If you spend enough time at Pike Place Market, Benjamin Artaiz would be a familiar face. Two years ago, fresh out of culinary school, Artaiz went between a server job at Steelhead Diner at night to a cook by day at Matt's in the Market. Now a full time line cook at Matt's, Artaiz is spearheading the sausage program at the restaurant. But just as soon as we're getting to know him we may soon bid farewell, as Artaiz, already on a month to month lease for his place, is looking to Spain for his culinary inspiration and his next step.
SW: Since this is your first cook job out of culinary school, what have you been able to learn at Matt's?
Artaiz: I've really learned a lot, everything from the basics to how to work a busy saute station on a busy Friday or Saturday night. The biggest thing is fish cookery, cooking seafood correctly, which a lot of people struggle with. It really takes a level of finesse to get it right. People tend to cook the shit out of it and by the time you eat it, it's either dry or it's completely falling apart.
The kimchee is one of my favorite things that I've learned because I really like fermented products. It's like, where are you going to learn to make kimchee unless you have a Korean grandmother who makes it? That's not something that, growing up as a white boy in middle class America would have. My parents didn't make kimchee. If it was in front of them, they wouldn't eat it. I love it. I'm crazy about this stuff. We serve a kimchee ice with our oysters. We have our kimchee, which we stuff in a Pacojet; we fill it with the juice, freeze it and spin it.What do you enjoy about working in the market?
You have all this great product. If you need something, you just walk down and get it. If you need it, it's down there. It's spoiled us somewhat because you don't really have to think about orders that much. It's all down there. It has definitely spoiled us but at the same time, we can also go down there and say, "Hey what do you have in today that's exciting?" We can easily say, "You know what goes really great with this? Black trumpet mushrooms" and we can easily go downstairs and just get black trumpet mushrooms.
Are many of your specials made up through the process of perusing the market?
Yeah. A lot of it is made up that day, and not even that day but two hours before service. We're really spoiled in that way that we don't have to plan these things a day or two in advance.
If you had a day to spend in the market, where would you go and what would you eat?
I used to work at Steelhead and I have nothing but good things to say about those guys. Their food is really good. The gumbo is my favorite. [Executive Chef] Kevin [Davis] is from New Orleans. He makes a mean gumbo. I really like Le Pichet; just go in and get cured meats and a baguette, something simple. A lot of times that's what I'm craving, just a bite here and there to hold you over until the next bite.
There is a video of you butchering a pig to apply for a stage at the Restaurante Martin Berasategui in Spain. What came of that?
I didn't get it. I'm still here. It happens every six months though. So I am reapplying. I contacted them and asked them, how do I make myself a better candidate this time around, and they said, "Really enjoyed your video, liked your resume, but there is a significant social media aspect. You don't have a blog or a twitter, but if you start one and update it regularly, you'll be looking at being a pretty good candidate for the next round." So the next day, I started a blog and a twitter.
Why the urge to move to Europe?
My dad's family is from Madrid. He was actually born in the States. His parents came to the States, he was born and I think six months later, they left. He was kind of born into dual citizenship, grew up in Madrid and came here when he was 18 or 19. I'm the only grandchild who grew up in the U.S. to go back and visit. I went for the first time in November 2010 and fell in love with it. It was when I was in culinary school. It was an eye opening experience. I just felt this immediate connection. .It was like, "I'm going to graduate and work for a while but after that, I'm going to Spain."
With such a prominent Spanish influence in your background, what culinary memories did you have growing up?
We had a family meal seven nights a week, a sit down dinner. It was kind of whatever my mom was making. She would kind of experiment, a little of this, a little of that. Overall, it was just healthy, nutritious meals. With five kids, it was a lot of work. There were a lot of crock pot meals, which I love a lot. Soups and stews, I'm crazy about them. My grandparents are from the East coast. Every time they'd come and visit, they'd bring all kinds of Spanish spices and make these elaborate...in hindsight they weren't really that elaborate but at the time, it was always really unique foods to me.
What dish grabbed you the most?
Tortilla Espagnola; the single dish that has shaped and continued to shaped my direction in food. It's eggs, potatoes, onions, and olive oil. It's so simple, everybody eat it, but it's also so good. That's kind of what I'm constantly looking for. That dish where you take a bite of and it's comforting, it's simple and you can say, "This is so good that I can eat it every day." Don't get me wrong, I like fancy meals. I like the exotic stuff too, but at the end of the day, I want a bowl of soup, a bowl of beans, just something simple. You can look at comfort food from around the world and those are really my favorite foods at the end of the day. Soup, I'm crazy about soup. Pho is my favorite. I have it multiple times a week.