Chris Ainsworth is the Susan Lucci of the James Beard award. OK, maybe not to the same extent, but you get the drift. Nominated for Best Chef Northwest the past four years running, this amiable frisbee-golfing fanatic, along with his sassy wife Island, has taken Washington wine-country cuisine by storm. Their wildly popular Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen serves up dreamy, exotic fare that surprises the palate and delights the belly, while its next-door cousin Pho Sho cures cravings for hearty pho in a land distinctly lacking in Asian flavor.
Get his food in yer belly!
SW: When you opened Saffron, did you have any idea you'd soon be opening another restaurant, Pho Sho, right next door?
Ainsworth: I had no idea at all. If you would have asked me two months after I had opened Saffron if I'd ever even consider opening a pho restaurant, I would have told you you were crazy. And then four months later, we opened a pho restaurant right next door.
It happened that fast? What was the inspiration?
Yeah. Island [Chris's wife] is Vietnamese, so pho is really kind of a big part of our eating life -- whether we were going to the family's house or going to pho restaurants in Seattle -- so we missed it here. Island started making it every now and again, and when we moved here, we offered pho and beer to help unload, and we had a really good turnout. Then we just kept threatening to open a pho place -- just goofing around. As it turned out, we jokingly said to the landlord, "Hey, we're going to kick you out of your little office next door and open a pho shop." Well, he took it seriously, and next thing you know, he's moved all his stuff out, and we're like, "Oh! I guess we might be opening a pho place." All our friends who were kind of in-the-know were all excited, so we just kind of went with it. It was literally six months after we opened Saffron that we opened Pho Sho. It's great. I love it and eat it pretty much daily.
Island is obviously a huge part of all this great stuff you've got going on -- how did you two meet?
She was a barista in Seattle -- I scored a barista!
It was just like one of those "meant to be" things. She worked at Espresso by Design in Georgetown, and I had friends I worked with at Brasa at the time who had a house there. Island also had friends who lived there -- and they happened to live next door. So they would have barbecues, and we probably went to a lot of the same parties and never met -- me being the restaurant person and she being the coffee person -- so she was getting up at 5 a.m. to make coffee and I was just going to bed at 5 a.m. after restaurant stuff. Then, on the way to a cruise celebrating my grandparents' 50th wedding anniversary, I parked my car at my friend's place in Georgetown and we stopped to get coffee. I just remember looking at this cute little Asian girl, and there was this snowboarding car outside with stickers everywhere, and I was like, "Wow, whose snowboarding car is that?" and you know, Island being Island, started talking a lot of smack to me. Anyway, I went on the cruise for like three weeks, and I was like, "Man, I wonder if that sassy girl is there -- I gotta get some coffee on the way back through!" I was looking a little more presentable on the way back from the cruise than I had looked when I went on it, and I saw her do a double-take, and I was like, "Yeah! I'm in!" So we ended up going out on a date and we really haven't been apart since. And then I got her into the restaurant business!
And we got married on a cruise, by the way -- because that's what I had been doing when I met her. It was great -- a one-week party for our wedding. In Alaska. You got your housing taken care of, entertainment, food, good friends and family -- just go and have a good time. It was good. We got some nieces and nephews out of that one.
Was there a certain time in your life when you knew that food was kind of your calling?
I dunno, man. I just started cooking and things happened, I guess. It was more just that I liked doing it -- and I liked the hours. At the time I was 17, and kinda fell into it like most people do -- just get a job while you're in college or whatever. I was going to school full-time at Troy State University in Alabama, and fell into opening a cafe with my uncle, and I was like, wow, the hours are pretty cool, I like the people, it's fun -- you're up all night and there's the afterparties, and it just turned out -- screw this other school stuff, I'm going to go to culinary school, and it all just kinda went from there.
My original plan was to go to CIA in Hyde Park in NYC. I was already enrolled and everything when I found French Culinary Institute, and I figured, "What the hell?" CIA is a great school, but I already had done a few years of apprenticeship in Florida and then CIA would have been a few more years of school, and I was paying for it myself, so French Culinary Institute was a better option -- one year and change, very hands on, so I went with that. It was a fun experience.
How did you get to Walla Walla?
Ha! Walla Walla -- as you well know -- just kind of sucks you right in. In a good way. I met John Sarich [the Culinary Director] over at Chateau Ste. Michelle, and he said to me while I was doing a dinner out there, "Hey, you ever been to wine country?" Next thing I know I'm on a plane from Chateau Ste. Michelle, they sent a group of us out from Boeing field, landing in a vineyard over in Patterson -- it was pretty crazy. Then they flew us into Walla Walla. This was maybe 2004, so there were a good number of wineries, but nothing like now. But I thought, "Wow, this place is great." It's a small town with cool things going on -- and for me the mountains are a big thing. I saw the Blue Mountains and said, "Is there snow over there?" and they were like,"Yeah, of course." And I was like, "Is there a ski area nearby?" Yes, there was, and it was all just so cool it planted something in the back of my head.
So when I started to do my own thing, Island and I kinda laid out where we wanted to be, and Walla Walla was on that map. As we started looking around, we had friends here -- Jim and Claire, the Monteillets, Ross, LeRoy and Val from the Whoopemup -- and they were all like, come check it out! And as you well know, once you come in and start looking around, you get hooked. We saw this space and it was just ready, set, go from there. Everything just clicked. One thing after another just happened. It was easy! I'm a believer of if it's meant to be, it's meant to be, and this just opened all the doors right up, and we just plowed right in. It was awesome. And it's been awesome ever since.
You've had a lot of great press and success so you're probably crazy busy, but is there anything coming up you're super-excited about?
Harkoussa Potatoes -- green chiles, garlic, coriander, and yogurt.
Many, many things. The changing of the seasons is always fun. I love it because it's exciting and menu changes start to happen more often because of all the different things coming out at different times. Stuff I'm growing in my yard, or someone else's yard, or just someone who has too much of something and brings it in and says, "Can you do something with this, I have too much?" -- like squash, that's always fun.
So you just switch stuff out as it comes available?
Yeah, we just change it out as we see fit or fold it into something -- it's like an evolution. We're also celebrating Saffron's five-year anniversary, and will probably do some kind of little party for our regulars. First and foremost, we wanted to have a restaurant for everybody -- but really we did it for Walla Walla. With Walla Walla comes the tourism and that's awesome, but we want to give back to our regulars and all the wineries and farmers and people we've gotten to know over the last five years. There are kids that have eaten here since day one, and they'd come in here and order octopus at five years old. And now they are 10! So, it's awesome to have kids and their families eating -- and growing up -- with you. That's really fun. Also Outstanding in the Field is coming up, we'll be doing that with the Monteillets out in Dayton. It seems really awesome and I have friends who have done it. I think it's about 100 people eating a great meal in a field. I'll round up a bunch of people for it - I think Jamie from Whitehouse-Crawford is going to help out -- so we'll have a good time.
Another fun thing is just today I talked to a guy about maybe doing solar. I really try to be sustainable, using and making everything I can -- like the fryer oil from my restaurants goes in my truck. Better for the environment and for my pocket! Our scraps go to our friend's pigs and all that kind of stuff . . . anyway, this is a dream, but I talked to this guy about solar, and I would love to do a living roof too. I'd love to plant stuff -- whether it's stuff I use to eat or just to have a green roof. It's not like it's going to happen right now, but you have to start somewhere. It would do great here. It's nice to have a garden at my house but I spend more time here than I do there and it would be great just to harvest stuff from upstairs.
What's your favorite thing to do when you're not working?
I love playing frisbee golf or disc golf. I started playing as something to do with the dogs, other than just walking them around the block. I can go pretty much anywhere. When I travel, I always look for a frisbee golf course. It's good for me, it's good for the dogs, we all get exercise and mental stimulation and you're outside doing stuff. I like regular golf too, but you can't take the dogs with you. They kind of frown on that at Wine Valley Golf Course.
Are there places with courses already set up, or do you have to make your own?
If you looked, you'd be surprised. There's a whole pro disc golf association, the PDGA, and if you go online you can look up courses. When I'm going to visit family, I always look to see what's around. Like I went to visit my family in Florida, and my aunt, who lives in one of those developments with golf courses, also had a frisbee golf course. So it was funny, I'd just walk out her door, go to the clubhouse, get a golf cart, some beers, and drive around and play frisbee golf. It was so awesome. And a lot cheaper too!
You and Island recently took a trip to Morocco -- has that inspired your menu for this season?
Yeah. It actually inspired the menu before we even went because I was so excited. Duck tagines, lamb ribs, beef cheeks -- various stuff. I always like to throw a little Moroccan in there anyway. That's another reason why we moved to Walla Walla -- just the lifestyle it offers us. It's quiet in the winter, and we knew this, so that offers us a chance to travel and experience and eat and be inspired. As inspiring as life is here, you really have to branch out and experience more. Though it's hard when you have horsedogs, but we get a house-sitter and just go and travel and miss the heck out of 'em. This year we actually Facetimed with them. In Morocco a lot of places had wi-fi so we'd call Trevor, who was working for us house-sitting, and ask if we could talk to the dogs. So we'd be Facetime-talking to the dogs and him and the neighbor. It was kinda funny -- I'd never Facetimed before, and then all the sudden we're in Morocco where it's all bright and sunny, sitting on this rooftop patio, watching our dogs running around in the snow in the yard back at home.
The Ainsworth Horsedogs.
Man, I love everything on the menu, so that's a hard one. It's actually a bad question to ask me in the restaurant because I'll be like,"Yeah, you have to try this," and then I'll be like, "Wait, you have to try this too," and then before you know, I've pretty much told you the entire menu and not helped you out at all. But I will say, right now -- I'll try this game -- the Malloreddus. It's a common machine-made pasta, but we make it by hand. It's eggless, with a dense chewy nature, and I do that with a little cured albacore tuna from the Oregon coast, some olives, tomato, a little fennel seed and lovage from my garden. Actually, I made a bunch of them last night and saved little spoonfuls to taste and wanted a big bowl of it by the end of the night. And the lamb ribs are always fun -- those are really Moroccan-inspired. I work with Upper Dry Creek Ranch and try to use everything she's got, and the lamb ribs are a great way to use up the whole animal. So I'll cook 'em off, get 'em nice and tender, pull the bones out, and it's basically just a nice, nice boneless rib.
Do you make most everything yourself?
Pretty much anything I can make I will -- or will try to. Some things are more successful than others. Vinegar, sausages, pancetta, guanciale, morcilla, pastas, breads . . . anything. I made a sourdough mother and also acquired one -- one's considerably older, I think in the 80-year-old range -- so I have two and I mix 'em up. The one I birthed myself I have a hard time getting rid, of and it's 4 years old, so put 'em together and you've got a great old starter.
Let's see, we talked about Walla Walla, we talked about food, we talked about dogs, we talked about disc golf, we talked about solar, we talked about sustainability . . . I think just come on down and eat and help us have fun. Cause if you're having fun eating, we're having fun cooking for you!