Innovation Award Winner: Joule

While so many cooks these days want to be rock stars, we all know that rock stars aren't necessarily the most skillful with their instruments. At Joule, the Wallingford two-chef bistro, chefs Seif Chirchi and Rachel Yang are more like seasoned musicians who can traipse through a complex jazz standard as easily as they can pluck out a bluegrass ballad or a hot, sticky riff. The husband-and-wife duo produce palate-bending dishes from a smartly succinct menu: oxtail and soy-cured egg yolk, seaweed butter, pork belly–studded mung-bean pancakes. All combine Eastern and Western ingredients as expertly as if the food had grown up together. To use "fusion" as a descriptor for their food belittles what the couple create. Their dishes leave you agog and maybe a wee bit jealous. Joule's strength lies in its refusal to be defined, and that's why Seattle Weekly has chosen to give Yang and Chirchi the Innovation Award this year. Classically trained chefs who both worked for Alain Ducasse in New York, Chirchi and Yang could have designed Joule, which they opened in November 2007, as a white-tablecloth destination restaurant. Instead the menu is loosely organized by size of dish and preparation, allowing guests to order courses or share plates and flavors. The couple stretch their skills and their guests' palates—but on their own terms. They've dressed down without dumbing down. "We can never please everyone," Rachel says. "It has to be good food, but more importantly, our food. It should be fun, more direct, more playful, with more flavor. This is what we're always striving for." Nothing illustrates their playfulness more than the family-style barbecues the chefs held every Sunday night last summer. Each dinner featured a different theme, from Carolina to Korean. In a very family-centric neighborhood, Joule created a bustling business on what would normally be a slow night, in the process lightening up and unfastening the confines of a daily menu. The pair seem to be up for anything to keep it fresh, not just for the customers but for themselves. "We don't really worry about labor, because it's just Seif and I," explains Rachel. "If we want to work on an extra project, we just come in for a few more hours. We're going to start making our own tofu." The view from a table at Joule can't compare to watching the two chefs from a counter seat. They wind around each other, conveying needs and issuing commands by nodding, pointing, and speaking in a hushed shorthand. I love this sort of dance, punctuated by the sight of ingredients coming together in a way you can't immediately recognize. Yang and Chirchi also do it all. On busy weeknights, the chefs often pull double duty, one taking over grill duties while the other takes a turn through the dining room, filling water and checking in with guests. Ever since it opened, Joule's unabashed creativity has been both its greatest strength and its biggest challenge. Managing the expectations of guests who want a more traditional menu can be difficult, but all in all the couple is reassured. "The neighborhood's been amazing, really supportive. People are willing to try all different things," says Yang. In time, more and more of Joule's clientele have come to expect the unexpected. On a recent night, a red-bean panna cotta sounded like some misguided Iron Chef dish. Paired with a toasted pine-nut garnish, the flavors of the cream and red beans harmonized in the most curious way. I tried to leave at least twice, each time stopped by one more bite of the subtle, pale-pink dessert, catching wafts of Seif's whistling while he did the dishes.

 
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