Some people eat to live. Others live to eat.
For Bateau sous chef Justin Legaspi, food is both his life and his livelihood. “It’s to have a good time, mainly,” Legaspi says over a recent dinner of tempura shrimp, fried rice, pumpkin curry and fried chicken with his three regular dining companions.
If you follow Legaspi’s Instagram story, you’ll often find short videos of himself and the same three eating buddies. All four guys are friends and food-industry peers in Seattle. Portland native Allan Lee is the lead line cook at Ballard’s San Fermo, but formerly worked at Edouardo Jordan’s Salare. Kelvyn Joaquin, from Fairwood, is the chef de cuisine at Salare, while Elmer Dulla, originally from Guam, was until recently director of operations for Salare, JuneBaby and Lucinda Grain Bar.
Put together the first letters of each of their first names, and you get JAKE — the name they’ve given their casual, very unofficial supper club.
The mission of JAKE: to roam the Seattle area after the conclusion of dinner service several nights a week, searching for the best eats around.
“This guy named it JAKE, so everyone knows us as ‘Jake the Snake,’” Legaspi says, pointing to his buddy, Dulla, between bites of fried chicken on a recent JAKE outing.
It wasn’t just chance that brought these ambitious, young food-industry professionals together. They met in October 2017, when Legaspi made a reservation at Salare for dinner with the intent of doing some reconnaissance.
“Bateau was having a lot of cool things happening, and at the same time, Salare was having a lot of similar cool things happening, so if we’re getting all these accolades and they’re getting all these accolades, there’s got to be some kind of connection as to why that’s happening,” recalls Legaspi, who’s from Auburn.
After meeting Dulla and Joaquin at that first dinner, Legaspi found they had a lot in common. He knew he wanted to be friends and get to know them on a personal level.
Now, Dulla says they “share multiple meals throughout the week together.”
No matter where they go, dinners are almost always family-style. Sometimes they eat at Canlis or Willows Inn, celebrating milestones like birthdays, engagements or career highs, but more often, they hit up neighborhood restaurants. They’ve each got favorites — whoever picks the restaurant usually ends up spearheading the ordering and making sure everyone gets a portion.
“I don’t think we really ever eat at the newest, hot restaurants. We eat at places that are more wholesome,” Legaspi says.
“Real food,” Lee adds.
The meals are casual experiences, full of banter and inside jokes. At 24, Joaquin is the youngest member of the group, and he gets teased like a beloved younger brother. Dulla will order the shrimp even though he’s allergic, and Joaquin will never eat enough. Bites are punctuated with exclamations and laughter.
But amid all the laughter is an undercurrent of support and growth.
“We talk about what can we do with what we’re seeing — not to make things right, but make a good impact some way, somehow,” Legaspi says.
The Seattle restaurant world is small, and Legaspi says that “new restaurant smell” is intoxicating for some. During their meals together, the guys commiserate, share ideas and experiences and sometimes — inevitably — critique the food. Especially on the rare occasions when they find themselves at fine-dining establishments, there’s sure to be talk about technique or style.
“We’ve had dinners when we’ve gone all out and we talk like, ‘If we had this restaurant or did this style, this is what we would do,’ and those kinds of critiques,” Legaspi says.
They take note of things they like and how they can learn from a certain chef. What works? What doesn’t? It’s all aimed at self-improvement.
“It’s really easy to be comfortable around these guys and talk about regular stuff, no matter what,” Joaquin adds.
So where does JAKE go out for dinner?
“We love Kedai Makan, it’s always so good,” Joaquin says.
“It’s one of those restaurants that makes me mad there’s not more restaurants like it,” Legaspi says.
They also love Kauai Family Restaurant in Georgetown, Rainier Restaurant and BBQ, Capitol Hill’s tiny sushi counter By Tae, Honey Court Seafood Restaurant and King Noodle in the Chinatown International District.
“Probably the best value, not for just the size of food but everything, flavor. King Noodle is one of those places you can go four times a week and not feel like you’re breaking the bank,” Legaspi says.
Another favorite? Tig Kitchen and Bar in the University District.
“It’s so Korean. They play Korean music and videos,” Dulla says, and a chorus of cheers for Tig rises around the table. It’s Lee’s find, and he’s usually in charge while there.
Dulla says he loves Coco, the ramen and curry house in Bellevue, and Lee chimes in, “My friend owns that.”
A dishwasher at San Fermo told Lee about El Pollo Real in Tukwila, and that’s been added to the dining rotation. They’re also excited about Musang’s opening.
Even after the busiest, craziest nights in the kitchen, the guys always manage to unwind and relax at a JAKE outing.
“No matter the time or how tired we are, we eat together,” Lee says.
“It’s about friendship,” someone says, to murmurs of agreement from the rest.
“These guys are teaching me a lot about hospitality and feeding each other,” Joaquin says.