From Hot Air to Hot Cheese: The Passions of Brasserie Four's Hannah MacDonald

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Someone give this woman a hot air balloon ride already!
Hannah MacDonald was just an 18-year old girl with a dream when she split her tiny hometown bound for Paris. Now, she's got four years under her belt as the owner of Walla Walla's Brasserie Four, one of Washington wine country's favorite places to see, be seen and revel in beautifully rustic French dishes. Thing is, the dream of this graceful bonne femme wasn't to open a French restaurant in Walla Walla - it just kinda...happened.

When did you first know you wanted to be a chef?

I'm not sure - I'll let you know when I decide. I like to cook a lot but the "chef" part is really more management-oriented. I like that part of it but I also really like just being a cook. I'm starting to let people call me chef - it's a new phase I'm in.

What would you call yourself?

Cook. Chef just always seems so...fancy, you know? But it's funny because now I am getting older and the employees are staying the same age. So now I feel like I almost need them to call me that to sort of own up to that level of respect (laughing). I should be proud to be called that. That's what I am, so I should just be like, "YES! That's what I am and have always wanted to be!" That's my new answer.

You lived in Paris for a time - was that what inspired you to open a French restaurant in your hometown?

I left Walla Walla for Paris when I had just turned 18. I was hellbent on going to Paris, despite my parents not wanting me to go so far away. But I was going to go no matter what. So I went for a year and went to school there and lived with French families, one of which I still keep in touch with - Jacques and Jacqueline. They were amazing and two of their three daughters now have restaurants - one in Paris, one in Florida. And they are now in their 70s but they just loved cooking. Every meal with them wasn't just a meal, it was like five courses. Jacques got the bread, the cheese and the wine and Jacqueline made the salad and whatever else. We ate great like that for a year, me and my roommate. Then I came back and went to culinary school.

Was there a certain thing that attracted you to Paris?

I don't know. Walla Walla was just so different back then. It was like wheat fields and like...wheat fields. I just hoarded like magazines and stuff and was just a teenager thinking I should be in Paris, really, so that's where I went!

Did you speak French?

I took it in high school for a few years, but not really. It took a while. I wasn't the best student. I enrolled in a French university and everything was taught in French so when I got there it was totally embarrassing. The second semester I got to know Paris and made friends and had fun and actually spoke some French, so that kind of came as a shock. But it didn't matter because I came back and went to culinary school at Western Culinary in Portland - where, of course, they spoke English.

What do you do for fun in this small town?

Yeah, this little town is FULL of fun. I don't know. I haven't done much since this place opened. I love tennis and was supposed to play yesterday with Jamie Guerin - that's what we were "supposed" to do. But we drank some wine instead.

I guess we shouldn't be surprised that happens so much here.

People need more hobbies - including myself. Because drinking wine with people is just too easy. Otherwise it's just pretty much just work, work, work and I recover on the weekends. It's fun though. I think work is fun. When I don't have work I go a little cuckoo. When I have an unexpected two hours with nothing planned, you know, I freak out and start thinking stuff like, "What am I going to do with my life???"

After you went to culinary school did you work in restaurants before you came back to open your own?

Yeah. I interned in San Diego and then I went abroad and did some private cheffing and then came back - most of it in California. I got out of it for a while - three or four years - and was travelling around. Then I had a little baby boy and moved back to Walla Walla and the rest has just evolved. It's never something that was really planned.

I worked in Switzerland for a while, for a hot air balloon company. They're based in Beaune, in France, and in the Winter they go to Switzerland, outside of Geneva, where there is this hot air balloon festival with hundreds of balloonists who fly through the Swiss Alps. So we were there for several weeks and people would buy vacation packages and spend a week cruising through the Swiss Alps in hot air balloons every day. It was all-inclusive so I was the chef. I cooked for the crew and I cooked for the clients so I would get up at the crack of dawn and fill these 6-foot long coffins that would hang on the outside of the balloon with food. I'd run around this village in a pickup truck getting food - I wrecked it and got in a big trouble. I opened the door on a Swiss road and this guy just ripped it right off and he started screaming at me and then the police started screaming at me and then my boss got really unhappy too. It was so sad - I didn't mean to! Anyway, I'd go to the baker and the butcher and the fromagerie and gather all these things. Then I cooked at the train station there, I'd pack the coffin and they'd go up in the balloon and drink and eat and fly through the Alps. So beautiful!

Did you ever get to go up in one of the balloons?

I definitely could have but I put it off and put it off because I was working and everything and thought there would be time. Then, the last week I was there the weather was really bad - so I never got to go.

Maybe you could convince someone to take you up during Walla Walla's hot air balloon Stampede?

I have, but on the rope. I want to get my own hot air balloon and fly it as my next job. I love them - they are so beautiful! Christian and I get up early and chase them every year. There are the chase vehicles, you know, and my goal is always to beat them to the balloon - it's like a game. I cut them off and take all the back roads they don't know. So we get there first and my son runs out and sometimes that's how he gets to take a little ride before the chase vehicles get there. And he's so cute how can you not give him a ride? Although this year we followed the wrong stinking balloons and the lame pilots would not take anyone up. I'm sure it's expensive and they're tired or something....but still!

Back to the food - you never planned on opening your own restaurant?

Well, I was working at Grapefields, the restaurant that was in this space before us. It was Walla Walla's first wine bar and opened in '99 or '98 so when I moved back to town I applied to be a waitress there just to get out of the house because I had a little baby and was going a little 'cuckoo mama' you know - so I just needed to get out. And then my mom had heard around town that the owner of this restaurant had hired a new chef and I came to work the first day and discovered the new chef was me. Apparently she looked at my resume and decided because I could cook, I should be the chef. Grapefields was sort of legendary for things like that.

I just started cooking a few days a week. And it was great. For years I was there with Robert Ames, the wine buyer here and at Whitehouse-Crawford, Maria Ferraro who works here, and Casey who's been my sous chef since we opened. A lot of people have come back to this space. Vince Booth - the pickle guy - worked at Grapefields too. It always had really good people but the owner sort of liked food more than the business of food.

So, it closed super suddenly - but not surprisingly - and there were a bunch of really great people that didn't have jobs. The owner was going to sell it to me in a fire sale and then that fell through for various reasons. So then there was this great space and all these people that needed jobs so we just did it. It really, literally, just "happened".

So it was more of a team effort than the result of your lifelong dream to open a Brasserie?

Yes. In the beginning for sure. We stripped the pews, we gutted the place, we did everything ourselves. The restaurant closed in February and we reopened in September. It took three months before the old restaurant was totally out and then I just had this space and had to be like, "How did you open a business? What licenses do I need?"

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Brasserie Four's Bar Eiffel
People often comment on the design of your space - did you have a hand in it?

It was all me (laughing)!!! The bar is made by Doug Gisi. I went to high school with him so when we were re-opening I called him. He's a rough and tumble, super-duper talented metal guy and...who doesn't want to build a bar?? So, we looked up the original blueprints of the Eiffel tower, spent a long time going through them and sort of redesigning them and that's the basis of the bar. Doug's a perfectionist. That bar took him over 500 hours of labor - it's like 500 pounds, and some parts are five layers of steel. There's something like over 2000 rivets that he hand-punched like they did originally in the Eiffel tower. It really is a work of art.

Speaking of art, you always have great art here - my favorite is the kids' art show. How do you choose the art you hang?

Artists just come in mostly, and sometimes I seek out people - sometimes it can be kind of hard to fill the schedule. The show that's up now is someone I saw while in Portland, at Art on Pearl or whatever that's called, I just wrote down some names of people I liked. So this is the first show of someone from Portland. The kids' show is a fundraiser for the Kids' Place, a local pre-school, that we do every year. It makes them a little extra money. So it's self-portraits done by four and five-year-olds - and they're really amazing!

And they sell right?

They do! We're trying to make sure the parents have a chance to buy them before someone else does. Because they really are that good. Though, the idea is not for the parents to buy them, because they are already paying tuition, but it's sweet that they do. The first show we had, Charles Smith (the winemaker) walked in and bought everything in the show that wasn't already sold - I guess he collects portraits. All kinds of people buy those. If you want to get something get here early - that opening is insane! You should come here and just watch - you will want to pull your hair out. A lot of parents opt out of volunteering for that one - it's like 40 kids and you're totally outnumbered. It's chaos. They have so much fun showing off their work!

People assume wine country isn't very kid-friendly but Brasserie Four even has a "Kid Zone" - how did that come about?

That is very important to me - my son comes to work with me in the summer a little bit. He used to come all day Sundays and he'd spend all day here. He was four when we opened and I just really wanted to drink a big glass of Cote du Rhone wine and have him eat food that wasn't going to kill him. You know how there are so many parents who are so obsessed about getting good food into kids? So we have a kids' zone, kids can eat anything on the menu - like in France, a kids' portion for half the price. There's no kids' menu because this way they learn about food and don't think food is chicken strips - something that unfortunately seems to be on every kids menu in the world.

Another fun thing about Brasserie Four is the flowers in the food. Every dish that comes out looks like a bright work of art. Where do you get all the flowers from?

There is a farm that grows - more or less - all of our produce in the summer: all of our greens, all of our herbs, all of our flowers and a lot of produce. It is one person, she is in her third season with us, she does it all by herself, she only grows for us, and she is extraordinary.

Do you work with her to figure out what you want or do you just go with what she grows and you plan a menu around it?

I'd say we work together on it. It has evolved over the years so now she mostly grows what we want but they are very unique things. The greens include things like sorel and arugula but mostly things people haven't heard of like Ruby Streaks and Scarlet Frill and Big Red - a lot of different spicy greens. She's amazing.

Has she ever come in with something you had no idea what to do with?

I'm sure she has - probably all the time! She has this stuff called, I think, Saltworth right now that is like little seaweed stuff - she just brings me the most interesting stuff.

Do you have a favorite meal you like to make?

Here? I don't really cook at home - I snack a lot and I eat things in their rawest form. When I'm home it's fruit or cheese or salami or stuff I don't have to do anything with. Here I love to make soups - pureed soups. They are so simple and I love to puree a soup! Soup is fun and easy.

What's the secret to good soup?

Cream and butter. Duh! There's no anything in our soups until the very end - as they're made to order - then just finished with a little bit of cream and a little bit of butter. I think that gives you that good "mouth" feeling of soup.

What do you really want people to know about your restaurant or what you're up to?

I think it's the same stuff you get shoved down your throat everywhere you go - the farm to table thing. Now it's a movement in big cities and everywhere... but there's always been a lot going on here for food because we are all about agriculture. On the menu I only mention where things come from when I'm trying to give someone recognition - I could probably do a better job of letting people know how and where we're getting our food from. But I like to mention Blue Valley Meats because they do a great job and they're new, or Vince, our pickle guy.

Sourcing things is my favorite thing to do and what I feel SO strongly about. So, it might be smart if I got the word about how responsibly we source things. We have two families in Dixie that raise chickens and we buy all their eggs. We had them certified and now all of our eggs and they're really expensive by the dozen, but we have a really strong obligation to source foods responsibly. I feel unbelievably strongly about sourcing things responsibly - it is my number one responsibility next to employing some really amazing people and supporting their livelihoods. That's what keeps us going.

I am really excited about the Summer right now. Peaches are next and that is exciting! Cherries are on right now and Summer squash is soon too. We just started fondue this Spring and that is super duper fun. Every Tuesday night is fondue night - it's Swiss-style fondue, so a variety of Swiss alpine cheeses. We use those hand-pulled ceramic fondue pots from Geneva - they are beautiful and the real deal. The cheese is Gruyere, Hallerhocker, and another one similar to Raclette. Then you can choose what you want to have with it - bread, veggies, or meats. It's really fun - even when you think it's too hot for fondue. It's fun to add a little bit of Switzerland to my French menu.

Everything is local and special and beautiful. People that know me know how hard I work on this and people who eat here often understand why it's different than a lot of other places in the world. We live in a place where fresh and local really mean something. There are a lot of restaurants here that feel the same way and work hard to directly source local products.

But, still, I feel like it's a ploy to go on and on about where everything comes from on your menu, you know?

I am sure some places use it as a ploy but where else would you get fresh food here? It's not like we have a Costco.

That's true. I guess it couldn't be a ploy - we don't have a choice!

 
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