"You don’t really say French fusion, Italian fusion. They’re all absorbed into somewhat elevated American food ... it’s always Asian that’s the only thing that’s considered to be fusion."
Rachel Yang is wary of defining Northwest cuisine. Labels, in her experience, aren’t always helpful.
“If we talk about ‘What is Northwest food in 2015,’ it’s like the same thing as asking, ‘What is American food in 2015?’” she says. “David Chang’s food, and Andy Ricker’s food, and all this food is American food, because it’s such an important part of what we dine — and what we crave — for.”
She and her husband, Seif Chirchi, are now at the forefront of Seattle culinary culture with their restaurants Joule, Revel and Trove. But when they first opened Joule in its original, narrow Wallingford storefront in 2007, people didn’t know what to make of it. The two of them worked side by side in the small kitchen, and they worked hard — “really hard,” she says — to find their audience.
Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson stopped in shortly after they opened and raved about their “marvelous meld of Asian-influenced contemporary American fare.” But how do you tagline something like that?
Joule often got called “Asian fusion,” a 1980s term with dubious connotations. “You don’t really say French fusion, Italian fusion,” Yang notes. “They’re all absorbed into somewhat elevated American food … it’s always Asian that’s the only thing that’s considered to be fusion.”
But even the fusion label didn’t help much at the time. “It’s really hard to sell, because you’re not telling people anything about what to expect when they walk through your door,” Yang says. For what by necessity started out as a neighborhood restaurant, trying to appeal to Wallingford families, she says, there was “nothing to really grab onto.”
Coming from an haute-cuisine background — Yang and Chirchi moved here from New York, where they met working at the renowned Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, and Yang also cooked at Per Se — they struggled with “the fact that Asian food is always considered really cheap,” Yang says. “It’s all certain assumed characteristics, and that’s always still the hardest thing.”
A panel discussion featuring Tom Douglas, Matthew Dillon, Maria Hines and Rachel Yang, moderated by Seattle Times food writer Bethany Jean Clement, 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 12, Central Library, 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle; free with registration.
Today at the noodle bar at Trove, their latest critically acclaimed restaurant, a bowlful of some of the city’s best food costs $12 or $13. And, Yang says, “We get people still saying, ‘I can get it for like $7 in the I.D.’ ”
Meanwhile, such prices cause no balking at “a nice American restaurant,” she points out. “Pasta with a couple cherry tomatoes — that’s a great deal.”
When she and Chirchi arrived in 2006, “Seattle was still very, very homogeneous,” Yang says, “in terms of restaurant scene.” When she says that “made it really interesting,” it’s pretty clear that she’s speaking euphemistically.
She expected to find what she calls a “cross-diversity” here. “The fact that it’s closer to Asia,” she explains. “The fact that there’s a really good population of, you know, Vietnamese. And we have a decent-sized international district for a city and for a big metropolitan [area] like this … Coming from New York City, you get so used to seeing diversity, and the varieties and all those authenticities are norms. Whereas, when you come out here, those are very ethnic and foreign and different.”
A place like Joule, with dishes like Manila clams with house-made XO sauce and a purée of roasted fennel, was challenging to the status quo. “That put us in a very interesting place in the map — in the culinary map of Seattle,” Yang says. Now the city’s got Seven Beef, Lionhead, Stateside, Girin, Tray Kitchen and Zhu Dang; just nine years ago, there weren’t many such models.
“We took a huge risk,” she says. “There were many days when we were just like, gosh, I wonder if we’re going to make this.”
But they found support as well. In terms of the restaurant community, “I have found everyone to be super-welcoming and super-amazing,” Yang says. “I’ll tell anyone.”
When they arrived, they met chef/restaurateur Thierry Rautureau, who was then still running Rover’s — widely considered one of Seattle’s best restaurants, and certainly one of its most upscale. “He was like, ‘Here’s my list of purveyors, and guys who can fix the oven, and if you need anything, just let me know.’ With literally a list of contact numbers.”
“That’s like gold,” Yang says. “Not knowing anyone, and being so welcomed, that’s what’s amazing. And I try to do the same.”
Joule relocated to a high-ceilinged, glamorous Stone Way space three years ago. By the time Yang and Chirchi opened Revel at the end of 2010, they felt comfortable shorthanding the idea on the website as “Urban. Comfort. Asian. Street Food.”
And that’s when Yang says they “found our groove. Fun, Korean, different.” Those three words aptly describe Trove, with its DIY tabletop barbecues, its bar with an erupting Rainier mural by Electric Coffin, and its bedazzled ice-cream truck permanently lodged in the entry for “Old School” and “New School” versions of soft-serve sundaes.
She’s got no regrets about coming to Seattle. “It was a really huge move for us,” she says, “and we are just so glad that we made the change.”
Back on the topic of Northwest cuisine, Yang observes, “Local food doesn’t always mean that every single restaurant would have same thing on the menu.
“Right now, there’s a ton more diversity, and a lot more Asian-type of restaurants out here, and I’m sure a lot of people looked at what we were doing and how receptive people were, and how people were excited about different flavors. And I hope that was kind of partially the reason why the restaurant scene is changing, and I think this is really better for everyone.
“I hope that I’m kind of adding to that difference here in Seattle,” she says.
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