Share story

RENEE ERICKSON has set out hard-boiled eggs on the picnic table; her big brother, Ryan, has readied the simple boat. Their parents, Shirlee and Jim Erickson, have parked near the dock, and Shirlee’s carrying a fresh-baked blackberry pie in a basket. Renee and Ryan hop on the boat and head out to set up crab pots for the coming feast.

Except for a few details — boyfriend Danial Crookston strolling on the shore, and a young nephew along for the ride — the summertime scene by the family’s tiny cabin in the Spee-Bi-Dah community near Marysville could have taken place at almost any point in Erickson’s life.

Since childhood, she’s loved Puget Sound. Summers at the cabin were idled away digging clams, buying spot prawns off the locals and watching the Tulalip Tribes bring in salmon.

She’s loved making food for people almost as long — since the 1990s at Boat Street Cafe, where she began winning loyal customers with her simply elegant, perfectly balanced dishes. The peerless roast chicken, the sherry-spiked steamed clams and artfully arranged plates of pickled vegetables.

Most Read Stories

Unlimited Digital Access. $1 for 4 weeks

The crowd of local loyalists followed her to Ballard as she opened her own oyster bar, The Walrus and the Carpenter, in 2010, then The Whale Wins in Fremont two years later. And seemingly all of a sudden, the nation’s tastemakers noticed.

Bon Appétit magazine called The Walrus and the Carpenter one of the 10 most important new restaurants in the country — “the destination restaurant in Seattle, as far as I’m concerned,” said restaurant and drinks editor Andrew Knowlton. The Whale Wins made the same hot list — the only time Knowlton can recall a restaurateur getting on it twice. Then this year, Erickson was shortlisted for a prestigious James Beard award.

Seattle’s hidden treasure had become a culinary star, on every national list of can’t-miss chefs. Out-of-town tourists joined the locals in hourslong waits to relish her food.

“You start to see her influence now going throughout the country . . . where chefs from outside Seattle are looking in and seeing what she’s doing and taking note of it,” says Knowlton, who praises Erickson’s “deceptively simple” dishes and inviting spaces.

Her wild success has only one odd note: its what-took-so-long trajectory.

The bigger surprise, though, might be that she wound up in a restaurant kitchen at all.

John Lok / The Seattle Times

Renee Erickson heads out to do some crabbing with her brother, Ryan Erickson, on Puget Sound near Marysville. At center is Ryan’s son, Mateo.

John Lok / The Seattle Times

Erickson pulls up some crabs on a family outing off the coast of the Spee-Bi-Dah community near Marysville. At right is her nephew, Mateo Erickson. Childhood summers spent on Puget Sound have informed her love of seafood and interest in sustainable fisheries.

ERICKSON AND brother Ryan grew up in Woodinville in a house her dad built near Lake Leota. Shirlee planted a big garden, put up jars of peaches, cooked fresh meals every night.

If Erickson stood out for anything, it was her fast-pitch softball game, good enough to win her a scholarship to the University of Oregon — and a resolve that was strong enough to give it up and transfer to the University of Washington when she found student-athlete schedules didn’t allow time for the art classes she loved.

The drawing and painting classes she began in childhood seemed her likeliest calling; the most memorable figures in her life then had been her “fun, interesting” art teachers, and she thought she might become one, too.

When she got up the nerve to tell her parents she was coming home to study art, they told her it was the right call. “That’s one of the things I love about them so much,” Renee says now. “Whatever we wanted to do, they were fully supportive.”

It wasn’t until a college exchange program in Italy that she began to take more interest in food and “really started paying attention” to how she shopped and cooked.

In Rome, “It just blew my mind that people shopped every day for food, and there was so much seasonality and variety. I think it was before the farmers markets were even started. I had no concept of that,” she recalls.



John Lok / The Seattle Times

Jay Guerrero playfully brushes off Erickson’s nose as service gets under way at the “Lamb and Rosé” dinner at Boat Street Cafe in Seattle. Erickson hired Guerrero having interviewed him only over the phone. “When you’re cooking for such a long time in the kitchen, it’s nice to have his playfulness and energy around,” she says.


At the U she had also stumbled on the French-influenced Boat Street Cafe, a funky spot in an old machine shop under the University Bridge. She applied for a part-time job as a server, not thinking of it as a career path. “I felt like a dummy trying to tell people what they should be eating,” she says. “It felt like I was faking it, almost, and I just wasn’t driven to be better at it.”

The kitchen was another matter. Boat Street owner Susan Kaplan taught her to pat out signature cream scones and sauté chicken livers in butter and port for a luscious pâté. Erickson educated herself on wine and started developing culinary friendships that would last a lifetime.She kept doing more, “And by the end of it, I was running it, basically.”

After earning her fine-art degree, graduate school seemed like the next step. But Kaplan was selling Boat Street, and suggested the 24-year-old take it over.

Business was not booming. The space needed work. It was a crazy idea for a young woman with no professional training and no deep pockets.

The advice from family and close friends?

Buy it anyway.

John Lok / The Seattle Times

Sauteed radishes are served with brown butter and lemon at Boat Street. Erickson’s food isn’t about “look what I can do with all these gadgets and stuff,” says Bon Appetit editor Andrew Knowlton. It’s “no, look what I can do with my hands.”

They saw that “I loved being there and loved the restaurant environment,” Erickson says. “I didn’t have any idea of what I was getting into, and you can’t.”

Jim built the patio. Ryan helped with repairs and bussed tables. Shirlee baked the desserts and did the books.

Diners warmed to Erickson’s French-Northwest style. Dinners were approachable — “not tweezer food,” as Bon Appétit’s Knowlton put it, but bearing her signature as clearly as a painter’s name on canvas.

Friends joined her family as employees, and employees became like family. Her former UW art professor, Jeffry Mitchell, drew her signature party menus and even waited tables.

“Renee has an incredible knack for finding sweet, honest, wholesome people,” says former protégé Russell Flint, who now owns Rain Shadow Meats and is a Boat Street supplier.



John Lok / The Seattle Times

Guests mingle in the courtyard outside Boat St. Cafe this past summer during the “Lamb and Rosé” dinner, one of several themed meals Erickson puts on there each year. While they’re not big money-makers, Erickson says, she loves hosting them because they’re like having a big party.


Then, in 2003, it all threatened to fall apart. Boat Street’s building was sold, knocked down. The cafe had no place to go. She couldn’t let it end like that.

“It had literally become my life.”

She did catering and consulting gigs,took cooking classes with her mom in France. She discovered new ingredients like the piment d’espelette chile that made its way to the “messy spot prawns” she now makes with the West Coast catch. Forced to look “at how other people did what they did,” she became a better cook.

It took two years to find a building with sufficient character and a long enough lease to satisfy her that the business would be secure.

Boat Street was born again in a peculiar corner near Lower Queen Anne; original owner Kaplan became a partner, offering lunch and catering in one side of the space while Erickson and Flint handled dinners in the other.

“I really had no business being the sous chef at that time,” says Flint, who was cutting meat at Whole Foods when Shirlee Erickson came in to buy sausages. Renee “took a gamble on me,” Flint says gratefully. She also asked her mom to help start a side business bottling her unusual pickled fruits and vegetables — years ahead of the current pickling craze. It wasn’t the only case of Erickson being ahead of her time.



John Lok / The Seattle Times

One of the things restaurateur Renee Erickson is known for is the close relationships she has with her staff. Here, Jay Guerrero, chef de cuisine at Boat Street Cafe, greets her as she holds a meeting to discuss new wines. With her are Carrie Omegna, her “wine princess,” David Little, manager of Barnacle, and Erin James, a wine distributor, far right.

John Lok / The Seattle Times

David Leck, who won an award as the nation’s top shucker, prepares oysters at The Walrus and the Carpenter in Ballard. Erickson estimates about 100 dozen are served each night at the celebrated restaurant.

FROM HER explorations in France, Erickson had long thought that a particular kind of oyster bar was missing in Seattle — an unpretentious place where a bottle of wine and a platter of oysters were as much an everyday pleasure as a burger. It was a concept that would catch on years later as casual oyster bars popped up around the country. But back then it might have gone nowhere without property developer Chad Dale.

Dale, a Boat Street fan, and his partners were renovating the historic Kolstrand Building in a then unhip section of Ballard Avenue, hoping for “top restaurant talent” to draw diners south. He approached Erickson early. But, engrossed in the daily fray of Boat Street, she said no.

Dale kept coming back.

“She’d never imagined herself as a restaurateur,” Dale explains. “It became apparent she just wanted to focus on food.”

He asked, “What if I help with all that other stuff?”

Jeremy Price, a woodworker who’d also been a server, had once told Erickson he wanted to be her business partner if she ever attempted another venture. She called him on the offer. By July 2010, The Walrus and the Carpenter was born.

It was a smash.

Walrus was the first restaurant Erickson had envisioned from the ground up, and it showed.

“She has a very sure aesthetic and she does not compromise, ever,” says longtime friend Carrie Omegna, a wine rep when she met Erickson at the original Boat Street.

The idea felt fresh, the atmosphere bustled with charm and, as a New York Times rave put it, “the intense, palpable conviviality that so many restaurants aim for but so few achieve.”

Dale remembers worrying that the Walrus menu — with small-plates dishes like avocado-anchovy tartines and smoked mackerel salad — “wasn’t quite accessible enough for the general public.” Erickson “stuck to her guns,” he said admiringly, sure she could win over customers who just hadn’t known before what they were missing.

Success was sweet, but not without a huge professional mind-shift. Customers who loved Erickson’s food could no longer assume she would be in the kitchen.

“For me it was so personal, and it’s still really hard,” she says. Yet she didn’t stop there, any more than an artist quits painting, going for “something that’s new and creative and inspired by something in my life.”



John Lok / The Seattle Times

Ingredients are at the ready for cooks at The Whale Wins in Seattle’s Fremont neighborhood. From left front are crostini, sardines and roasted cauliflower. In the four ramekins behind: herb butter, harissa, pickled shallot and herring butter. Erickson works hard to source sustainable fish, as when she bought 1,000 pounds of herring at a derby in Sitka, Alaska, finding delectable ways to hook diners on less commercially popular choices.


THE URGE TO create led more recently to a fascination with wood-fired ovens, an interest in European-style vegetable dishes, and a desire to make restaurant food that matched how Erickson ate at home. When in 2012 Dale began developing a new project in Fremont, the partners went in on all those concepts with The Whale Wins, where Erickson’s crew roasts Hama Hama clams and whole trout in a sunny space so welcoming even the ceiling lights spell out “Hello Hello.”

At meetings, it’s clear that the partners are full-time teammates. At their regular Whale meet-up, they talk practicalities as basic as whether to inventory cooking wine in food or drink, and as big-picture as developing a farmland project on Whidbey Island.

Erickson, pursuing her interest in sustainable seafood, has just returned from Alaska. She asks about ordering spectacular salmon collars from a new source there. They talk of lunchtime staffing, the cheese plate, customer feedback, an initiative to make their own barrel-aged vinegar. An hour zips by.

Price compares the partnership to a rock band with Erickson as the headliner but everyone playing their parts.

“I think any of us on our own would make decisions that probably wouldn’t be as good as the decisions we make together,” Dale says.

Though Price’s more modern design sense has influenced the buildings, too, walking into them is as unmistakably an Erickson project as walking into her own bright Ballard bungalow.

“There’s just a lushness to the way that they plate, to the way things are presented, that sets her apart,” says Lara Hamilton, owner of The Book Larder cookbook store, who chose Erickson to cook for a Seattle event starring world-famed modernist chef Ferran Adria.

“I’ll talk to a lot of friends who say things like ‘I could have done that at home’ and then they try to do it, and they actually can’t.”



John Lok / The Seattle Times

Erickson, in blue shirt, gathers her staff at Barnacle to listen to an Italian winemaker explain the features of his product. “We want to know as much about the people who make the products we love. It’s a lot easier to tell the story of the things we sell if we have an experience to tell our customers,” Erickson says.


THE PATIO her dad built for the original Boat Street is in Erickson’s own backyard now. And on a beautiful, balmy Sunday, it beckons. But Erickson is in the heat of the kitchen at Boat Street, picking through heaps of parsley for the annual Moroccan-inspired “Lamb and Rosé” extravaganza — one of a handful of themed dinners she puts on there each year.

She works through the tedious task calmly, stopping here and there to attend to other jobs on her to-do list and plenty that are not: Toasting pine nuts, consulting on the ideal shape of the sesame cookies, tasting heritage beans from Whidbey Island’s Willowood Farm. She takes a minute to text the farmer, “Your beans are amazing!”

John Lok / The Seattle Times

Mehdi Boujrada meets with Erickson recently at Barnacle in Ballard. Boujrada is owner of Villa Jerada, an importer of Moroccan food and goods. With Boujrada as tour guide, Erickson traveled to Morocco to learn more about some of the foods she was using in her cuisine. They stayed for about a week in Casablanca with Boujrada’s mother.

It’s the kind of thing you’ll still find her doing often — cleaning a bathroom, picking a dead plant from the picturesque boxes in front of the Whale.

But she’s trying to let go. She’s cowritten a gorgeous cookbook, “A Boat, a Whale and a Walrus,” released on Sept. 30, and she’s been traveling more, enjoying the chance to find new sources of ingredients and inspiration.

She’s also hired her old pal Omegna to order wine for all the restaurants.

“Your hope is that you hire enough people that create their own world that people come to . . . people who care for it in the way you do,” she says.

That likely will become an even bigger challenge as her businesses continue to thrive. These days she has 100 employees, plus a new aperitivo bar, Barnacle, next to the Walrus. There’s also a food truck, Narwhal, and the pickle business.

But Erickson, 42 now, wants to make room for other things. She’s thinking of spending more time on her artwork again. And she’s about to start a kitchen remodel, designed by Price, a space she plans to share with boyfriend Crookston.

And though she says they aren’t big moneymakers, she’ll keep hosting the themed dinners at Boat Street because they’re fun, different. And to her artist’s eye, beautiful. Besides, she’s always loved a party.

“I think that’s what I do best in the world, make a place for people to get together and be together.”

Rebekah Denn is a Seattle food writer and frequent contributor to The Seattle Times’ All You Can Eat blog. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.