jeff maxfield space needle1.jpg
Photo by Leslie Kelly
Jeff Maxfield occasionally jumps in and helps on the line at Sky City.
Sky City, the restaurant at the Space Needle,


Space Needle Chef's Ambitions Are Sky High

jeff maxfield space needle1.jpg
Photo by Leslie Kelly
Jeff Maxfield occasionally jumps in and helps on the line at Sky City.
Sky City, the restaurant at the Space Needle, has long had the rep of being super expensive with sucky food. But when was the last time you ate there? Executive chef Jeff Maxfield has done a masterful job of crafting a menu that focuses on local food and wine. He has pulled together a winning team that is able to execute those dishes. Yes, the place is overrun with tourists, especially this time of year. But so what? You need to get in there and check out this landmark revolving restaurant, pronto.

SW: How did you get interested in cooking?

Maxfield: My grandmother's French and my mother was a home ec teacher, so there was a lot of cooking going on in our house. My grandparents, who are of Scandanavian decent, were always pickling salmon and making noodles. When I was in high school, I enrolled in a culinary program. Part of that was to do an internship. My mother worked at the Seattle Tennis Club at the time and I lied about my age to get hired. I was pretty much doing grunt prep work. As I got used to being in the kitchen, they put me out on the omelet station, which was pretty cool. I just fell in love with it. At the time, none of my friends were interested in cooking professionally.

SW: Some people are just born to be cooks. It sounds like that's your case. Is that true?

Maxfield: Food and meals were a big part of our family. I was always in the kitchen at our house. It was a big open house with a kitchen big enough for three or four people to be in it and a bar with seating, so lots of people could be involved.

SW: Did you go to culinary school?

Maxfield: Right after high school, I went straight to South Seattle Community College, the only ACF (American Culinary Federation) accredited school at the time in the state. I went there two years, at the same time working in various restaurants. I tried my hand throwing pizza dough. I worked for Salty's. I ended up working at Ivar's. Barbara Figueroa was a role model of mine. One day I came home and there was a message on my answering machine from her, offering me a job at the Salmon House. I worked there for four or five months and Greg Atkinson told me he had a line cook position opening up at Canlis. I went and interviewed and got offered the job. It was one of those jobs where you get thrown in and it was make it or break it. I loved it, that controlled chaos. I worked my way through the stations and I was promoted to sous chef at age 20. I really developed my management and time management skills there. And my butchery skills. We butchered out all our meat and fish.

SW: What was the most memorable meal you helped prepare at Canlis?

Maxfield: It was the Millennium dinner on New Year's Eve 1999. It was 10 courses that represented the past century. We had a Pony Express from the 1800s come through the dining room. The sommelier opened a bottle of wine of Champagne with a saber. It was $50,000 a couple, so it was amazing. I had a wisdom tooth coming in at the time, so I was in pain, but it was still so much fun.

SW: How could you top that?

Maxfield: Shortly after that, I moved to Maui. I didn't have a job. I hit the streets, handing out resumes. I got a job at the Mauna Kea Resort in Kihei. I started off as a line cook for $10 an hour for three months. Then I was promoted to chef de cuisine and was working 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. shift. At the end of the night, you're pretty exhausted. I did it for about a year. That's all I could handle. All I could afford.

SW: Did you eat at any great restaurants over there?

Maxfield: No. I was too poor. We'd go diving and get reef fish and take them to work or take them home and grill them. We had a lot of cookouts on the beach.

SW: When did you move back to Seattle?

Maxfield: My dad got sick, so I moved back in 2001. I saw an ad for Chez Shea for sous chef and ended up working there and it was an amazing job. Sandy Shea was awesome. It was a small kitchen where your hands touch everything. I got to walk through the Pike Place Market every morning and pick up what was fresh. You'd buy things in small quantities, so you could really control the quality. I was promoted to chef de cuisine and with Sandy's guidance, had control of the menu. Providence Cicero did the first review I ever had and I was delighted with it.

SW: So when did you start at the Space Needle?

Maxfield: In 2004. I came on as a sous chef here and I made it a mission to come in and get people back on board with the concept of what the Space Needle is. Whether you've been up here or not, the Space Needle is what people think of when they think of Seattle and the Northwest. Then they brought in a new executive chef and we didn't see eye to eye on a lot of things. He had kind of an old school mentality when it came to the staff and it hurt me to see the way he treated them. I left in 2007 and moved to Arizona. I opened three restaurants in the eight months I was down there for a developer in Scottsdale. The general manager of the Space Needle called and asked if I was interested in applying for the executive chef position. I came back in 2008.

In tomorrow's Grillaxin Q&A with Sky City chef Jeff Maxfield, we'll learn about how he moved the menu in a more local direction.

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