Chef Matt Dillon on Northwest cuisine: “When I think of the Pacific Northwest, I think of fishing boats, crabbing boats, shrimping boats, and I think of farmland.”
Matt Dillon’s Old Chaser Farm on Vashon Island is a work in progress. By its nature, any farm is, but Dillon’s acutely conscious of how much further this one, and he himself — and our food culture as a whole — can go.
One of the Northwest’s most celebrated chef/restaurateurs, the James Beard-awarded Dillon runs Bar Sajor, Sitka & Spruce and more (his new Bar Ferdn’and is imminent). He’s had Old Chaser, on 20 picturesque acres of Vashon’s sloping fields and shady forests, for five years. Still, not a lot of the food for the restaurants comes from this land.
“I’m not good enough at it,” he freely admits. But he’s learning, working and trying to “have more participation in bringing the food to the table.”
Dillon grew up in Seattle. Dinners at home with his mom and her husband weren’t gourmet: maybe chicken from Costco, Bernstein’s Italian dressing, steamed broccoli, salad. “I did not have that sort of poetic introduction to food that I think a lot of really great cooks have had,” he says — no grandma taking him foraging for mushrooms. He got a job cooking at 13 “to have money to do stuff.”
Culinary school eventually followed, and around 1992, Dillon got his hands on one of Jerry Traunfeld’s Herbfarm menus during his vaunted era as head chef there. Dillon knew immediately that he wanted to learn the pointedly local ingredients and the creativity behind them, and he volunteered in The Herbfarm kitchen, finally earning a job. That was his first experience in “what you would try to define as Pacific Northwest cuisine.”
Now he’s making it, the best he can, from the ground up. At Old Chaser, he says, they “do a few things really well”: He’s got Loch Ness blackberries that become blackberry vinegar, beans to dry for winter, onions, carrots, potatoes, tree fruit. What might be Vashon’s first pimentón, to make the Spanish version of paprika, is grown here.
Old Chaser’s chickens, fluffy and busy, are the patriotic-sounding Freedom Ranger breed. The pretty white Peking ducks can be shy, but Dillon’s pigs come right up to the fence to get their heads scratched. “Pigs are really cool,” he says. “They like to play and run around … they’re happy guys.”
The pigs’ territory extends back into the Douglas fir and hemlocks, where they’re better than goats (or fire, or poison, for that matter) at clearing invasive Himalayan blackberry, rooting out the persistent deep parts. Meanwhile, the pigs fertilize the soil, too.
“When we haven’t had pigs around, it’s lonely,” Dillon says. “They’re really sweet animals … I don’t like taking them to slaughter. It really makes you appreciate serving them. They’re like dogs. When I say, ‘Hey, pigs!’ they come running, like ‘What’s up?’ ”
Raising pigs has made him contemplate vegetarianism. At the same time, he notes, “If I fell down in there, they’d eat me … ‘Who’s this guy? He’s been eating pizza; he’s delicious!’ ” The pigs get hard cider on the morning of their demise.
Old Chaser also is home to a few very shaggy Scottish highland cows, like peaceful overgrown wigs grazing in an upper field. Then there are the sheep that, Dillon points out, sound like they’re bleating, over and over, “MAAAAATTT!”
While we walk and talk, Dillon’s dog systematically deconstructs a Frisbee, then quietly barfs some of it up. Old Chaser was the name of this pet’s predecessor, who didn’t live quite long enough to run around this land. (“The health department wouldn’t like it,” Dillon says, but Old Chaser the dog was “always under the communal table at the original Sitka & Spruce, curled up.”)
Ask Dillon about a definition of Northwest cuisine — the style of cooking, the plethora of foodstuffs, that he’s demonstrably had an influence on — and he demurs. “If you’re trying to do that, you have it backward. I think a restaurant takes the culture of the people and interprets that. And I’m not sure that we have that yet, because we’ve only been here for a couple hundred years.
“It’s a little hard to say, ‘This is Pacific Northwest food.’ I don’t know if I can do that without having the people, like the public, behind me. I don’t think we’re there as a culture yet. We’re just too young. We’re getting there.”
By getting there, Dillon means more people interested in local food, finding out about foraging, teaching their kids to cook. He points to Angelo Pellegrini as a Northwest pioneer, recommending his 1948 book “The Unprejudiced Palate.”
Pellegrini grew food in his backyard, cooked for his family. “It was because of his culture, being an Italian,” Dillon contends. “He was able to look at our landscape and be like, ‘Well, I know I could eat that, and I could eat that. I can take that, and not just put it on my plate and charge $50 for it.’ He actually was like, ‘Screw the gourmet, let’s just make this about eating food’ … I think that is starting to happen now.”
Dillon credits his Seattle restaurant forebears, those who were sourcing food locally 25 or 30 years ago: Thierry Rautureau, Bruce Naftaly and, again, Jerry Traunfeld. “They were the ones really leading it,” he says.
“Now there’s some of us that are coming up and trying to do that as well, and there’s younger chefs like Blaine [Wetzel, of the Willows Inn] that are taking it to the next level, in gastronomy. But it’s got to be about the people, too.”
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Tellingly, his vision of food here is of people, of activity. “When I think of the Pacific Northwest, I think of fishing boats, crabbing boats, shrimping boats, and I think of farmland.”
For the foods themselves, he advocates “tasting them very simply for what they are, not adding a ton of stuff to them … I think that’s the technique. We’re so lucky, our soil here, because of the volcanic sediment and the glacial till that’s happened, it’s incredible … It’s a great place to grow food, and a great place to get fish.”
Surprisingly but not disingenuously, he asserts, “If the restaurant business went downhill because everyone was cooking from home, I’d be like, ‘OK, cool, I’m done.’ ”
Dillon’s father died not long ago, and it’s given him perspective. “I’m next. I definitely feel much more obligated to be a positive force when it comes to what I do, my craft. I want to have an impact that’s felt, because I feel like there’s not a ton of time … We need to be more intentional.
“When I say ‘we,’ I’m really actually talking to myself.”