When Seattle chef Maria Hines opened Tilth in a sweet little Wallingford Craftsman house in 2006, it was only the second certified organic restaurant in the country. Two years later, The New York Times named it one of the best new restaurants in the U.S. The following year, Hines received the James Beard award for Best Chef: Northwest. She was on her way, opening a second restaurant called Golden Beetle in 2011, then a third, Agrodolce, in 2012. Among other nascent Seattle restaurant empire-builders, Hines stood out for her commitment to keeping all of her establishments certified organic.
Then Golden Beetle began to falter. Hines reformatted the place as Young American Ale House in 2016, but closed it not long after. Meanwhile, however, business at Tilth and Agrodolce remained strong — so it came as a surprise when Hines announced the sale of the latter to its executive chef, Thomas Litrenta, last week. In Seattle (and elsewhere), chefs of her caliber have expanded exponentially — Tom Douglas’ Carlile Room is his 13th restaurant, while Ethan Stowell’s at 14, and Renee Erickson’s Sea Creatures website shows almost double-digit numbers, and that’s without her recent acquisition of two more restaurants and seven burger spots.
Certainly, some of Seattle’s finest run just one restaurant: Think Holly Smith’s Cafe Juanita, or Sushi Kashiba by famed Shiro of the same name. But Hines’ foray into expansion mode, followed by the decision to forsake it, sets her apart. What is she thinking?
You had one restaurant, then you had two restaurants, then three, two, and now you’ll have one again. How does that trajectory feel? It feels right. You never know where the road is going to take you. I just need to kind of roll with it and do what feels right — and when the timing is right, make changes.
You’re a James Beard award winner. You were on the path to at least a mini restaurant empire in Seattle, like a lot of others, and it’s sort of radical that you’ve gone the other direction. I thought the same thing. This is — it’s kind of like, you get to a certain age and you’re like, “Oh, well, I should be getting married, I should own a home,” and this and that. I think that same sort of thing happened, where I had Tilth, and things were going well, and all of my peers were opening up other establishments, and I was like, “Oh, OK, why yes, that’s the next step.” For whatever reason, things didn’t pan out for Golden Beetle. But at Agrodolce, things went really well — we actually had really strong sales last year.
The timing is just right for my chef [Litrenta], and for me to have the ability to back him to start his own restaurant venture — as I was given that same privilege by people who believed in me and backed me, 12-and-a-half years ago now, for Tilth. It’s just a passing of the torch with that restaurant.
And I have new things on the horizon. The sale — having this guy who’s just super talented, and really passionate, and he learned how to cook Italian food from his grandmother, and he’s always wanted to own his own restaurant — it fit. Just everything felt totally right.
What are the new endeavors? I’m currently working on a cookbook. I’m super excited — it’s going to be kind of a different genre. And I’m launching a retail, on-the-go food that will be organic. [Hines says she can’t reveal more about these projects currently, but her recent recipe for Macadamia-Banana Crunch Bars may offer a clue.] I’m not going to be a one-trick pony and have a bunch of restaurants; I guess that’s not my calling. At the end of the day, when I really think about why I do what I do, I just want to make sure that I’m bringing joy to others and to myself through food in a healthful way. Everything I do, I need to hit that mark, for my soul and also to just be contributing to society.
And running more and more restaurants doesn’t hit that mark for you? No. I think it was taking away from the mark, actually. I was spending more time focused on the business aspects, and not the food aspects, which is why I’m in the industry. So writing a cookbook and doing all the recipe testing, doing retail products, the connection — it’s constantly there. I’m selecting projects where I’m not necessarily hands-on for the business part, but I get to do what I really enjoy doing, which is being creative — which is being around food.
I don’t think a lot of people understand how much you do behind the scenes in terms of political and environmental stuff. How does that factor into your decision-making? Hugely. All of the things that I do are very mission-driven. Making the commitment to be certified organic — to me, that is political. You’re saying no to GMOs, you’re saying yes to proper farming practices, and you’re saying that climate change does exist, and all of these things. You’re saying that supporting the local economy is important and the way to go. You’re saying that supporting your community, including your local farmers, and that all of the [restaurant] guests who participate in that movement of supporting organics means something.
I don’t think I’m driven by political intention, but by working on the GMO-labeling legislation when we tried to pass that in Washington state — that’s about as political as you’re going to get. Trying to get food into the hands of underserved communities, that’s something else that I’m really passionate about — the Fresh Bucks program, I spent a lot of time trying to raise money for, so, yeah, all of that. I think it’s very holistic.
You’ve done work surrounding women in the industry as well. Yeah, I was on the board for Women Chefs & Restaurateurs, and I’ve done a lot of mentorship of young women or women who are career-changing in the industry.
Currently, I’m one of the chef advisers for the Seattle Culinary Academy, helping them keep their curriculum relevant and making sure the students are getting the skill sets that they need, because they’re the ones who’re going to be shaping the restaurant scene in generations to come.
I want to be part of helping shape our food culture, and a lot of that does happen through policy. I do some work with the James Beard Foundation — I’m one of their chef advisers surrounding all of their sustainability issues and their program to help other chefs who are interested in whatever cause. We try to create a medium for them, if they’re like, “You know what, migrant farmworkers in my area, they’re just getting hosed left and right, and I want to do something about it. Who do I call, what do I do?” — that’s what the James Beard Foundation, their sustainability branch, helps out with.
If I feel really passionate about something, I’ll just go after it and find out who I need to talk to to create change. I’ll gather 20 chefs, and we’ll get together and it’s: “Hey, what do you want to learn about? Ocean acidification? It’s happening, it sucks. Let me bring an expert in to train all of us on what we can do about this issue.” Being that we’re chefs, it seems like it’s on us to be stewards, to really set the example.
I was going to ask you where you see yourself in 10 years, but that seems like a crazy question. [Laughs] Yeah. But we can always go back to that main, honing mission statement, which is 10 years from now, whatever it is I’m doing, it will be bringing joy to people through food, and better health, and better living. I don’t know what it’ll look like, but it’ll definitely be that.
Taking joy in what you do and being able to provide joy for other people — is your trajectory back down to one restaurant something that better allows that? I think so! We’re going to find out.
How do you feel about Tilth now? It’s my baby. This was the start of the path … it reminds me, every time I look at this house and I step in the building, and I look at the menu, and I look in the walk-in, and when I come in in the morning and open up the back door and the mushrooms are left there by Jeremy or Jeremy’s homies who’re delivering [wild foods from Foraged & Found] — it’s just a constant reminder of why I live the way that I do. And my staff, they’re so incredible and passionate — they really get it. It’s a good vibe in that house, all the time. I can be in a shitty mood, and I come here and I’m like, oh yeah, OK.
I have no regrets whatsoever. I am completely full-throttle engaged in every single thing that I do, and I’ll never regret that. But I change. And I think it would be worse to be afraid of changing. I’m not good with corporate stuff. Sure, I want to make money, and I want to be able to retire, and be able to pay my mortgage and all that sort of stuff, but I’ve never been fit for a corporate environment, I don’t think [laughs]. And now I’m like, oh my god, I have one restaurant. I’ve been wanting to plant a Tilth garden forever, and it never happened. Now I get to maybe put my hands in the dirt.