty ingredients, especially if you live outside of the Pacific Northwest. But mostly, this is a book of mussels, preserved lemons, anchovies with chili butter, marinated olives and strawberry shortcake to be served on the few weeks of the year that wild strawberries are sweet. Filled with casual, breezy photographs of pickled chanterelles and long tables filled with the remnants of happy gatherings, it’s a cookbook for the kitchen, not the coffee table. (It’s also strikingly modest: Erickson includes beautiful portraits of many of her staff but only a few images of herself.)
After 12 years of standing in front of the stove, Erickson rarely cooks on the line in her restaurants anymore. “I have employees I trust,” she says. She oversees all the restaurants, though, and she’ll step in at Boat Street if an employee gets sick. She brings on new cooks at the recommendation of people with whom she already works. Every new hire cooks on the line for a week, often with Erickson there, to make sure it’s a good fit for everyone. “There has to be a connection,” Erickson says.
When there is, the connection extends beyond Erickson and her team and to the customers eating the wood-fired roast chicken with sorrel pesto or Totten Virginica oysters with champagne mignonette laid before them. “I feel really fortunate to be doing what I am doing,” Erickson says.
In the food, in the happiness of her staff and in the beauty of the cookbook she created, it shows.
Ahern is the author of three cookbooks, including the James Beard Award-winning “Gluten-Free Girl Everyday” and the popular blog Gluten-Free Girl. She lives near Seattle.