A tiny sample of some of the Northwest’s finest farm-to-table food is hidden away on 21 acres of Woodinville farmland.
The quality is only a surprise until seeing who heads the culinary program at 21 Acres, a nonprofit farm and education center with a small retail farm market. The culinary director and executive chef is the multitalented Emily Moore, one of the leading names of the rejuvenated Seattle dining scene of the 1990s.
Moore has been out of the general public’s eye for several years, leaving restaurant work to teach at culinary schools, most recently the local branch of Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts. When cooking at The Painted Table at the Alexis Hotel, though, she won then-Times critic John Hinterberger’s first four-star review in 17 years on the job. He called Moore the city’s most exciting new talent, not trendy but transcendent, creating “a unity of food, concept and human interaction.” She went on to cook or consult at a “peripatetic” handful of now-defunct restaurants like Theoz and Vina, one of the first examples of the city’s proliferation of wine bars.
At 21 Acres, casual visitors can get a small sample of Moore’s take on Northwest food at the seasonal farm market, currently open Wednesday-Saturday (find hours online at 21acres.org/market). It’s primarily a retail spot for fresh produce and other locally grown goods like wheat berries from the Methow Valley or canned tomatoes from fellow high-profile chef Brian Scheehser’s nearby farm. But there’s also a to-go only deli case (the center’s zoning prohibits anything more restaurant-like) featuring simple but stunning seasonal salads and soups, the sorts of dishes that wouldn’t feel out of place at current Seattle restaurants that win national acclaim.
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“We don’t have a can opener,” Moore declared.
Depending on the season, offerings might include nettle soup or zucchini fritters, house-cured bacon or pulled pork or an elegant little bundle of pickled asparagus, a salad of baby turnips, or lemon-scented vegetables seasoned with lemon balm or lemon verbena rather than actual citrus because the farm center doesn’t use any tropical fruits. Breads are baked with additions like colorful vegetable powders made from dehydrated farm-grown beets and greens. Most recently, Moore and her team have been making cider vinegar and smooth herb-scented apple butters from a large haul of Cameo apples that were juiced at the farm. Crocks of kimchi are fermenting with layers of hop and cherry and fig leaves from the farm as a natural crisping agent.
For cooking, they use high-heat oil pressed from Skagit-grown camelina seeds, cut with Oregon sunflower oil. “We don’t use any olive oil and we don’t miss it … I love the earthy flavor of camelina, I think it’s really earth and grassy, it’s got a little fruitiness to it,” she said.
The 21 Acres job is a teaching one even more than a cooking one. Moore leads public cooking classes on topics like a springtime foray into strawberry jams and a late-summer course on smoking meats in a wood-fired oven. The center also has a licensed processing kitchen, and Moore works with farmers on “value-added” products like curing their own bacon and ham.
“I am privileged to work with farmers every day, that’s who my colleagues are,” she said.
It’s not as much of a stretch as it might seem for a former fine-dining chef.
Moore, a former ceramics artist and music student, lived and cooked in “very, very rural situations” in her ’20s, including years in a small community on a remote British Columbia lake. She learned “how do everything” with a family that had homesteaded there — preserve foods, work with wild-caught yeast, make pectin, raise chickens for eggs, bake on a wood cookstove.
“They lived completely, in almost every way, self-sustainably. There was no road to town, so they had to take boats across the lake, and then they built the road themselves … We’d go out with our chain saws — we were young! — and get in seven cords of wood a winter.”
There is no choice, to her, but to cook seasonally.
“You just don’t think about strawberries in the winter … that’s just the way I’m built,” she said.
Work as a restaurant chef, though, also became ingrained in her life.
After cooking in Seattle and Portland as a self-trained cook, Hinterberger noted in the Times, she went to France for her formal training, earning certification at an official vocational tech program of the city of Paris educational system, rather than one of the fancier and pricier schools, learning “to master French techniques and apply them to the universe of foods.”
She eventually moved on to teaching herself in culinary schools, partly because it allowed her to have a home life, something restaurant cooking rarely permits.
“When I’m cheffing in a restaurant I’m a very hands-on chef. I’m not just going to be there 9 to 5 and let my sous chef take care of dinner … I was in my 50s, and I thought, this is good, I can do more of what I am skilled at and pass it on,” she said.
Teaching gave her an even greater appreciation of the value of good training and a good education, she said — and at 21 Acres she’s hired talented externs and a sous chef from her former schools.
“At my job even here the burden is incredibly eased because I have some wonderfully talented and responsible and conscientious people,” she said.
She was initially drawn to 21 Acres because she wanted to host a youth farming camp, the sort of project that’s supported on the center, which is devoted to all areas of sustainable agriculture. (Features range from a community garden to composting toilets to rental conference rooms.)
Moore said she might have another restaurant in her some day, but for now her mind is on upcoming ideas: Farm dinners, perhaps, and a soup CSA, and more classes, and new projects like experimenting with making natural maraschino cherries, and cracking open apricot and peach pits to make an almond-flavored extract from the kernels inside.
“I’m teaching all the time now,” she said — and learning, too.
Rebekah Denn writes about food at seattletimes.com/allyoucaneat