This week we're hanging out with the crazy talented, sweetly self-effacing Jamie Guerin. Jamie is the chef and co-owner of Whitehouse-Crawford restaurant, one of the finest dining spots in Washington wine country. Visitors to Walla Walla can't help but notice Whitehouse-Crawford - also home to Seven Hills Winery - as they exit the highway and head into town. The gorgeous historic landmark, built of brick and broad wooden beams, was rescued from demolition (to make way for a parking lot) and restored to its current state of glamour. Most people would likely agree, Whitehouse-Crawford and its talented crew have done more for the city than any parking lot would have.
This man makes a mean everything
Have you ever Googled yourself?
Not in a while. There's probably just a bunch of bad Yelp reviews about my restaurant on there - because those are the kind of things people write on Yelp.
Actually one of the top results when you are Googled is a mug shot. Did you know about that?
No! I'm guessing it's not me? But I should make that my Facebook profile picture.
One time I was sitting at your bar and someone, very intentionally, touched my back. When I turned around, there was no one there. Does Whitehouse-Crawford have ghosts?
Not that I know of. I mean, I've never encountered one. Though there are some servers and bartenders who have heard things, or gotten kinda weird feelings, late at night. I hope your ghost was a nice one. [Note: it was.]
You went to school for economics, right? How did you end up a chef?
Actually, I went to school for beer. I picked a major just so I could transfer out of the crappy school I was in to the University of Virginia. Once I was there I started having lots more fun than I was before. I was in the stoner fraternity and had more girlfriends in one year than the rest of my life combined. You know most people - they start off really bad in college and then figure out they have to get their act together and do better? I did the exact opposite. I never even looked at my last semester's grades, I am sure they were terrible, but I got my degree.
Then I graduated and travelled a little bit and thought I should figure out what to do next. I was travelling in Mexico and got really sick so I went back home and laid low for a week trying to get over this thing so, I watched a lot of cooking shows. Back then it was PBS, there was no Food Network, and I thought the shows were really cool but I think much else about it. Later, I went back to my college town and got a job at a bar - it was kind of like a daytime bartender, I just opened Budweiser for old men at this bar - and I started doing a little there, like making sandwiches. Then met this guy who was working at this French restaurant in Charlottesville, Virginia, and he said they had an opening for a "ladder runner". This restaurant was really old and had gotten in under grandfather clauses so it didn't have to comply with a lot of modern kitchen rules. It had, right next to the stove, this ladder that went almost straight up to where the formal dining room was. And the ladder runner - who was pretty much the dishwasher - was responsible for taking the dishes and carrying them up the ladder to the server. There was no dishwashing machine, so I washed everything by hand and climbed that ladder over and over.
How does one climb a ladder with a tray full of plates?
You hold on tight and hope you don't drop anything. And, one-handed.
A bunch of my friends did it as well so we still have a Facebook page for "Ladder Runners of the World" - basically former ladder runners from the C&O. We don't really do anything but it's kinda funny there's a Facebook page.
Was there a point there where you were able to start cooking?
After a while I ended up also doing some prep work at lunch time and I learned some basic stuff there. But then I figured I really needed to do something constructive while I figured out what to do with my life. So I had some friends who had done volunteer work with this group - they just sort of place you somewhere in the U.S. and you do whatever they need. So I got placed in New Mexico working with Native American kids - living with them at a boarding school and helping them with all their day to day stuff. Kind of like an RA in college but they were in high school.
I was born in New Mexico and had relatives there but had never really seen it, so I went in to the nearest town, Santa Fe, and it was really cool. I found this restaurant and walked in and asked if they would mind having someone work for free - just to help out and learn - I couldn't really commit since I was working at the school. A lot of chefs would just say "No, go away" but this guy was really cool. He was a New England Culinary Institute grad and was into teaching people so I volunteered for him and when I finished with my other work he hired me. I totally didn't know what I was doing - now that I think about it, I screwed up a lot of stuff. I was only like 22. Then I moved back to Washington D.C. and my mom knew this guy she worked with (my mother is Salvadorian and she worked for Air India, kind of random) an Indian restaurateur who was opening a new restaurant. It was an American fine dining restaurant - and he hired me without question. So that was my first real, full time cooking job. Come to think of it, that guy still has like 5 or 6 restaurants in D.C.
Did you have a "defining dish" - one you made that was so good, you knew you were good?
Creativity a la Guerin: Parsnip and squash pierogies with sweet and sour red cabbage and horseradish crème fraiche
No, because I was not trained and there were a lot of arrogant, cocky dudes in the restaurant world who had gone to culinary school, so no one in my early years of cooking would let me feel good about what I was cooking. I cooked some food for friends and they would like it but I didn't know how much I liked being around all these douchebags at work. Anyway, I moved to another restaurant at the Mayflower Hotel - at the time is was called Nicholas - and the chef was Italian but was raised in France and learned how to cook in France so he had sort of the combo of those temperaments. Basically - he was monster. He was really hardcore and broke everyone's balls. There were no women in that kitchen and it was really old school. It's since closed because it was way too old school. I left there to move to Seattle and when I left the chef was really unhappy that I was leaving . It was the first indication I ever had - you know if this guy likes me - that I might be getting good at this.
It's funny - at one point he gave me a raise, but he didn't really want to talk about it. I was like. "Hey, there's something wrong with my check!" and he just waived me off and said, "No, it's normal." He didn't compliment me or anything. Though one time he told me he nominated me "Motherfucker of the Month" - which was his way of saying "Employee of the Month". Those were the only two times I thought he might not hate me.
How did you get to Seattle?
That was because of a chick. She moved to UW for graduate school and after waiting a while I moved out and started working at Fullers, then Campagne.
There has got to be a story behind Walla Walla's "Campagne contingent"...
A little bit, yeah. OK, basically, I kinda started it. I got a call from a friend in Seattle who said there are these people in Walla Walla who want to start a restaurant and they need a chef. I'd never heard of Walla Walla and had just gotten married so wasn't really taking it seriously. My then wife, who was from a small town, said you should look at it. There more we talked to Carl and Sonja Schmitt, who is now my partner in the business, the more it seemed like the real deal. They had the resources, they had a beautiful building - with a great story behind it - they knew about restaurants, and they really just wanted to do everything right. This was no "do it a on a shoestring" type of thing. When I came out to visit, there was not much here and I really couldn't decide if I wanted to do it. But the whole idea of trying to open a restaurant in the city is daunting one. If you've been a cook your whole life, you can never save any money to start a restaurant. There are so many good chefs and it's so competitive. And here were these people handing me that dream on a silver platter. So, I came over.
A couple years later Jim and Claire (Jim German and Claire Johnston of the Jimgerman Bar) came out. We had worked together at Campagne and they stopped in on their way back from a trip - so they walked in all scruffy fro the road and I made them sit down and eat and they loved the restaurant and were surprised by how beautiful is was. That night I had made tamales for the first time at the restaurant and they were great - a tamale experience! Jim wanted to start a bar and it was the same thing of trying find a space in the city and do it on a shoestring. But then we lost our bartender so I called him and said, "Jim, I have a job for you!" And a month later they were here. Also Ross Stevenson, who I worked with at Campagne, came out and he and his partner Leroy Cunningham bought a place in Waitsburg. He was here for about four years when Val, the pastry chef at Campagne, came out and they decided to start the Whoopemup Hollow Cafe.
It's like Campagne gave birth to Walla Walla's food scene.
In a way it did. A lot of people here have worked in Seattle restaurants and brought their skills here.
It was never like we all got together and said we're all going, it was just like a trickle. It seemed like things were more doable here. Nobody's getting rich or anything. But all the people that have come over like the lifestyle here and like to do what they do without feeling all of the competition and pressure of Seattle. Don't get me wrong, I love it here but I do need to get back to city too.
How often do you go to Seattle?
Over the years it's getting less and less, but this year I am making it more. I always appreciate here more when I leave. I like to visit restaurants of my friends like Jim at Le Pichet and Cafe Presse, Brian at Zeitgeist and David Fuller at Le Gourmand, Daisly at Marche - it's good to see all the old crew and hang out with those guys. I don't really try a lot of new places because I miss those guys and I just want to hang out with my friends. And eat some good Asian food too.
What are your favorite spots for Asian food in Seattle?
I usually end up at Jade Garden for dim sum, Szechuan Noodle Bowl for dumplings, Samurai Noodle for noodles. All of those places...you can't really go wrong.
Have you had any crazy happenings at Whitehouse Crawford?
Back when Charles Smith and Christophe Baron were best friends, they really used to play off each other and be really crazy party dudes. They would come in and have really long drawn out meals with tons of wine and sometimes get a little rowdy. We have like a PA system for events and Charles would find the mic and start singing and stuff. I've heard of things happening on the counter when I wasn't around. But it was fun. I liked that they would have a big dinner - maybe four courses - some wine, some drinks, and then after all that, Christophe would order a burger. Those guys could really blow it out in those days. Now they're like pretty well behaved. I couldn't participate too much since it was my place.
We have had a couple of crazy things happen, you know, like table fires. When people get up after they're done and throw the napkin on the table and it lands on the candles. We also had a proposal go bad - really bad. The guy proposed, she said no, and then - he had something on the table like flowers or something - and they caught on fire. A bad night for that guy.
Yes, August. It first starts out with asparagus in late April - tons of asparagus - so we put asparagus in everything and everyone's really ready for it. They want it to be spring and that's the first spring vegetable. We grow the best asparagus here as far as I'm concerned - it tastes completely different than anything you've ever had. After that the little onions, young Walla Walla sweets, are really mild and you can grill them and put them in different things. Another sign of spring. Then, if it's a good year, the morel mushrooms start coming down from the mountains.
So, it's sort of like things come and go quickly until you get to August and then everything's really peaking - green beans, peas, tomatoes, corn, peppers, eggplant. We can pretty much get all of our produce from Walla Walla from July until the frost. Except for lemons, ginger, stuff like that. But the bulk of the produce we put on the plate comes from Walla Walla. So yeah, it's relatively easy to cook a that time - everything just looks beautiful and around here the farmers are so close by that it's literally farm to plate. I know every chef says this - but here it's really true. The farmers will call me and say "I'm in the field right now. How much of this do you need?" They'll pick it and bring it to me right then. So I can actually say to people "This salad was harvested this morning." Servers get excited and everyone gets really excited when we can feature these things - who's going to say no? It's way better than Seattle in that respect; it's a step closer than a farmers market.
Is there something that could be grown locally that people don't seem to be growing?
Yeah, I kinda wonder why nobody grows artichokes? I love 'em. Sometimes it would be cool to see more variety of stuff - like heirloom things - because it seems like everybody kinda grows similar stuff. But more wacky stuff would be fun. Something other than tomatoes and zucchini.
People really should make it a point to come to Walla Walla in August and September to eat out. Those should be our busiest months of the year because that's when everything here is really special.
Yeah - I think a lot of times people put sort of a label on Walla Walla, like trying to describe to people what we're about here, and so we get described as trying to be like Napa and be really fancy - that's the perception. But I think if people just come out here and check it out they'll see it's nothing like that, it's something all its own, totally different than any other place.
I know that for me the goal is mainly to do what I do really well and not try to be anything I'm not. This isn't the kind of place where people want to be famous or be on TV - we just want to help Walla Walla and bring more people here. I think sometimes there are people who have come and gone from here who tried to make Walla Walla fit their perception or their needs and it just doesn't work out that way. People out here see through all that crap. A few years ago some dumbass said we were trying to be like the French Laundry - which is not at all the case - and Walla Walla wanted to be Napa Valley and it's just stupid. I don't want my restaurant to be the kind of place you can go to in Napa or Seattle. I want your experience here to be something you can't have anywhere else - we have the biggest Walla Walla wine list in the world, with bottles you can't even buy elsewhere, and you can't just pick that up and put it in Seattle. Come out, try it, enjoy the food and just relax and enjoy Walla Walla for what it is.