The Copperleaf Restaurant opened in June, the latest in a category of restaurants in Seattle that serves refined, thoughtfully sourced, re-imagined, regional cooking. To the city's credit there are more than a few of these places, run by experienced and creative chefs who understand a lot can be made from the local flora and fauna.
Increasingly, eating is becoming an exercise in social responsibility, an obligation to understand the food chain, biology, and the ecosystem, to measure the environmental impact and the origins of what you put in your mouth. To eat with intergrity, rather than consume blindly, is a badge of honor in certain eating circles, Seattle being one of them.
The Copperleaf and its chef Mark Bodinet — he was formerly the saucier at The French Laundry in Napa Valley, considered one of the best restaurants in the world — have raised the ante in interesting ways, starting with the location of the place. The restaurant, which is part of a boutique hotel, the Cedarbrook Lodge, lies about one mile from the runways of Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, tucked behind an unsightly subdivision of ramshackle, mid-century ramblers.
The property is almost literally an oasis, 18 acres of wetland surrounded by parking lots, hotels, the rabble of Pacific Highway South, and a neighborhood of houses the city’s moneyed class would consider tear-downs. From here you can see the backside of the Doubletree Hotel and the airport's control tower. A casualty of the recent banking crisis, the property formerly belonged to now-defunct Washington Mutual, which spent $60 million building the architectural showpiece as a retreat and training center for some its executives. After Chase bank purchased Washington Mutual, it unloaded the property to the current owner of the lodge and restaurant for “pennies on the dollar,' according to Roy Breiman, Cedarbrook's culinary director.
The new owners had to do very little when they moved into the space, seizing on the opportunity to conduct an experiment in "culture-building," as Breiman put it.
"This can be an inspirational model of what is possible in a unique urban environment," Breiman said while showing off the restaurant's fledgling garden. "We're not Cave B (a hotel, winery, and restaurant in eastern Washington), we're not the Herbfarm (in Woodinville). We're in an urban environment. It's almost more vital to try this here."
The Copperleaf's setting is unique. It has neither acres upon open acres, nor is it limited to a city lot. (Ten of the property's 18 acres are protected wetland.) It is a fair example of what can be cultivated and consumed in a suburban environment. The kitchen garden amounts to three raised beds but will eventually consume the entire patch of grass behind the 34-seat dining room. The space is about the size of a suburban backyard.
For now, the harvest is limited but Bodinet uses what he can: various lettuces, English peas, baby radishes, baby carrots, strawberries, lavender, tarragon, sage, mint and verbena. Many of the herbs become garnishes for cocktails. The wet spring delayed the fruiting of the garden's heirloom tomatoes, but the first few have arrived. In time, the garden will be prolific and supply a considerable amount of produce for the menu, although it can never fully support the kitchen.
In the brush beyond the garden, the staff has started a colony of brandywine mushrooms, inoculating wood chips with mushroom spores and covering them with damp straw. The patch should sprout this fall. There has been talk of a chicken coop, perhaps for eggs. The restaurant composts its kitchen scraps and will eventually have enough to fertilize its garden. Rainwater is collected in two ponds and used to water the grounds.
The point is not for the restaurant to become completely self-sufficient but to show that a lot can be accomplished in a limited environment, and to encourage customers to try the same at home even if the effort is small. The overriding message seems to be that fine food can be something simple if it is done with heart, like a sliced, homegrown tomato sprinkled with salt. To that end, the staff gave away vegetable seeds to customers this month.
The menu and staff make clear the sourcing of the ingredients and the philosophy of the restaurant. Most of the meat and produce come from the state, and when nature allows, from the restaurant's backyard. Some items are sourced from Oregon, northern California, and Alaska.
The intent is not just to set an example, but to raise the food IQ of the eating public, to undo decades of blissful ignorance instituted by the food industry, which operated in the name of convenience, efficiency, shelf life, and low cost. These are not entirely bad things, but they contributed to a culture that is disconnected from its food and unaware of its true variety. So we like our meat bland and boneless, our tomatoes and apples red and round, our herbs dried. We think nothing of eating blueberries in February or brussel sprouts in June.
Bodinet cooks according to the seasons, which means the menu changes vastly during the year. He strives for variety, cooking small (albeit less popular) creatures like rabbit, squab, and, yes, fresh sardines caught off the Washington coast. He wants you to consider certain questions like whether your fish is farmed, whether your beef comes from a feedlot, and whether it eats grass or corn, and whether your produce arrived by truck or plane or freighter. In some cases there are no absolutely right or wrong answers, but he wants you to consider them.
"There are tradeoffs and to live by one code is nearly impossible," Bodinet said. "What we're trying to do is open up people's minds… It irritates the heck out of me when I'm in the grocery store in January and I see people pick up a melon and squeeze and smell it like it's going to be fresh.”
One take on his philosophy is that he is promoting the joy of anticipation or a certain amount of deprivation, that blueberries and peaches and tomatoes eaten in the summer and harvested nearby will not only taste sweeter but will be a richer experience because of their scarcity. In his restaurant, Bodinet cures his own salmon, smokes his own pork belly, pickles his own radishes, mixes his own sorbet and ice cream, and tries to nudge his customers to consider doing the same.
The Copperleaf is building on a trend, not starting one. The Bastille Café & Bar in Ballard operates a heated, rooftop garden; Crush on Capitol Hill has started its own garden in a nearby vacant lot. As pointed out in another Crosscut article, developers of high-end real estate are increasingly viewing small urban farms as amenities like swimming pools and golf courses. Farmers' markets are booming as is the growth in popularity of the virtual, online farming game, FarmVille.
"This is really where the future is," said Breiman. "We're not preaching this stuff. We're trying to enrich our customers in subtle ways… to allow each person's process to take place and provide for them the content and interesting components to identify with. The idea is that we can position ourselves to give people information which they may adopt and further develop. That is all we can hope for."
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