Sockeye salmon from Chef Jason Wilson's Miller's Guild (Courtesy Miller's Guild)
Among the culinary community, there is perhaps no greater honor than receiving a James Beard Award. And luckily for Seattle diners, this food-forward city counts an impressive bounty of winners among its very own.
Deemed “the Oscars of the food world” by Time magazine, these palate-pleasing accolades acknowledge excellence in the food and beverage industries, shining a spotlight on the hardworking folks who create magic behind the scenes. First distributed in 1991 by the James Beard Foundation, the awards span many categories, including chefs and restaurants, books, journalism, broadcast media and restaurant design and graphics.
Stars Among Us
Seeking out Beard-winning talents in this town isn’t difficult. Take those omnipresent names synonymous with the Seattle restaurant scene, for example, like Tom Douglas and Matt Dillon. A three-time Beard-winner (most recently for “Outstanding Restaurateur” in 2012), Douglas’ empire spans from his downtown flagship Dahlia Lounge to Lola (Mediterranean), Etta’s (seafood), Serious Pie (seriously delectable pizzas) and far beyond. Dillon—“Best Chef Northwest” 2012—boasts an impressive list of eateries that should top any Pacific Northwest diner’s list like Sitka and Spruce, The Corson Building, London Plane and more.
Then there are marvels in our midst like Molly Wizenberg (of Delancey, Essex and Dino’s Tomato Pie, owned with husband Brandon Pettit) who allows us to sate our appetites away from the table, thanks to her beautiful words that weave together tales as delicious as her kitchen creations. As part of the James Beard Foundation’s Book, Broadcast and Journalism Awards, she won the 2015 “Individual Food Blog" category for her captivating Orangette.
For Maria Hines, owner/chef of Seattle’s groundbreaking certified organic restaurant Tilth, winning a James Beard was something she had actively pursued since the beginning of her career. She explains that finally getting that nod (2009 “Best Chef Northwest” as a third-time nominee)—from people within the profession who truly get what it takes—proved “the highest honor.”
Jason Wilson of (now shuttered) Crush restaurant, the designated 2010 “Best Chef Northwest,” also calls the event “a career-long/lifelong dream come true.”
Wilson said, “It is a pinnacle level of recognition given by our peers, so it means more because of this.”
Renee Erickson—whose wildly popular venues include Bateau, The Whale Wins, The Walrus and the Carpenter and Barnacle—describes how stunned she felt learning the news of her 2016 “Best Chef Northwest” win at this spring’s Chicago ceremony.
“I was with my husband Dan, my chef Marie and her boyfriend Kevin. We had a fantastic time together celebrating,” she reminisced. “It’s such an honor to get recognized for your work. I am proud of what we do in our restaurants with our staff, for our guests. To be given this honor is truly the best thing.”
When asked about the overall scene, Seattle chefs seem to nod in agreement.
Wilson commented, “Seattle has a supportive culinary community rooted in camaraderie and genuine kinship. We share, we give, we all want each other to succeed.”
Hines wholeheartedly concurs, calling the community supportive, non-pretentious and healthily competitive. She adds that there isn’t one chef she wouldn’t feel comfortable calling with a query or concern.
Wilson continued, “This is one of THE MOST dynamic places to cook on earth … I love the ingredients, the producers and the region; it’s a genuine blessing that we have such a supportive audience too!”
Perks of the Trade
Wilson finds mentoring his team to be the most rewarding part of his job. Hines commented, “My staff is the reason I want to come to work every day.” Erickson agreed, “Watching your staff grow and overcome struggles is pretty wonderful to see. Also the friendships and trust you gain over the years in this work is irreplaceable.”
Another industry perk lightheartedly referenced by Erickson? “Discounted pricing on rosé!”
In astounding ways that seem to defy logic, these multitasking talents keep many balls suspended at once, juggling roles at various venues around town. Wilson, who owns wood-fired craft cooking-centric Miller’s Guild is also the executive chef for Coffee Flour.
“We are creating, researching and constantly discovering ways to use the coffee cherry fruit in everyday cooking and foods," he said of Coffee Flour.
In April 2017, he plans to open a Northwest farmhouse restaurant in Bellevue at the W Hotel called the Lakehouse, as well as a destination cocktail bar.
Hines credits a strong leadership team for allowing her to confidently divide her time between Tilth, Ballard’s Young American Ale House and Fremont’s Agrodolce. As a revered pioneer of organic and Pacific Northwest cuisine, Hines admitted that she first stumbled upon the scene a bit “selfishly,” honestly noting that the best flavors came from small, local farms and purveyors. It wasn’t until later—after learning organic foods’ extreme benefits for one’s body and the Earth—that she decided to “fully commit” to this lifestyle and philosophy. Hines highlights a different genre at each of her three restaurants.
“Probably like most chefs, I have ADD," she said. "This keeps things stimulating from a creative standpoint. It’s like I have three different toy boxes I get to play out of … It keeps me engaged.”
Erickson’s schedule fluctuates with the seasons.
“I travel a lot for work, so that really dictates when I am at the restaurants,” she commented. “I try to be at each spot at least once a week. I spend a lot of time meeting with staff and on my computer too. But the fun is being in the restaurants with the staff and guests.”
What’s on tap for this newly minted Beard recipient? After an October trip to Tokyo with girlfriends and a November trip to Baja to cook, Erickson hopes to travel to Hawaii with Taylor from Bateau.
She said, “Learning out of our comfort zones/kitchens is a really incredible way to meet people and see into the kitchens and minds of other chefs.”
The Future's Looking Bright (and Delicious!)
The fact that these award-winning chefs remain so excited to cook here on Seattle soil merely fuels our pride for this place we call home.
Erickson commented, “I love that Seattle is on the tip of the spear in regards to sustainability, not only in farmers but with our employees and guests. We are moving in a direction that is better for everyone involved.” She added, “Restaurants are so much more than just the food, wine, cocktails and guests. It’s about community and making sure we look out for each other. It’s a slow difficult transition, but I am very optimistic that the change is right.”