When The Walrus and the Carpenter chef de cuisine Eli Dahlin first arrived in Seattle, the Montana native had not shucked a single oyster, much less worked with the butter clams that would later have the spotlight in Frank Bruni's write-up in The New York Times. Dahlin first worked for chef Renee Erickson at the Boat Street Café, and strengthened his cooking and pastry chops at Ethan Stowell's Union and How to Cook a Wolf. You may remember an earlier mention of his name: Dahlin is the man behind the pastry recipes in Stowell's, New Italian Kitchen. With his sights set on cooking, he returned to the Erickson fold, working with her to help open the Walrus and the Carpenter. Two and a half years later, Dahlin looks back at a challenging and rewarding journey of cooking in one of Seattle's most recognized kitchens.
Photo by Tiffany Ran
The Walrus has gotten great local and national attention. When it comes to reviews, do you love 'em, hate 'em, or don't care?
At first, I was pretty obsessed with our Yelp reviews, and just having people like us. When you work so much, it kind of becomes your identity. So you really want people to like it, and like you by extension. Two and a half years in, it doesn't matter so much. I'm always happy about good reviews. Negative ones well, (shrugs) eh. I think you get desensitized to it after a while. I take it with a grain of salt too, because if somebody says you're the best restaurant and publishes that, it's just one person's opinion. I care more about people who live in the community liking it. If a critic has to come in once or three times and they like it, that's great news that somebody loved it three times, but it's about the people who are always coming in.
You're working out of a pretty small kitchen. How have you had to improvise in order to work with the space limitations?
We have a real small prep kitchen and our own walk-in (refrigerator) in the basement. When we started, we shared a walk-in with Staple and Fancy. So after two years, we got a walk-in. I joke that our kitchen is kind of a favela, it's like one level built on another level. You can always get stuff done. When you're forced to, you kind of find other sources of heat, different ways to make stock, or using the pilot light on the burner. I'm not sure there is one thing I can pinpoint, but there's always something being cooked.
We're always making stock during service. The pot the stock is being made in has a lid on it and has pans on top. And then, that sheet pan that's on top of that lid is angled in such a way that the burner underneath it is heating things there. If we have a dessert we want to heat up, we put it on top of the boiler, way up there so that the pilot light of the broiler keeps that warm. When you have to serve that many people, there's no other way to serve that much food. It's typical of any small kitchens. The original Matt's in the Market and Dinette were both small kitchens and they managed to do amazing food out of those kitchens. Part of being a good cook is being clever.
Walrus is a quintessential oyster and seafood bar. For you personally, have you always been a seafood person?
Oh yeah. I grew up in Montana. There was no source for seafood. When I moved to Seattle, I was like, "It would be awesome to cook all the amazing seafood they have here. When I got here, it was like three options: halibut, salmon, and cod. It was so homogenous. I never shucked an oyster before moving to Seattle. I never had a clam, (pause) that I liked. I never saw a geoduck, for sure. I was a little scandalized first time I saw it. I grew up on white rice and skinless chicken breast.
Part of the fun of working [at Walrus] is you always have something and so many great customers that are willing to try new things, which allow me to find newer seafood. We have a fish called Atka mackerel, which is really sustainable. It comes from around the Aleutian Islands. It's like Kampachi. It's really delicious, but you never see it anywhere. There's also Pacific Octopus or squid. Sea urchin has just become available. We have two sources now, one from the Port Townsend area and one from kind of the Newport area. That's really where we're at. It doesn't have to be salmon, halibut, or scallops all the time.
Have you frequented other restaurants or bars around Ballard?
After work, I usually head straight home. I don't go down that direction very much. I think I'm too old for that shit. Over the last two years, I think I aged ten years. I can't really afford to have a hangover anymore. That makes a lot of my social life null and void.
What do your friends say about that?
I don't hang out with people a lot, but I hang out maybe in a different way. I hang out a lot more at barbecues than I hang out at restaurants. I don't go out to eat often because it feels like work to me. I can hear the ticket machine and I can't help but be tuned in to it. I have to go to places where I don't know anybody. I go to restaurants that I really like instead of restaurants I want to explore.
Care to share some of the places you frequent?
I really like Artusi. I really feel comfortable there. I have a hard time sitting still at a table. I'd like to be able to go a bar, have a few drinks and some small bites, feel casual and carry on two conversations. It's kind of weird for me to say but I really like this coffee shop, it's next to Four Seasons in downtown called Fonte [Coffee and Wine Bar]. They do really interesting things with lattes. I can go in there and not see anybody I know, watch a football game, and feel comfortable. A Pizza Mart, [I] used to go there a lot. They have a really great happy hour; you can get a slice of pizza, a beer, and a shot for $9. It used to be like that, I don't know if it still is. [Also,] Rob Roy, and if I go to Rob Roy, I usually end up at Tavolata as well. I was a big fan of Bisato, which closed recently.
Has the much larger crowds you've have to deal with since the New York Times and Bon Appétit write ups been difficult for you to manage?
Oh yeah, just physically difficult, cranking out that many dinners in one night and the mental and emotional strain of all the noise and organizing all the food. We got a prep cook finally, and getting the walk in and prep area too. That was an enormous help. I don't even know how we did it last summer with no prep cook. We're getting better at our jobs, offering dishes that make more sense and planning more.