As chef Robin Leventhal spent more time teaching ceramics and working as an auctioneer, devotees of her last restaurant, Crave, perhaps feared that she may have left the restaurant world for good. But hope returned when news spread like wildfire about Leventhal's new gig as the executive chef of Local 360, where she has the task of implementing many changes in its kitchen.
Photo by Kelly Cline
Having just finished her first week, Leventhal explains her goals for the new job and how her changes to the 360 menu might be different what you'd expect.
What's on the agenda for you as the new executive chef?
Leventhal: This is an interesting role that I'm taking on. I'm not going to be on the line. My role is going to be facilitating what's already in place. I'm not coming in and taking over the kitchen. I'm coming in and nurturing and supporting what's already in place and trying to give them a foundation so that they can produce a quality of specials that have been an example of the specials that people have had.
[Local 360] has gone through some transition and that's no secret. Chef Mikey [Robertshaw] really put it on the map. It's impossible for any other chef to walk into someone else's kitchen and emulate or recreate the same thing, and that's not what most chefs do. They want to put their own signature on it. My goal is to work with [chef de cuisine] Gabe and [one of the sous chefs] Nick on their developing specials, and how to approach the seasonality of ingredients, and supporting the team where needed.
It's a big menu, a big house, and a lot of bodies, and there hasn't really been systems implemented. I'm a systems-oriented person. It may be considered corporate, but I do feel there needs to be systems in place for it to be a well ran machine. I'm there to maintain what's already been done, but also to put my flavor profiles on the menu as well. It's American-based comfort foods and I've definitely been driven by that type of cuisine. It's really such a perfect fit. I couldn't be happier about it.
Is having you be more of a consulting executive chef, as opposed to one that works on the line, a common arrangement or one more specific to the restaurant's needs?
No. I think every situation is different and every restaurant has to fine tune what their needs are. [Local 360] kind of played with a few different scenarios and got to where they are now without crisis. But I think every good restaurant is always reevaluating how things are done. I really give Shawn [Kramer] a lot of credit for his GM skills. He looked at the needs of the cooks on the line. They can pick up food, but they don't really have the creative foundation to develop the level of specials and menus. So he reached out to me saying, "Hey, I'm not looking for a line cook. What I'm looking for is some creative support, getting someone on hand who knows where to source local ingredients [to help with] the seasonality of the menu."
[Local 360 owner] Marcus [Charles] has said that we have sort of an 80-20 crowd, 80 percent will order the burger and chicken and waffles every time. Those things aren't going to come off the menu, so I have 20 percent play on the menu. Those are the things we want to have seasonality and appeal to the foodie clientele. They don't want to lose that clientele. They haven't seen it happen, but this is when I say that any business that isn't constantly reanalyzing how they're doing things, is not doing a good job. They're trying to preempt what their needs will be, and I totally respect that.
How might your personal touch on the menu differ from how the menu was from the past?
Well, you're going to see a lot more vegetables. I can guarantee you that. It's a meat-heavy menu, and that was their original agenda. But I don't feel that vegetables were well represented. I'm a huge vegetable eater. Now, I do love my meat, don't get me wrong, but it's something they feel is lacking as well. I'm excited that I get to add a bunch more vegetable sides to the menu.
I'm going to do my best not to recreate Crave dishes. Somebody has already said, "We want brunch to be like Crave. Bring back the griddle!" but I need to make sure that I'm not just doing the same things that I've already done. I get bored if I make the same food all the time.
When you have to design dishes for the menu, where do you go for inspiration?
The first thing I start with is, what's in season? What do I feel is the best ingredient I can feature and showcase? What is the menu lacking? And the best way to go is, what do I feel like eating? Because if it sounds good to me, chances are, it's going to sound good to other people. If I feel like eating soup in the winter, most other people are in the soup eating mood too.
I know there are ice cream eaters who eat ice cream year round, but we're going to take the ice cream sandwiches off the menu for winter, I'm sorry. But there will probably be a cobbler or something wintery, which I think would be served with ice cream. It's always important that we keep pushing ourselves as chefs. I look through every food magazine I can find. I'm on the internet all the time looking at different restaurant and images. Getting visual ideas is amazing. I think about what I want to eat, what's seasonal, and what's delicious right now.
Do you draw inspiration from local restaurants?
Yea. I mean, I certainly have some favorite places but conversely, I think Seattle is a small food town, and one of my pet peeves is seeing the same ingredients on everybody's menus. If anything, I use what is being done as what I steer away from. I love to research other chefs and what they're doing around town, but I try really hard not to put on my menu what everyone else has. I understand why food trends happen, but I feel like I can draw inspiration from what's delicious about those food trends and put my own spin on it.
With this new job on your plate, how do you find time to juggle your other artistic talents?
That is why I feel so grateful about the way that Shawn proposed me coming on and helping them. It is not a full time job, three days a week technically. There's time for me to do some work in the studio and maybe work an auction here and there. I feel like I've found some balance in my life.
Local 360 feels like the perfect home to keep my hands in the food, and it's the right amount of time so I can have my time with my clay. I'm excited by what's going to happen there because this class that I'm teaching on Wednesday is half cooking and half ceramics, so all my worlds seem to be coming together beautifully.
Is it different for you now that you've found this sense of peace or balance?
You know, it's been three years since I've closed my restaurant and that blows me away. There was some anxiety there, some struggling with, "Do I open a restaurant?" You know, I love the creativity of food but I don't love the daily operations of running a restaurant. It kind of steals your soul, and it makes it really hard to make time for the creativity.
For me, having sat on the Slow Food board for the last year, and now the Local 360 gig, and all of these things just feel so right and it feels like synchronicity is happening. Maybe one propels the other. I don't know the natural order of the universe, but it's been an interesting transition since Top Chef. There's so much pressure to be in the public eye and maintain your "brand," and I put quotes around that "brand" word because to me, it doesn't feel genuine. You have a personality that you have to continue to propel. From the beginning, I was a heart and soul person and I've been hanging on to that. Every time I interviewed for Top Chef, it was a great opportunity, but I'm not that public persona. I like being connected to people. It's just so nice to feel grounded again in Seattle, and have the support from my community.