Tonight, April 27, at the Paramount Theatre, Seattle Weekly hosts its annual Voracious Tasting & Food Awards, which will feature fare from more than 50 of the area’s finest restaurants. As part of the sold-out event, our annual awards will be handed out, recognizing innovation, sustainability, and embodiment of the spirit of the late culinary mastermind Angelo Pellegrini. Following are descriptions of these honorees and why they’re so deserving.
2011 Innovation Award
Normally, when one thinks of an innovative restaurant, the image that leaps to mind is not of a 60-year-old fine-dining institution where your grandparents probably celebrated their wedding anniversary. It’s probably not of one of those rare restaurants where jackets are still required, where an antique rotary phone still holds a place of honor in the dining room, or where the best plates on the menu were designed half a century ago and have barely changed at all.
When you’re talking about Seattle’s most innovative restaurants, no one really ever thinks of Canlis. But they should.
These days, it’s a dead cinch to go the Ferran Adrià/Grant Achatz/Wylie Dufresne route—to open some spare and modern space with a menu full of food pills and foams. Take a trip down to Ye Olde Molecular Supply store, load up a wizard’s chest with gellan, locust-bean gum, calcium alginate, and hydroxypropyl methylcellulose, and you’re ready to start making deconstructed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, squid noodles, and reverse-sphericalization faux-fruit caviars. Throw in a tank of liquid nitrogen and you’ve got yourself a concept right in line with the forefront of American cookery.
That’s easy. But what’s hard is taking a menu like the one at Canlis and bending it ever so slowly in the direction of modernity, overcoming the crushing weight of expectation and tradition, jumping the rails that have been laid by generations, and doing something new.
Chef Jason Franey is doing just that. In small ways, he has been subtly altering the board at Canlis to bring new life to it: offering quivering globes of encapsulated Tequila Sunrises to guests as an amuse, and doing things with salmon that go so far beyond the traditional notions of smoking or grilling that the resulting plate is almost unrecognizable—and one of the more delicious things you’re likely to taste in a year.
The best thing on the menu at Canlis is still the Peter Canlis Prawns—a dish that will forever be a fixture on the menu, taken from a recipe laid down by the restaurant’s founder decades ago. And the house salad was named as one of the 100 best dishes in America. But under Franey, Canlis’ kitchen is not content to bank solely on those guaranteed winners. He pushes constantly against the titanic weight of 60 years of convention, creating tasting menus and carefully altering practices that always run the risk of calcifying in a restaurant with a history like Canlis’.
Franey is not the only one out there taking risks and trying new things. The Canlis brothers, Mark and Brian, have done something amazing with their highly respected, very conventional restaurant in this past year as well, making the best possible use of new (to the restaurant industry, anyway) social networking. In October, in celebration of its 60th birthday, Canlis hosted a citywide scavenger hunt (via Facebook and Twitter) in which copies of its 1950 menu were hidden all over the city and hints were given to friends and followers. The best thing about the game was the prizes: Find a menu and you got to order off it—at Canlis’ 1950 prices, which meant getting a lobster dinner for just $4.
For Act Two, the brothers went back to the well for a grassroots campaign to get Franey chosen as Food & Wine magazine’s “People’s Best New Chef.” This involved Mark and Brian wearing sandwich boards, busking at Pike Place Market, and waving “Vote for Jason” signs from the top of the Space Needle. Of course, they had their pictures taken at every location. And these pictures were immediately posted on Facebook for all their fans to see.
In each picture was a hidden Morse code which, if translated, would spell out a clue as to the location of a pop-up operated by Franey during the run-up to the People’s Best New Chef voting. The whole thing was perfectly executed. So with the salmon, the scavenger hunts, the Morse code, the Facebook stunts, the pop-up restaurants conceived and executed by a team who, by all rights, could simply be sitting behind the stoves banging out Canlis salads and plates of prawns for the unending stream of customers, is there any doubt that Canlis deserves this award? Finally, in a year that saw Canlis doing all this cutting-edge stuff, it was also nominated for a James Beard Award for service—one of the most hotly contested restaurant awards in the United States. JASON SHEEHAN
2011 Sustainability Award
Seattle City Council
Seattle is a city where it’s easier to eat farm-to-table than not to; where chefs and servers, when asked where a particular oyster or green came from, can sometimes just point out the window and say it came from right over there. It’s a place where sustainability and good stewardship isn’t just something chefs and restaurateurs do because there’s good money in it, but because, with the region’s bounty and the wild diversity of stuff available for the asking, it would be stupid not to. A chef buys what’s good and presents it to the customers in the best way he knows how. And when the best stuff that’s available comes right from your own backyard? Well, that’s almost too easy.
So in this type of environment, it’s hard to pick just one place or person that truly excels in the realm of sustainability. It takes some kind of groundbreaking effort to rise above the already-high standards that have been set. And this year, the one group that did more than any other to promote locality and sustainability came from the strangest possible quarter.
In August 2010, the Seattle City Council passed a host of modifications to existing zoning and agriculture rules which made it both easier and less illegal to do things like grow crops, raise chickens, and keep beehives within Seattle city limits. This was not some minor modification, but a thorough overhaul of the laws governing urban agriculture in the city of Seattle, allowing for farming operations of up to 4,000 square feet in virtually every residential zone imaginable; the keeping of poultry and livestock (including pigs and pygmy goats); the building of greenhouses and solariums atop high-rise buildings (allowing for rooftop gardening on a scale not previously seen); and the green-lighting of community gardens and horticulture operations on any scrap of land that could conceivably support them. The new rules went into effect in September, and brave urban pioneers have since gotten busy with the bees and chickens and urban farms.
Whereas many cities are still arguing over the basic right of their citizens to keep chickens or bees, period, Seattle was only concerned with how many might be safely and reasonably kept (the numbers, by the way, are eight chickens, four beehives, and one swarm). And while many urban gardeners must be content with window boxes, tiny patches of herbs, or small yard plots, Seattle has basically said that anyone, anywhere who has the space can turn 4,000 square feet over to the production of anything that will grow there.
The full text of the new rules included a lot of specifics about zoning, solar collectors, greenhouses, shellfish, and ponies. But any city council that allows you to build a pygmy-goat solarium and chicken ranch on top of your apartment building in the middle of downtown without any risk of you getting thrown in the pokey is a city council that deserves to be recognized for its defense of individual rights and for allowing its citizens to take full advantage of all the best their region has to offer. JASON SHEEHAN
2011 Pellegrini Award
A farmer who cultivates some 400 acres of land on various small plots near Sequim, Nash Huber grew up on a 180-acre Illinois farm and came to Washington in 1979 in his 30s, armed with a degree in chemistry. But when he came to the Dungeness Valley, he saw an opportunity to apply his understanding of soil chemistry to growing organic vegetables in what he perceived was some of the best dirt in North America.
Today, in addition to row crops and heirloom grains (which he sells at nine PCC Natural Markets and 11 neighborhood farmers markets), Huber employs about 25 people year-round—twice that many during peak season. He also raises livestock.
“Animal husbandry improves soil quality,” says Huber, dishing up some pork sausage made from his pastured pigs, demonstrating how improving soil quality incidentally provides delicious meat and eggs to his staff, his customers, and his family.
Angelo Pellegrini would have loved this breakfast. Pellegrini, who came to Washington from Tuscany in 1913, grew up to become a professor of English at the University of Washington. But he too was drawn to the soil. He cultivated his own small garden, chronicling his labors in a series of nine books and countless articles. In 1948, he authored a seminal work called The Unprejudiced Palate. The book became a kind of manifesto for food lovers, not only in the Pacific Northwest but all over North America. The work outlined not so much how to grow and cook food as how to approach the subject of food as part of a complete and meaningful life.
The work of both Pellegrini and Huber demonstrate just how essential good soil and good food can be in establishing a good life. But, at the end of the day, it was not Huber’s work as a farmer that prompted us to choose him as this year’s honoree. What merits the award is his ability to integrate his farm work with his concern for the natural environment, his compassion for those who work with him, and his contagious enthusiasm. His level of commitment is an inspiration for all those who come into his circle.
Huber embraces community involvement in both formal and informal ways. He was one of the founders of Friends of the Fields, a group dedicated to preserving farmland, which has since merged with the North Olympic Land Trust, preserving hundreds of acres of prime farmland and helping to protect the natural habitat of various species that thrive on the fringes of Olympic National Park. To familiarize community members with what happens on farms, that group also sponsors farm tours and barn dances in Huber’s packing shed twice a year.
But the most interesting example of Huber’s unique form of community outreach comes in the form of the Thursday men’s breakfast. If they had been closer in age, or lived in closer proximity, Pellegrini would almost certainly have joined Huber on Thursday mornings, when eight to 12 men gather to share food they have grown or prepared with their own hands. While most 21st-century social gatherings are fully inclusive of women, this group spontaneously formed around the friendship among this group of men and did not attract the women in their lives, with one exception: Wives and girlfriends join the men on Thanksgiving Day.
“The whole breakfast thing started about 20 years ago,” says Huber, “when a few of us would gather for breakfast at a local restaurant before our Thursday-morning bike ride. It didn’t take us too long to realize that we could probably make a better breakfast at home; and we knew we could make better coffee.”
Once the coffee is going at Huber’s house, someone heads to the back room to bring out an extra table. Early arrivals set the table and Paul Hansen starts heating up the waffle iron. Hansen raises lamb for a living, but on Thursday mornings he makes waffles made from wheat grown on Huber’s farm. Mark Spencer, a massage therapist, scrambles eggs. They might come from Huber’s own farm, or from laying hens kept by several other members of the group.
Conversation at the table leaps from art to politics to the best way to put up a jar of plums. On one side of the table, Bill Sallee, a contractor who specializes in green buildings, describes how he cans the homegrown fruit he provides for the group. Across the table, native Scotsman Ron Thompson explains his plans for greenhouses that will eventually harbor organically grown wasabi. Next to Thompson, Jim Williams—who, with his wife, owns and operates a holistic pet-care center—is discussing an organization he is involved in that promotes local buying and eating in Clallam County.
As the host of these gatherings, Huber is the glue that holds the group together. Watching him put in an encouraging word to a cancer survivor here or a proud dad there parallels the way he adds minerals and organic matter to the soil. His words and his questions are placed thoughtfully and intentionally—a little humor, a little wisdom—adding precisely what’s needed to nurture what’s growing, whether it’s a field of carrots or an entire community. GREG ATKINSON