Cooking — and life — advice from esteemed local chef and overall good human Wayne Johnson as he takes on a new role at FareStart.

Share story

Wayne Johnson and FareStart make such an absurdly good match, it was hard to know which of them to congratulate first when he was officially named executive chef of the organization last month. The James Beard Award-winning nonprofit has been providing restaurant-industry job training for Seattle’s homeless and underprivileged for decades, while the beloved local chef leaves behind 16 years of elevated dining to devote himself to this ground-floor good work. Facebook lit up as the Seattle food community reverberated with love.

Chefs these days are giving back in higher-profile ways: Roy Choi and Daniel Patterson’s L.A.-based “fast-food revolution” Locol, Daniel Giusti’s departure from hallowed Noma to fix America’s school lunches. If such shifts toward fostering food equity from restaurant pros constitute a trend, it’s an extremely welcome one. But while Wayne Johnson’s switch might seem sudden, he’s been involved with FareStart all along.

In 1999, Johnson — known fairly universally as “Chef Wayne” — moved to Seattle to take the helm of posh Andaluca, located in the Mayflower Park Hotel downtown. Living in the hotel those first few months, Johnson heard about FareStart — then operating at the Josephinum Apartments, just two blocks away — and, having a heart of solid gold, immediately started helping.

“I’d get out on Mondays, ’cause it was my day off,” he says, “and I’d just go and help out, not knowing anything about the program.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks.

“It was really casual in the beginning,” he recalls. “I was coming in the back door, ‘Hey guys!’  ” Over the years since, first at Andaluca, then as chef of Seattle institution Ray’s Boathouse and co-owner of Renton’s Shuga Jazz Bistro, Johnson “always kept track of the program.” He estimates he probably cooked for a dozen Guest Chef Nights — FareStart’s weekly dinners when some of the city’s best come in to make their own menus with the students, open to the public at a bargain price. (Coming up this month: Poppy’s Jerry Traunfeld and Lark’s John Sundstrom, with reservations still available as of this writing, though you’d be wise to hurry.)

Johnson also played a role in FareStart’s evolution prior to its move to Seventh and Virginia in 2007, when leadership asked him how they could better prepare students. He told them that at the old location, “The kitchen seemed really weird to me,” not much resembling a real full-service restaurant one. “It wasn’t getting [the students] ready for anything, in my opinion, except for maybe some kind of banquet prep … definitely not a la carte, with tickets coming up in your face, and the kitchen dance you have to do up and down … when you have two-three people on the line.

“But somehow you’d feel there was still a lot of care,” he adds. “So it made me want to just keep coming back.”

His suggestion became hardworking reality at the new space. A bank of windows along Virginia Street gives a voyeur’s view of FareStart’s line — the dance even more intricate at these stoves, with both students and instructors moving to and fro — as well as prep stations, pastry-making and more. Flawlessly pretty plates are presented to the public for lunch in the adjoining soaring-ceilinged restaurant, with Johnson himself usually expediting, checking each one personally. They’ll serve 200-plus per lunch every weekday, while, Johnson points out, maintaining a rare four-and-a-half-star rating on Yelp.

Johnson calls the restaurant “beautiful,” and he means it more than cosmetically. “I’ll tell you, the way the organization has been brought together from when I first started in ’99 to now, you can tell there’s been a lot of love put into the program,” he says. When FareStart contacted him last year to see if he’d recommend anyone for the executive-chef role, he says he just decided, “Hey, time to give it back to the family.” (He took two months off, but during that time he helped run Minority Chef Summit 2014 in the Bahamas, through a nonprofit that, in turn, he helped start in 2009. “Not exactly a vacation, but I seem to tie myself into these things,” he laughs. “You can’t beat the Bahamas!”)

Giving back, to him, means making FareStart do even more. The current 16-week curriculum for students is designed, he says, to “give them a foot in … like dish or prep” — washing dishes or being a prep cook. Right now, though, the Seattle chef shortage means “everybody’s struggling to have a decent cook walk in and be ready.” He’ll be consulting his “chef buddies” about experiences they’ve had with FareStart graduates — what made them more or less ready, what “their struggles” were.

“I want to build good, solid cooks for our city that are just in it, like we were back in the day,” he says. “We were just in it, not looking to be on TV … because it felt good. And we loved to create chaos,” he laughs.

Now officially mentor to so many, Johnson’s cooking advice is refreshingly simple. “Michael Jordan was up at midnight, shooting layups. Repetition, repetition, repetition,” he prescribes. “We in the culinary world gotta do that same thing … continually digging and growing, and mixing and matching, and not drawing lines between cuisines and seeing what works.” He says to taste spices raw, then toast them a bit and taste them again, then try them on chicken. If you want to make something, Google it and study more than one recipe to see the differences, to see what sounds best to you. While you’re learning, have trusted tasters to help: “close friends that’ll be somewhat honest with you,” he laughs. More seriously, he says, “You need to surround yourself with people who’re going to be constructive, so you can grow,” as at FareStart. “And if the first time it sucks, that’s all right. It probably should …

“The mistake has golden answers inside of it,” he says; you just have to take the time to find them.

Another Wayne Johnson/FareStart lesson: “Happy individuals putting food on a plate changes the whole way that plate tastes,” he says. We’re lucky to have the opportunity to cook, to learn and fail and, eventually, hopefully, make some good food. Enjoying the process makes it even better.