When Kris Martin was a young boy growing up in Venice Beach, Calif., in the 1980s, the object of his hero worship was not a football star, a film idol, or a surf god, but a restaurant critic for a local television station named Elmer Dills who had thinning hair, graying sideburns, and a gently bulging tummy that came from eating without many limits.
“I decided he had the best job I could imagine,” said Martin, himself an indiscriminate eater.
Dills, a populist, emphasized interesting and cheap over dazzling and expensive, working to nearly age 80 — he recently died, in 2008 at age 82.
Still Martin eventually put aside his love of eating and food, and went a different direction. He attended the University of Washington and earned two degrees in computer science, going to work at first for the university, then later for Microsoft in jobs where he was more evangelist than technician.
He was an outreach specialist for the UW, hired to convince school kids it was cool to study math and work with computers. At Microsoft, where he is currently employed, he is what he calls a “conceptual designer” — an enviable job. Its meaning distilled, his job is to construe the future, producing videos that “explore how people’s lives might be different in five to 10 years,” he said. “…Like a day in the life in a parallel universe.”
His concepts do not have to be viable or feasible, but ought to inspire others at the company to develop feasible and viable products. If the corporation is an organism with limbs, a skeleton, a vascular system, and a brain, Martin’s team is its imagination, dreamy stuff for any employee in any company.
So it might seem odd that a few years ago, Martin listened with envy when a friend talked about cooking in her small restaurant in Ballard, A Caprice Kitchen (which closed last summer after almost three years in business). He told his friend, the chef Anne Catherine Kruger, he was jealous how much practice she got working full time in a kitchen.
“I told her I wanted to volunteer to chop onions in exchange for organic chickens,” Martin said. “She told me I could come in on Wednesdays and cut up all the onions I wanted.”
Every week for about four months, he worked as a prep cook in the kitchen for the compensation of two chickens, eventually working the line for brunch. The restaurant served no more than 30 people at once.
Acting out those dormant urges led eventually to the Sprout dinners, the thrice-yearly, church-banquet fundraisers that have become a word-of-mouth sensation on Capitol Hill. The sixth Sprout dinner, called Sprout 6 (they are all numbered), was served on a recent Saturday (March 31) at the All Pilgrims Christian Church at Broadway and Republican. The money raised from this and all Sprout dinners was given to a deserving artist chosen by the diners in a simple format reminiscent of a reality show.
“I’ve always toyed with the idea of having a restaurant,” Martin said, “and I think Sprout is my reality check every few months of the perils of having a restaurant. I get to have a little burst of energy, and I get to feel the exhaustion too.”
Putting on a Sprout dinner is a logistics hat trick — the team serves a large number of people, all at once, and on a very limited budget. Diners pay $25 for three courses, including dessert. The first four dinners were served family style; the last two were fully plated affairs.
To minimize overhead – Sprout pays $300 to rent the church – organizers solicited donations of food. Tall Grass Bakery donated baguettes; Hilliard’s donated beer; the Top Banana produce stand in Ballard provided discounted vegetables. Except for the $100 Sprout pays to hire two dishwashers, all the labor is free. Sprout budgets only $500-$600 for the cost of all the food, or a little more than $3 per person.
“In a sense, serving food to people is the most intimate form of design,” Martin said, relating his avocation to his vocation. “In general for me, it’s an expression of caring for people.”
Diners eat communally at several long tables put end to end to run nearly the length of the room, and listen to the presentations of the artists who applied to be part of Sprout. For Sprout 6 Celeste Cooning created large, elaborate art installations made of cut paper; Eric Becker created a documentary about the plight of native Americans in the Black Hills of South Dakota; Anh Nguyen and Devin McDermott performed an excerpt from a piece they called Spaghetti Co; bassist John Teske played a solo piece he composed; Andrew Bartels and Jacob Uitti pitched their literary journal; Maile Martinez, Lane Stroud, and Sami Kubo pitched a film project.
Sprout has predecessors like FEAST (Funding Emerging Art with Sustainable Tactics) in Brooklyn, and Sunday Soup in Chicago. Like Sprout, the others serve food banquet style and use the proceeds to fund the work of local artists. The organizations are a form of micro-grants for the arts — a sort of live version of Kickstarter, the crowd-funding website that connects inventors and artists with funders.
The Sprout dinners also bring to mind, albeit unintentionally, other dining trends, like communal dinners and pop-up restaurants. Sprout meals began as simple affairs, a bowl of pasta, soup, or tacos, but have become more ambitious.
“The quality of the food adds to the quality of the evening,” said Stephanie Billings, who has attended the last two Sprout dinners. “I’m really there for the art, so the food is like an added bonus ... the first time I went and walked in, I was surprised by the venue, and the way the tables were set up. I wasn’t expecting it to be cafeteria style. Then the food came out, and I thought, ‘Oh, this is really good…’ When you walk in, you wonder if the food is going to be mac and cheese.”
Sprout is run by an unpaid staff of five. Kristen Hoskins and Sarah Steininger founded the organization two years ago. They put Martin in charge of the food after the first dinner. Two others, Ben Shown and Stephen Jeong, also make up the core of Sprout. To stage each dinner, the staff recruits about 10 more volunteers to help set up, serve, and clean.
The responsibility of the meal itself has fallen mostly to Martin, who does the cooking, although he often enlists the help of professional chefs. Last fall Sprout managed to get Philippe Thomelin, the head chef at Olivar a few blocks from the church, to prepare a dinner of squash stuffed with pork shoulder, probably the most elaborate entrée to be served at Sprout. Thomelin also lives in Capitol Hill with his family and viewed his contribution as a gesture to the community, Martin said.
For this last dinner, Martin consulted with two professionals: his friend Kruger, who is now a personal chef, and Steve Corson, who works as a research chef.
Diners at Sprout 6 ate coddled eggs served on beds of baby kale tossed in a citrus dressing. Coddling an egg can be a delicate and precise process, more so when one decides to coddle 150 eggs at the same time.
To meet the task, Martin built from scratch an immersion circulator, a fancy name for a slow poacher. He watched an online tutorial and ordered parts from a website, putting his contraption to use for the first time at the Sprout dinner. He set the temperature at 65 degrees centigrade (water boils at 100) intending not so much to cook the eggs but to set them. Of course the machine broke down, losing its ability to regulate the temperature, so Martin stayed on the batch manually.
“I was probably sweating that detail a little too much,” Martin said.
The dinner swayed noticeably toward vegetarians, partly as a way of cutting costs and also because Martin has noticed as many as a third of Sprout diners are typically vegetarians. For the meat eaters in the church, Martin set out tall paper cups filled with bacon strips.
Sprout served its first dinner August, 2010 in the Fremont Abbey Arts Center and became an instant hit. After two successful dinners in Fremont, Sprout moved the feast to All Pilgrims, which is a little larger, cheaper to rent, and came with a better kitchen. A dinner is planned for each season except for winter, when local produce is harder to come by and Sprout’s staff takes a break.
All of the dinners so far have sold out, each one earlier than the previous one even as the organizers raised the price of dinner from $20 to $25 last year. Sprout does not advertise, so the attendance has all been word of mouth.
“I haven’t been able to articulate myself what is so magical about bringing food into the equation,” Martin said. “The act of sitting down and eating creates a certain kind of openness and familiarity. It brings a certain feeling of connection and community… My parents live in the suburbs, they don’t go to galleries, or to art walks, but they come to this, and they feel cool all of a sudden.”
As the crowd at Sprout 6 finished up semolina cake, they voted for the presentation they liked best, filling out ballots placed at each seat. The ballots were counted quickly and the winner announced. Cooning took first place, earning a modest grant of $1,100; Becker was the runner-up and winner of a $600 grant, although he received an extra $100 from someone at the dinner who was particularly impressed with his project.
Even when artists do not win grants, they sometimes receive help in other forms — an artist from the previous dinner received an unsolicited offer of a free sewing machine from one of the diners. These serendipitous connections are also part of the Sprout experience, Martin said.
“I don’t think we’ve quite tapped into being a darling of the Seattle arts community, nor are we a darling of the food scene,” Martin said before pausing. “Maybe that’s just right.”
If you go: Dinners are held three times a year; the next dinner is July 14 at the All Pilgrims Christian Church in Capitol Hill, 500 Broadway Avenue East. Tickets $25. http://sproutseattle.org/