Chefs eat 'normal' food, too, just like the rest of us

Eating on the Edge: Street food, takeout pizza, Dick's deluxe burgers, and a bag of potato chips. Seattle's star chefs aren't always chi-chi when it comes to eating.

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Shaun McCrain advises a chef at Book Bindery.

Eating on the Edge: Street food, takeout pizza, Dick's deluxe burgers, and a bag of potato chips. Seattle's star chefs aren't always chi-chi when it comes to eating.

I assume serious and respectable restaurant critics with names like Ruth Reichl, Frank Bruni, and S. Irene Virbila, and all those critics without names who award coveted Michelin stars on occasion, eat a chili dog or some form of meat grilled on the street — they just do not write about it.

Along that same line of thinking, I assume serious and accomplished chefs, of which Seattle has many, on occasion eat from trucks or enjoy some kind of hand-held meal wrapped in paper — they just do not put it on their menus. In theory, professional chefs can eat the very best, highly refined food whenever they want, be it of their own creation or of a colleague’s, so for them it might seem more special or even decadent to eat something that is downright ordinary.

I had long suspected as much but never directly asked until one day when Shaun McCrain, the chef of the new restaurant Book Bindery, volunteered this: “I love street food.” Not exactly a revelation but a meaningful discovery nonetheless.

It turned out McCrain, while living and working in Paris in his 20s, frequented carts that served crepes and shwarmas (a.k.a doner kebab, gyro), the universal fast food of Europe that is to the rest of the world what a burrito is to America. He was young and poor, he said, and they tasted good. As a line cook at some of Paris’ best restaurants, he earned so little he went into debt. Later when he moved to New York to help open Per Se as its sous chef, he found a burger joint he loved so much he kept eating there even though he once saw a rodent shuttling across its floors.

The last restaurant Shaun McCrain ate in that was not his own was Jerry Traunfeld’s Poppy; Traunfeld was an idol of McCrain’s when he was in culinary school. He no longer needs to, nor does he necessarily want to, eat standing up. Here in Seattle he has not yet found his soulmate hole-in-the-wall, but his philosophy remains pragmatic.

“It’s how I’ve always eaten,” said McCrain, who lives in lower Queen Anne. “I don’t like to spend a lot of money and be let down. I don’t want to spend hundreds on a meal without some verbal assurance first.”

He was somewhat reluctant to put it this way, but McCrain, who is now 35, summed it up as, “Eat simple and be safe.”

At Book Bindery, he works probably a little harder than most executive chefs because the dining room, with seating for about two dozen, and his kitchen staff are small. Not all executive chefs of his caliber have to pin-bone bass fillets or break down whole chickens, but he does. The restaurant, which opened last fall, will double its capacity this spring when its greenhouse dining room opens. By then it will likely expand its menu, which is intentionally concise.

McCrain, a Northwest native who had not lived here since 2000, started his kitchen staff from scratch and spends most of his energy making sure the food is and remains perfect. He is considerably exhausted by Sunday, his one day off, and the last thing he wants to do is cook. His girlfriend sometimes cooks for him. She was intimidated at first but, a good cook herself, has since become comfortable with the task — a roast chicken perhaps, or broccoli rabe with white beans and sausage. Otherwise, McCrain understandably wants to eat out.

“I like a nice slice of pizza,” he said, “or a good piece of sushi, stuff that you can tell someone was really passionate about making. I can appreciate a good sandwich if it’s made well…I seek out things I don’t do here.” Which tends to mean Italian and Asian.

So far, McCrain has eaten most frequently at Serious Pie, the downtown pizzeria owned by Tom Douglas. McCrain’s favorite pie is the guanciale (cured pork jowl), egg, and dandelion green. His other favorite is the clam and pancetta. He eats sushi regularly, eschewing the gimmicky rolls with clever names, caked with cream cheese, stuffed with tempura, or slathered with teriyaki sauce, a preference I happen to share completely.

These whimsical creations, the naughty-flying-volcano-Belltown roll or some similarly named monstrosity, have more in common with the cocktail culture than the traditional discipline of sushi, which is really about grading the freshness and quality of a piece of fish, cutting it to the right size and shape, marrying it to a mound of rice that was rinsed and measured and cooked to an exact consistency and bite.

“I like tradition,” McCrain said. It is true of what he eats and what he cooks, relatively simple dishes done to a rigorous standard.

The difference between the good restaurants and the great ones, McCrain said, is exceptional products, focus and good leadership. Integrity is not the easiest thing to spot on a menu or a website. The Book Bindery’s modest menu consists of a half dozen or so entrees and about the same number of starting courses. It is not the only restaurant to have ever served seared bass, roasted chicken, or an apple and pork belly salad, but few could argue that any establishment in or out of Seattle serves a better rendition.

“My goal,” McCrain said, “is not to be a trend-setter…I’m not trying to be better than Canlis, or trying to be the guy in the spotlight. I do want to keep the restaurant full.”

So far, he has.

McCrain grew up on a 10-acre farm in the small town of Elmira, Ore., just outside Eugene. His family grew their own vegetables and raised pigs, cattle, chickens, ducks, and rabbits. It was the kind of life imagined, aspired to, commemorated and fetish-ized by the food world these days. But to a young boy in the 1980s who would rather be riding his dirt bike, his family’s garden and assorted animals were just chores. McCrain never once thought he wanted to be a chef when he grew up.

His parents divorced when Shaun was seven, obliging him to cook at a young age. One of the first things he learned to make was a pot roast, nothing special by any stretch. His mother was a homemaker, his father a plumber, neither of them exceptional cooks. The most he could say about growing up on a farm and cooking as a boy is that he did not hate it, that it always made natural sense to him, and without knowing it at the time, he learned what good ingredients were.

After high school, he got his first restaurant job, washing dishes in the restaurant of the Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood, where he moved so he could snowboard every day. The chef noticed a knack and mentored McCrain through the kitchen as he moved up the line.

He attended culinary school at Seattle Central Community College to “make it official” and upon graduation got a job as a station chef at the Painted Table. There, he started an enviable progression that took him next to San Francisco (Masa’s, La Folie), then Paris (Les Elysees Du Vernet, Taillevent), then New York, where he helped open the acclaimed Per Se with chef Thomas Keller, then back to northern California (Michael Mina, Bardessono), before coming back to the Northwest, where for the first time he is the chef in charge and can “give back the knowledge,” he said.

Like many chefs I’ve spoken to, McCrain has a predilection for Vietnamese food, the aromatic broths, the graceful condiments, the unexpected elegance that comes from grilling meat. Christine Keff, the chef of Flying Fish, spent a year traveling through Vietnam and southeast Asia, crediting that experience with transforming her understanding of food and cooking. Chef Seth Caswell of Emmer & Rye, when asked to name his favorite casual food, said “without a doubt bahn mi,” the Vietnamese sandwich of grilled pork, shredded vegetables and French bread.

The consensus holds that if the food culture of Seattle has a distinct accent, it is Asian.

“I like ethnic food with a different taste palate" than what he works with at his own restaurant, McCrain said. “I crave flavors like soy sauce or Thai basil.”

So it seems he is like many chefs, who despite of, or perhaps because of, what they do for a living enjoy eating relatively simple food:

Ericka Burke, chef at the Volunteer Park Café, admitted to frequenting Dick’s Drive-In for its Deluxe and fries with tartar sauce as well, as the Rancho Bravo taco truck a block away.

The Wallingford truck is also where chef Brandon Kirksey likes to go on his day off. “Bravo burrito, torta al pastor, lengua tacos, and horchata,” said Kirksey of Tavolata, “and all for under 20 bucks!”

Chef Charles Walpole of Anchovies & Olives munches on Tim's salt and vinegar potato chips. They are “something I always eat at home,” he said.

The head of the four-restaurant, Tavolata-Anchovies-Wolf-Staple & Fancy empire, chef Ethan Stowell, said he is a big fan of the croissants from Café Besalu and on his night off has been known to have pizza delivered to his home from Pagliacci.

“My wife likes the Brooklyn (with pepperoni, sausage, mushroom, olives, peppers),”  Stowell said. “I like the plain cheese pizza.”


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Hugo Kugiya

A former national correspondent for The Associated Press and Newsday, freelance writer Hugo Kugiya has written about the Northwest for the Puget Sound Business Journal, The Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, and The New York Times. His book, 58 Degrees North, about the sinking of the Arctic Rose fishing vessel, was a finalist for the 2006 Washington State Book Award. You can reach him at