A couple turns a sprawling Whidbey Island farm into a space for memorable events.
“I HAVE THE best wife,” says chef Vincent Nattress. “When I said, ‘Honey, let’s open a restaurant,’ and ‘Honey, let’s move to Washington and buy a farm,’ she said yes.”
“I like to think we balance each other out,” says his wife, Tyla Jones Nattress. “He is always the one pushing us forward, and I’m the one putting on the brakes when it’s too much.”
They were newlyweds in 2001 when she agreed to open the restaurant, Roux, in St. Helena, Calif. A few years later, both would move on and help relaunch The Restaurant at Meadowood in St. Helena: he as executive chef, she recruiting staff. By then, they had two daughters.
5574 Bayview Road, Langley, Whidbey Island; 360-321-1517; orchardkitchen.com
In 2009, when they bought the farm on Whidbey Island, it was a homecoming for Vincent, whose family moved to Coupeville when he was 9 years old. Maine-born Tyla feels at home there too, “connected to the things of my childhood: the ocean, the amazing seafood, the rural life.” The property in Bayview, near Langley, had nine existing structures, giving them enormous potential and flexibility to create Orchard Kitchen, the catering and event center they envisioned.
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The early days were hectic, Tyla recalls. “Getting the approval from the county, raising the funds and getting the property looking good took over four years. We repainted everything, tore down chain-link fences, excavated a bunch of concrete, built new fences and planted the orchard.”
The oldest structure in the cluster of red buildings, a hay barn built in 1926, is now a private dining space for up to 44. Next to that is the building where they hold cooking classes, host guest chefs and stage their intimate Farmhouse Dinners for some 30 “adventurous omnivores.”
The dinners are held Thursday, Friday and Saturday year-round. They are one-seating-a-night events with a multicourse prix fixe menu ($55-$75 per person). Planning begins on Mondays, once farmer Blake Mennella, of Ebb Tide Produce, furnishes a list of what’s ready to pick that week.
“Luckily, Blake found us right after we bought the property,” Tyla says. “We had a field full of thistles, and now he’s been farming our land for six years.” He sells to the community in addition to growing things specifically for Orchard Kitchen.
Vincent nails down the menu by Tuesday. Once it goes up online, seats fill fast, but now that Orchard Kitchen is well into its third year, people book even before seeing the menu. A lot of them are repeat customers, like the Redmond couple across the table from me one late spring evening; they have a second home on Whidbey and enjoy the convivial evenings at Orchard Kitchen several times a year.
Vincent doesn’t go far to gather his raw ingredients. He appreciates the serendipity that comes from using what’s at hand and is proud to say he’s only repeated a dish twice in two years. His refined technique comes from working at Michelin-starred restaurants in France and California, but his style is closer to Chez Panisse, where he staged early in his career.
In addition to Ebb Tide’s lettuces and strawberries, a June salad contained Glendale Shepherd Brebis Frais, a fresh sheep’s milk chevre made by Lynn Swanson, whose family has been raising sheep for more than three generations on the island. Spot prawns were on that menu, too. Vincent browned some of the heads with aromatics to make a dark, delicious sauce for the seared prawns, served with farro, local shiitakes and Skagit Valley asparagus. He deep-fried the remaining shrimp heads and presented them too, encouraging the wary to give them a try.
Tyla, who spent her early career at various wineries, pairs a wine with each course. A single meal encompassed an Austrian rosé, a California carignan, a Washington syrah and an Italian moscato. The bottle list she maintains is equally intriguing and wide-ranging. Tyla also does the people pairing. She divvies up singles, couples and groups among three communal tables and a six-seat kitchen counter and enjoys watching connections blossom among strangers.
Moving to Whidbey, buying the farm and launching the business was risky for the couple. “We certainly have never taken the traditional approach to life and raising kids,” says Tyla. Their daughters have taken to farm life. Molly, 10, likes hanging around the kitchen and is a budding baker. Maggie, 13, enjoys working with animals. Together they raise rabbits. For two weeks in late June, after school ends and before the busy season begins, Orchard Kitchen is closed because, in Vincent’s view, “It should be illegal to live on Whidbey Island and not have time off during crab season.”