Recently, native New Yorker Charles Walpole felt the timing was right to stop working for other chefs in town and start working for himself. Over the summer, Walpole left his job at Ethan Stowell's Anchovies & Olives after two-and-a-half years to pursue his dream of becoming a chef/owner at a small little restaurant he could call his own. As luck would have it, a tiny space opened up fulfilling Walpole's wish of a cozy neighborhood spot that would allow him to cook whatever he wanted when he wanted. When the 900-square foot Nettletown shuttered its doors in August, Walpole moved in and opened Blind Pig Bistro. He's joined by just two other people--his sous chef, Josh Nebe, late of Marjorie, and his business partner and front of house manger, Rene Gutierrez, who he met when the two worked at the original Mistral together.
Photo by Julien Perry
In this week's Grillaxin, Walpole talks about what it's been like since the Blind Pig opened less than a week ago, why he feels pressure to succeed, the cuisine he thinks this city is largely lacking, and whether or not owning his own place is as fulfilling as he thought it would be.
SW: Where are you from?
Walpole: I'm from New York. I lived in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan. I came to Seattle in 1997. I moved to Phoenix for two years because I was sick of New York. That's where I met my wife. We both hated it down there so we decided to move to Seattle because we thought it seemed like a cool place and there was a lot of buzz surrounding the food scene here. We weren't really planning on staying out here forever, we figured a year or two, but here were are 15 years later.
My first job was at Fuller's restaurant. That's where I met a lot of people, like William Belickis, Bobby Moore, Tom Black and Monique Barbeau. There were a lot of cool people working there. I worked there for a couple of years and then William became the chef at the Salish Lodge so I followed him up there. I just hated it. It wasn't my scene out there. I came back to town and was the chef at [the now defunct] Avenue One. I was there for about two years and then I went to [the also now defunct] 727 Pine. I was there for about a year-and-a-half and then re-joined William when he opened Mistral--the old Mistral where Spur is now. That's where I met Rene. I was in the kitchen, he was running the dining room. After that, for about a year-and-a-half, I did some catering out at Januik Winery. I helped design their kitchen when they revamped that place. After that, I went to work for Ethan. He was in the planning stages of Anchovies & Olives and asked me to come be the chef when it opened.
How did you meet Ethan?
Just from around. I kind of always knew Ethan. We never really worked together but just from crossing paths. At the time, Rene was managing Tavolata. It was really fun working for Ethan, working at Anchovies. Because Rene and I had talked about opening a restaurant for so long, I wanted to get disciplined with it and force myself to do it, so I just quit my job at Anchovies & Olives. I quit because I didn't really want to be a chef for anyone else anymore until I could do my own thing.
Strong. I was always working under someone and everything I accomplished was like, "Oh, Charles is the chef at Anchovies & Olives," but it was Ethan's restaurant. Same thing at Mistral. It was hard to get out from under that. Even though it was cool and I worked for a company and the pay was good, I think most chefs ultimately want to do something like this. I wanted to force myself to do it. I'm 40-years old now, not getting any younger, so now is the time to do this. Rene and I always wanted to do something small, something we could control. We have 25 seats in here. Rene can serve all of the people and I can cook with Josh. I'm touching all the dishes. I don't have a big staff to police and make sure everyone's doing everything right.
How did this space come about?
We were looking all over--Ballard, Fremont, Capitol Hill. We had a concept, we wanted to do something really small, and this is exactly the size we wanted and that's why we jumped on it. And also there's good history here. Sitka & Spruce did really well, Nettletown did well for the short time it was here. I think it's a really good neighborhood. It's a quirky location in a wonky little strip mall, but everyone knows where it is.
Where did the name Blind Pig come from?
A "blind pig" was an illegal drinking establishment from the 19th century. Unlicensed places could serve booze only if it came with admission to a "show," therefore people would dodge the law by bringing random farm animals in for the "show," as in, "Come on in to see the blind pig!" They were usually small, hidden and kind of shady places which we kind of felt fit our quirky location in the strip mall.
Here we can cook whatever we want. I'm using a lot of spices I haven't used before. Like tonight, we're doing a crispy lamb belly with a mole sauce. I can use flavors like that. I can use whatever ingredients I want. It doesn't have to be all seafood or whatever. I don't need to have eight pastas on the menu. There's a chalkboard that we can put whatever we want on it, every day.
How do you decide what to put on the chalkboard?
It's food we want to eat. We try to keep it creative but at the same time approachable because this is a neighborhood spot and we want it to be a place where people who live in the area can maybe come one or two nights a week. We have tasting portions of a lot of our dishes so you can try things and create your own tasting menu. Like, you can get a small portion of the sturgeon for $8.
How does it feel to have your own place?
It's as difficult as everyone tells you it's going to be. It's super stressful and hard, but at the same time, it feels more rewarding than anything else I've ever done. I feel motivated. It feels good. It's worthwhile.
Do you feel more pressure to succeed because of your resume?
Absolutely. I feel a lot of pressure because Rene and I, we know a lot of people in the business from our years working in Seattle and we've always talked about [opening a restaurant], so now everyone wants to see what we're doing. So, yeah, we feel the pressure with meeting other people's expectations.
Right now you're serving dinner 5 nights a week. Any plans for lunch service?
We're looking in the new year to do lunch. There's a big demand for lunch in the neighborhood so right now we're kind of figuring out what we can do with the lunch menu. The whole time we were here renovating the place, everyone kept coming in asking if we were open for lunch. Both Sitka & Spruce and Nettletown did lunch so we sort of have to do lunch. And there's a lot of stuff down here, like Fred Hutch and all those medical places around Lake Union. It seems like all those people want some place to come eat that's not Subway or Teriyaki.
I think this city needs good Chinese food. Really good regional Chinese food. I'm from New York. I miss it. And Indian food, too. On the positive side, I think we have a lot of unique restaurants and interesting concepts. I think maybe it's easier [in Seattle] for people to open a restaurant than in other cities just because it doesn't cost as much. I also think there's less bureaucracy. It's more conducive to little chef-owned places which means more diverse restaurants for the consumer. I think you have to be careful of the clientele here, though. I think it takes a little while for people to understand what you're doing. I think we have to educate the clientele a little bit more than some other cities on things like menu formats, prix fixes and stuff like that. People aren't as used to that here.
I think there's too much happy hour. It's a necessary evil. Everyone does it. All anyone reads in the Seattle Times food section is happy hour now. Everyone's looking for a deal. People are always asking us to cut our prices. We're expected to buy the best ingredients, but not very many people want to pay for them. Our prices of operating are always going up. How do you create that balance of being competitive in your pricing while serving high quality products? It's kind of hard to do out here. People don't place as much value on the food. I think it's the economy, too. It's changed a lot. When I moved here, I guess I caught the end of the glory days when people had expense accounts. The days of $30 entrees are long gone.
What kind of food do you want to eat when you're not working?
I try to eat a lot of different things that I don't cook with during the week, like more ethnic foods--Thai, Vietnamese, Korean. Before we opened this place, I went to Revel a lot. That's my favorite new place.
How has the culinary landscape changed in Seattle over the past 15 years?
It's gotten a lot better. There's a lot more restaurants, a lot more talented people out here. When I moved here, there was just a couple of places. I remember I handed my resume to Fuller's, Dahlia Lounge, The Herbfarm and Rover's. There were only a handful of notable restaurants. But now there's more talented people out here creating more interesting restaurants.
What have you learned from each restaurant you've worked at?
Avenue One was my first chef job. I was in my late 20s and I had no idea what I was doing in that place. I was kind of going bonkers and making all these wild dishes and not thinking about food costs and those type of things that come with maturity. Mistral was kind of controlled chaos. The way William ran the place was controlled chaos. Everyone got a different menu, everyone got different dishes and different wines. Everyone had creative freedom in the kitchen, too. We could cook whatever we wanted. That really gave me an opportunity to kind of blossom as a cook and find my way and flavors and technique. And because we were encouraged to go into the dining room and serve, we got a good experience and appreciation for service and how to interact with guests. Working for Ethan taught me a little bit more about organizational structure. He basically taught me about the whole business aspect of running a restaurant.
If someone offered to take you to any restaurant right now, where would you want to go?
Canlis under Jason Franey, definitely! I still haven't experienced that.
What's your motivation to keep this restaurant running?
Rene and I don't have any illusions that we're going to be millionaires and famous. It's not our goal. Hopefully we can make a good living and still have fun doing it. That's my motivation for opening a restaurant.