While many chefs in the Northwest hit the local waters for fishing, Bastille's Jason Stoneburner uses them for surfing. Blond and blue-eyed, this Florida-raised lad fits a pretty standard description of a surfer boy who cuts out of school to catch a few waves when the sun is out, but at 38-years old, Stoneburners' true passion still lies in the kitchen; he just knows how to use a board for both cutting and shredding. (Check out our recent write-up on Bastille's happy hour).
When did you start surfing?
I grew up in southwest Florida, so I started surfing at a pretty young age and then I went to school in Michigan and kind of was landlocked for a good 10-12 years. I then moved to Colorado before moving out to Seattle 13 years ago. I started surfing with one of the bussers at Union in 2004 when I worked there. He got me back into surfing again. Once you have the bug, you kind of always want to go out.
What was your first impression of the surfing scene here?
Cold! It's funny because the media's image of surfing is totally different. It's like blond hair, blue-eyed thin kids in surf trunks. You come out here and there are dudes with big burly beards and everybody's pale. It's not like a beach blanket party at all. There's no Gidget.
The topography is totally different in this area and the topography of the ocean has a huge effect on the way waves break and how the swells are slowed down as they get closer to shore--things like that. I was definitely surprised by how aggressive it was.
What's the difference between surfing out here and surfing in Florida?
Well, obviously the wet suit is huge! It's kind of cumbersome and restricting and uncomfortable. In Florida or California you see tons of people surfing and it's really accessible. Out here, it's not as accessible so people aren't as willing to jump in the water and jump on a board.
Where can you usually be found surfing?
A little known fact is that there's a lot of great surfing in the Strait of Juan de Fuca, but you have to be savvy as far as reading tide reports and paying attention to buoys and swell direction and things like that. If you get good at that, or even have friends who are good at that, you can really score some world class surf out there. There's really great surf in the winter time--and that's when I usually do a lot of surfing--but during the summer time is when most people surf in Washington.
How often do you find time to surf?
I try at least once a week. This week I got two days in, so I was pretty happy with that. Having a 60-70 hour work week makes it kind of tough, so I have to sneak it in when I can. The older I've gotten, I've done more condensed surf trips. I try to get my fill by traveling.
Is your wife, Vanessa, supportive of the fact that she never sees you?
Over the years, yes. It's taken a long time to get there. When we take a vacation, she looks at every angle to see if it's surf-related. Every vacation we ever take will always be surf-related, that's just the way it is. It works out good because she likes to read books and sit on the beach and get tan. I got it easy there! Anytime I say we're going to do something I can see her brain working to see what the closest surf spot is or how safe she'll be. I never say, "Let's go to Montana for the weekend."
Yep. That's when you come to grips that you really have a problem. You just pay a nominal bag fee. Depending on how many surf boards you bring, which I found out, sometimes you can upgrade to first class and it's cheaper and you get all your boards packed for free.
What is it that you like about surfing?
I like the challenge. It's a very difficult sport. Surfing out here is immaculate. You can be in the water by yourself on perfect days. I think it's just that detachment that you get from the everyday grind. That's what I look for.
Big stress relief?
Absolutely! It's a huge stress relief. I just kind of sit in the water and take it easy and catch waves.
Who do you surf with?
I used to surf with Russell [Flint] from Boat Street a lot. Still, once in a while we make it out, but he's a business owner now [ed note: Russ left his post as Boat St. sous chef in 2010 to open Rain Shadow Meats].
We're actually trying to plan a surf trip right now. I don't know a lot of other chefs out there that surf--not in this city anyway. You look at California and it's like a rite of passage to be able to grab a surf board and catch some waves, but up here people just don't really give it that much thought. If people are interested in surfing, they'll usually ask, "Where do you surf here?" Well, we share the same coastline as California, obviously. There are miles and miles of coast, so it's just about getting out there and discovering it.
Isn't the Washington coast all storms and rocks?
It is. It's really fickle, but that's where the whole planning thing comes into effect--looking at buoy reports, looking at tides, and having a basic understanding of what generates swell and how that swell is propagated over a long distance.
It actually started with Russell Flint. I think it was his birthday or something like that. We all met out at the beach and brought a bunch of extra boards for everybody from Boat Street and we just fired up a bunch of paella and it escalated into a tradition. Now, every time we go out, we'll stop at Brady's and grab some clams and oysters and crab and all that and just cook it up!
I get all my fish from Gene at Wilson Fish at the Ballard Farmers Market and he has a boat out in Westport. One time I told him I was coming out and his family met us out at the campsite and he brought us a bunch of salmon off the boat, so we roasted up a bunch of salmon and wild mushrooms. These trips can be really food-centric!
I know, right? It's almost embarrassing. I feel like it takes away from my core points, like I should be eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a banana.
You're a chef. There are expectations when you eat.
What do you do to fuel yourself?
Buoyancy is huge for me, so not much! Maybe a little smoked salmon and some coffee. I save the eating for afterward.
Have you ever hurt yourself surfing?
No, but there are a lot of abandoned crab traps in the water and I've been tangled up a couple of times. I've definitely been in some swell that's been probably above my skill set, which is always frightening. The Washington coast is extremely rugged and there's inherent danger when you step into the water. I think every surfer that goes out knows that risk and willingly participates.
Do you ever see any weird sea creatures while surfing?
You know, it's so alive out here. Just this past Monday and Tuesday there were two sperm whales in the water, four bald eagles eating a raccoon on the beach...
Why was there a raccoon on the beach?
I don't know! There are raccoons everywhere! There were snakes, too. I mean, just walking to the water there's tons of life. You see little crabs and all that kind of fun stuff. You try not to stare too much at the water because you kind of have to focus. There are otters and sea lions. Those are the scariest because otters will just come up literally 10-feet from you and pop up and just look at you with their head kind of to the side. And you'll just be sitting there and they're right there checking you out. Yeah, it's cute. But not during mating season!
There's also a lot of tsunami debris starting to show up on the coast. Small amounts.
What do you see?
You see weird beverage bottles, like Coca-Cola. Tires. That's about it so far. Everybody's been kind of looking for it because you're supposed to report it, especially any hazardous materials. I was in Los Angeles three weeks ago and I surfed Santa Monica Pier and Venice and it was pretty alarming to see how much garbage is in the water and how polluted the water is. It's frightening because we have a lot of pristine areas up here and you can see the trash starting to build up on the beach. It's terrible. It really is. I think people should be more involved and more active with that, like the Surfrider Foundation, which is generally comprised of surfers and other people who care about the environment.
It's something I'm really interested in doing and I'd like to work with the Surfrider Foundation on spearheading something like that, where we can raise money for local beach clean-ups. There doesn't have to be surf there for the Surfrider Foundation to be involved with beach clean-ups--there just has to be water. I think it would be a lot of fun because you really meet a lot of people who care and share some of the same interests as you.
How does surfing affect your cooking?
I think it's really important for anybody who works to have some technical release outside of work because it really opens doors, it gives you time to decompress and you come back fresh and a little enlightened. I think when you feel that way, in all walks of life, it's going to project into what you're handling and what you're managing.
Is surfing a good workout?
It's a great workout. If you're not sore the next day, you're not going hard enough. Beginners will always ask for pointers and I tell them fitness is the hugest thing. You have to have the cardio aspect in check and have some paddle power, because you're going to need a lot of paddle power.
What's your workout?
I have a trainer that I work with twice a week on surf-based movements. He's tailored a workout for me that works on all of the major muscle groups and balance.
What am I forgetting to ask you?
It's the whole act of surfing that you fall in love with: getting up early in the morning, throwing the boards on top of your car, getting on a ferry--usually the Edmonds/Kingston ferry if you're going out to Port Angeles or Neah Bay--drinking your coffee. It's usually cold and foggy. It's a very Northwest-like feeling. You feel special. You really do. You really feel like you're doing something nobody else understands or has a grasp on. It's the way you feel when you're done--you have that Cheshire cat grin on your face all day long.
It just makes me happy.