Co-authored with Lee Glenn
Lee's sailing detour left me with two weeks of flying solo near Seattle, sourcing local stories for our Farm to Fork Across America editorial series. It was also an opportunity to catch up on writing from a wave of interviews in California and Oregon. Transmitting via sat-phone, Lee and I found ourselves apart, though together, sharing edits on a daily basis. I also lined up more remarkable people to document current American agrarian history, as we are an intimate part of the food chain as its eaters.
On this list was world-renowned chef Jerry Traunfeld, formerly of The Herbfarm just outside of Seattle. The venue was a converted cottage seating just 32, literally the nucleus of an herb farm on 17 acres near the Cascade mountain range. Exotic then, a year's worth of reservations happened in a week's worth of calls, filling the weekend dinners and lunches with a waiting list from around the world.
I photographed The Herbfarm for Bon Appétit 15 years ago, enjoying the then-unique experience of delectable dishes sourced straight from the on-site garden. As Jerry plated each of the seven courses in the center of the dining room, he described the use and history of the local ingredients. Today, there are more restaurants serving straight from their own gardens, a healthy approach thankfully becoming more commonplace than 20 years ago.
While still at The Herbfarm, Jerry took a trip to India with the Culinary Institute of America to reinvigorate his culinary senses. 2008: Cut to Jerry's reentry to the Seattle scene, invigorated with a culinary reawakening influenced by India. He opened Poppy, naturally with a garden, but this time in raised beds taking up several of the parking spaces in its urban location. Four years later, Poppy has a dedicated following. In Jerry's words: "In part, because we keep the food real -- no pretense, not manipulated."
He came back from India excited about the concept of Thali, a tray of many small dishes served at once to each diner. He uses a rotation of seasonal herbs and spices to infuse daily specials, with a commitment to hyper-local sources. This is Poppy's signature. For Jerry, "Food is precious." This is the soul of Poppy's kitchen.
After the Bon Appétit shoot, Jerry hired me to shoot photographs for his first cookbook, The Herbfarm. We shot through an entire season while I collected some of his favorite books for inspiration... they are still prominent in my kitchen. Though we hadn't kept in touch, his approach had left such an indelible mark on me so that the opportunity to interview him a dozen years later was truly appropriate for our series.
I forfeited the opportunity to eat at Poppy in order to meet Jerry at his home... better to catch up and interview, with the added bonus of a home cooked meal in his personal kitchen. Naturally, I also wanted to experience the kitchen of a master chef.
Meandering on narrow, winding roads in a hilly Seattle neighborhood, Jerry's 1930s home stood out, the only deco house fronted by a garden of herbs and vegetables. Apparently ageless, Jerry greeted me outside and led me into his vintage kitchen which included a pull-out range, once state-of-the-art. I found its austere simplicity exactly in keeping with his inherent culinary beliefs, though he is planning a remodel. Since the stove and oven do not work to full capacity, his deliberate "slow-cooking methods maintain rich colors, delicate textures and bold flavors that are in keeping with Seattle's lack of embrace of the fancy or fussy."
On that late August morning, Jerry prepared a signature dish of wild king salmon caught by the Makah Tribe of Neah Bay, Washington. The butter slowly melted and simmered with Pinot Gris, while Jerry gave me a tour of the extensive gardens. We gathered shiso, tarragon, chervil, lemon thyme, basil and the flowers of fennel, borage and nasturtium for the delicate salmon dressing while he told me his personal story.
Grounded by his mother, Poppy, Jerry was rooted in the dawn of the modern farm-to-table movement. He was weaned on wheat germ, carob and the thinking of renowned nutritionist Adelle Davis, which, for a teenage boy, was pretty strange to his peers. Eventually, he fully embraced this path as it coincided with its own tipping point, moving from alternative to a much wider audience. Today, Jerry feels that people are getting a little weary of the empty marketing rhetoric of "farm to table, without the requisite personal commitment." Correspondingly, he believes the trend is towards street food -- authentic, iconic, from other cultures.
Still in the garden, Jerry put the finishing touches on the herb-and-flower-infused butter sauce and dressed our plates with the salmon, which was so pink it still looked raw. We toasted with a Terrapin Cellars Pinot Gris 2011 to celebrate getting together again. Sitting outside and peering down onto Puget Sound, the light, warm breeze over the gardens enhanced the flavor of the herbs and of the freshly caught salmon. It reminded me, once again, that there is nothing like the simple magic of eating in and from your own back yard.