Chef Jay Blackinton, 26, of Orcas Island taught himself to cook by preparing large meals for his punk friends in Seattle. Now, he’s nominated for Rising Star Chef of the Year by the James Beard Foundation – the Oscars for food. His restaurant, Hogstone’s Wood Oven, cooks food sourced exclusively from the island and is only two years old.
He raises his pigs, grows his vegetables and digs his clams. But he’s not sure exactly what to make of his newfound recognition.
To start, give me some background on how you got to where you are.
I grew up [on Orcas Island] off and on with my grandparents. Then I left home when I was 15. I decided I really needed to get off of the island and decided to strike out on my own and move to Seattle.
I got involved with the punk scene, just being a scumbag [Laughs]. Then I became a bike messenger and, while doing that, I started leaving in the summers to go back up to Orcas to work at Camp Orkila.
Eventually I got to the point with the city where I really had to move and get out of the city. A big reason for that was food in fact. I was, at the time, a vegan.
You were a vegan?
I was a very opinionated vegan [laughs]. Food has always been a big issue for me, more than just the enjoyment of eating it, but also the political food justice side of it. So I came to a point in all that philosophy where I realized that I really wanted to be a part of the food that I consumed.
In the city I was completely disconnected from that. I also realized that with the crappy vegan diet I had, there was no way I was ever going to keep in touch with all the ingredients in meat substitutes and whatever.
Chef Jay Blackinton at his farm on Orcas Island. Credit: Andrew Plotsky
That’s interesting. When I think vegan, I think vegetable. But you think it’s more disconnected?
Absolutely. This might be something that will piss people off, but I kind of believe veganism to be an urban privilege. To be able to do that and be fully aware requires quite a bit of money and access. I wanted to be part of the food chain. I wanted to eat meat, but the requirement was that I had to kill it so I came here and I did.
What was it like to go from being a vegan to killing your first animal?
Oh my god. It was tough. To this day it hasn’t gotten easy. But it’s gotten to the point where when I kill an animal, I see that we too will eventually feed something, even if it’s just maggots and worms. It’s kind of a grim thought, but it's brought me a lot of comfort.
Also, physically I feel awesome. I didn’t realize I felt so shitty for so long. The switch to meat wasn’t gradual at all and I felt alive.
Where did you learn to cook?
I’d made a lot of meals for a lot people before punk shows in Seattle, going dumpster diving. That’s how it continued for a long time. Then I moved out here and just kept going, reading and studying a lot. So I guess I’m self-taught, but I learned a lot from other people.
Talk about the beginning of your restaurant
It started as an underground thing we’d do every weekend at the farmer’s market. There got to be a bit of buzz around it and it got really busy. We loved it. We were picking food we’d grow on our farm. Then we thought, why don’t we just do this? We were already really busy, so why not just add something else on?
We were completely naïve. But we knew that and that was our strength. Then one day this spot came open that used to be a real estate office, then a pie shop that went out of business and we just jumped on it. We gathered $15,000, which is nothing, and started a restaurant. We’re still trying to figure it out.
Jay Blackinton's restaurant, Hogstone's Wood Oven, at night. Credit: Andrew Plotsky
How would you describe the philosophy of Hogstone? This is something I struggle with every time. We’re sort of trying to re-radicalize the phrase farm-to-table. It’s not something we ever use to describe what we do because it’s become such a marketing tool.
You go to the city and there’s all kinds of “farm-to-table” restaurants. But buying supplementary produce along with stuff from all over the place is not what I think of when I think of farm-to-table. We cook exclusively with what we have on the island. Recently we ran out of pork and that was it: no more meat.
So it’s hard to put into words, but I’d say our philosophy is to create a cuisine with what we have right here, right now. As opposed to farm-to-table, we call ourselves northwest agrarian cuisine.
Northwest agrarian cuisine. I like that. It sounds like a lot of work. What does it take to put a meal on the table?
Like I said, in our naiveté we still don’t really know what it takes to run a restaurant [laughs]. But ideally, I get up and work on the farm for a couple hours harvesting whatever we might need for the day and definitely forgetting like three things [laughs].
Then I go into town and hand off the ingredients to my sous chef Ryan and he starts getting things ready for the menu, which might change weekly or daily depending on what we have. While I’m menu planning or receiving deliveries, John will be out maintaining the farm. That’s one of the biggest questions is how we maintain a restaurant and farm and the answer is we divide and conquer. Everyday we’re trying to get more and more organized.
How many people do you have?
We have a really tiny team. At the restaurant, it’s just me and Ryan. With this nomination, we definitely have to beef up the kitchen. But from a financial standpoint, having a payroll at all is hard. Especially up here where everything is so seasonal. Everything closes in the winter. Like right now, we’re closed doing kitchen remodeling.
How did you find out about the nomination and what was your reaction?
Here’s the thing: I did nothing. I don’t think there’s anyway you can, like, pursue it. Someone out there nominated me, completely unbeknownst to me. I found out on the morning they announced it via Instagram [laughs].
Yeah. A friend of mine who’s a cook in New York tagged me in something on Instagram saying “Congratulations.”
I went and I looked and it was the James Beard Foundation’s Instagram feed and there was a picture of the medal. And I was like, “No way. What kind of bullshit is this?” [laughs]. But then I looked at their list and our name was there.
So what did you do?
It blew me on my ass [laughs]. I was out in the parking lot and I just sat down. I was dazed for a while and didn’t tell anyone. Then I called my mom and that was it. Then word got out, which has been really overwhelming. I’ve been getting a lot of congratulations, which is really nice, but it felt like, “How is it that we deserve this?” We’re rookies. Sure, what we’re doing is unique, but we’re not experts at this.
It must be crazy. Looking at the other local nominees in various categories, there’s Canlis, Wild Ginger, Ethan Stowell. Big names, you know? It must be a trip.
It’s totally nuts. Those are all people that have been around for a really long time. Being in the company of that … we’re definitely the lowest tier there. We’re the new kids and we’re feeling that.
But it’s also fun because there’s myself and Blaine Wetzel of the Willows Inn on Lummi Island. He won rising star last year and this year he’s nominated for best chef.
What does that say about the direction food’s going? You’re getting these nods and he’s getting these nods. I don’t see that happening twenty years ago.
No, definitely not. The islands are these harbors of really awesome ingredients and it just happens that there are people like myself and Blaine who recognize that this is something exceptional. Especially when you look at us exclusively using these things. The oysters on our menu are called “Oysters from 344 yards away.” The thing for us is we can say that. There are not many restaurants that can say the same thing.
I don’t see the Canlis chefs walking down to the ship canal and pulling up some oysters.
What do you eat when you’re not at the restaurant?
I mostly subsist off kale and potatoes. I try not to dive into our pork anymore because it’s for our customers [laughs]. I used to do more elaborate meals at home, but now it feels like we do that all day. I try really hard to eat with as much integrity as we cook in the restaurant, so I’m not a complete hypocrite.
Awesome. When do you find out if you won?
March 24th. And there’s nothing we can do about it. We can’t tell people to go out and vote for us. I guess the first thing we need is to finish this kitchen and get open just in case someone from the foundation wants to come eat here [laughs].
Good luck, for sure.
Originally published at 3:46 p.m. Feb. 20. Corrections, February 22nd: An earlier version of this story named Jay's farm partner as Tom, when in fact his name is John.
Jay also wanted to clarify that, while he does raise and harvest animals, he does not consider himself a butcher.