He's one of those guys you may not have heard of, but you've likely tasted his food. For three years, Larkin Young was the chef de cuisine at Tilth before sliding over into a sous chef position when Maria Hines opened Golden Beetle in February. The intention was to help Hines launch the new place while Young tried to jump-start his own restaurant dreams. What happened instead was a job offer he couldn't resist: to join the team at Michael Mina's acclaimed RN74.
Photo by Julien Perry
As Young reveals in this week's Grillaxin, his dreams of opening his own restaurant are not gone, they're just simmering on the back burner, along with any of his day-to-day troubles when he's forced to put his head down and work his ass off in the brigade-style kitchen boot camp he signed up for. The dark horse in Seattle's culinary scene is slowly coming out of the shadows and making a name for himself as he proves his worth in Seattle's hottest new restaurant.
SW: Did you know Michael Mina before you took this job?
Young: No. I only knew of his restaurants. I didn't meet him until we started training. He's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. He came around and introduced himself to everybody, shook everybody's hand, and at the same time was one of the most intense chefs I've ever worked for. Once he put on his coat, it was business and there were no friends in the kitchen at all. If it wasn't being done his way, he'd definitely let you know what the problem was.
Was working with him in the kitchen part of your training?
During the opening weeks he was here pretty much every day overseeing. He's super-intense, very vocal about what he wanted, which is great. Afterward, he'd come up and chat with you about service and shake your hand and say "thanks" and left it at that. The next day was a new day. He invited me out to his houseboat a few times. It was actually really cool to meet someone who was a chef/owner and so successful in his own right. This is his 19th restaurant, and they're all doing really well. It's nice to see what's able to happen when you push yourself and become a successful entrepreneur.
He's a local boy, right? [He's from Ellensburg.]
One of his first cooking jobs was at the Space Needle. I think he was working there as he was going to culinary school or right after he graduated from culinary school. He has some interesting stories about the large volumes of people that came through there. It's cool because when he was back in town, he took his kids up to the Space Needle and was talking about how much it hasn't really changed and how crazy it was to work there.
I was there for about three months. The premise behind working for her at that restaurant was that I was planning on my idea of a restaurant, and so I wanted to get some experience opening restaurants and try to get an idea of what to expect. While I was there, I had investor problems -- well, not problems, but investor shortcomings. During that time, I applied for the sous chef position here, and when things didn't work out with my restaurant, the doors opened up at RN74 and it just seemed like the right fit. I think this is probably one of the better moves I've made in my career.
What was the lure of RN74?
Just working for a well-defined company; working for someone who has a lot of experience with restaurants being an owner/chef. That was appealing. Working for people who understand the back of the house, what it takes to get the work done, bring in quality products and hire the right kind of people. Plus, I didn't have to move. I love Seattle, I'll probably be here for a long, long time and this was something new.
Maria vs. Michael. How do the two worlds compare?
Working for Maria, it was very organic, no pun intended. Her concept of food was clean and simple and you highlighted whatever [product] you had coming in the door. A lot of the stuff I did [for Maria] was thought out, but it wasn't quite planned out; it was a little more from the hip. Here, there's a certain role that I need to fulfill every day. I come in and I open the restaurant, I brief the prep crew on what they need to do, I fabricate proteins, get sauces going -- everything's done for a reason and there's a lot of structure in the kitchen as far as who's doing what. It's a little more work to do those kind of things, but once you're doing them, it becomes a lot easier.
Has it been an easy role to adapt to?
No, not at all. It's probably the toughest job I've ever had. The expectations are very high, the standards are very high. Those are the kinds of things that bring me back to the kitchen -- endless learning and taking that knowledge and teaching other people. It's awesome when it all starts to fall into place. It's been a little more than a month since we opened, and it's finally starting to do that in the kitchen right now. We're all finding our stride and figuring things out. It's great fun. It's a lot of work, but it's a lot more fun than work.
Is there anything specific on the menu, or a certain cooking technique, that you just love?
Photo by Renee McMahon Larkin was featured in Seattle Weekly's Kitchen, Ink: Chef Tats of Seattle.
There's so many new techniques that I've been exposed to here, I can't really say one certain thing. It's really hard to pick a favorite menu item. There's little bits and pieces of almost every dish that I'm amazed with. The simplicity of the duck is a beautiful thing and I just love cooking duck. The hangar steak is probably one of the most amazing tasting steaks; it's a Snake River Farm product. The halibut is just a beautiful and feminine dish that I could probably eat every day. All the salads are great and well-balanced.
Any misconceptions about RN74 you'd like to clear up?
Any wine bar sends up a flag of, like, "Oh, I"m going to have to know something about wine when I go in. I'll need to mind my Ps and Qs and know about food and wine pairings to sit down and enjoy my meal." I would say it's the opposite here. We have a really knowledgeable staff. If you don't' know what you want to drink, they can pour you a two-ounce pour of whatever you want to try. Come in for happy hour. There's a great little lineup on our happy hour, and right now we're trying to keep it fun and evolving as the season goes on. So, yeah, it sounds a little intimidating, but ultimately this is a restaurant that just happens to have good wine.
Did you know any of your fellow crew members prior to working here?
I knew several and I brought several on, but there were still a bunch of people I hadn't worked with or hadn't known prior to this job. It just reminds me of how big the cooking community is in Seattle. Even though everybody calls me The Mayor back in the kitchen, because I seem to know everybody, I still don't know a lot of people in town. That's the good thing about chefs -- we're all kind of the same blood but we all dive into our own little pockets of the city.
Have you dined at RN74 as a customer?
I was actually the first one on staff to eat here. It was my very first day off and I sat down and I was all excited to try all these things that I had been cooking. I sat down and they just started sending out all these different courses of stuff that wasn't even on the menu! So, it was pretty cool. It was a great experience.
If someone offered you your own restaurant tomorrow, would you take it?
I have French-Irish-Scandinavian roots, and what I would really like to do is open a Scandinavian-influenced restaurant in Ballard. It's not like I'll have lutefisk on the menu or anything like that, but it'll be Northwest ingredients with a flair of Scandinavia. The chef I admire right now the most is René Redzepii from Noma. Just in his philosophy and how he runs his restaurant and how he gathers his food. He gets so much stuff off of his island. He's taken these little ingredients that he finds and marries them in such a way that they blend beautifully and perfectly with his dishes. It's so amazing reading about him and I follow his blog. He just blows me away. He takes things most people wouldn't even consider eating and presents it in a way that's so inspiring. I really admire that and that's kind of the style I'd like to emulate. I definitely couldn't do what he does nor would I want to, but I think the way he does things is right up my alley.
As a chef, what is the question you get asked the most?
"What do you eat when you're not working?" On my last four days off, I've gone to El Camion and I've had the besa burrito. It's burrito with head meat. I think they use pork cheeks. It's such an unctuous burrito and probably the best burrito I've ever had in my life. I could go there every Sunday, for sure.
Any chef myths you want to debunk?
Someone's a good chef if they cook good food. No. A good chef also needs to manage, a good chef needs to be able to balance numbers, a good chef needs to do all of these things that a lot of people don't really understand. We're business people, we're friends, we're managers, we're everything all-in-one. We're really, I think, a pretty hardcore group of people who really understand a lot about people as well.
How do you not get completely burned out on the job?
I don't know. I'm part robot, I think. Fueled by PBR. You do it because you're passionate and you love what you do. You make it happen.