ROBIN LEVENTHAL is a chef, a teacher, an artist and an obsessive collector of wishbones. Amid the bric-a-brac in her Walla Walla pottery studio, there is a small box overflowing with them — some gilded, most bare, all intact.
“I love the little delight that comes from putting a secret hopeful intention into the universe,” she says. There must have been moments along the bumpy road of life when this self-described “eternal optimist” pinky-snapped one of those brittle bones and made a wish. Maybe when she was a Division I ski racer in college. Maybe when she was diagnosed with two kinds of lymphoma at age 38, less than a year after opening her Capitol Hill restaurant, Crave. Maybe when she competed on “Top Chef” in 2009.
She came in fifth on the show, which made her briefly famous hereabout, but she had no vehicle for the celebrity to fuel. By the time “Top Chef” aired, lease negotiations with her landlord had fallen through, and Crave closed. Friends urged her to open another restaurant and keep the career momentum going, but she dragged her heels. “I walked away from Crave knowing I’d successfully run a restaurant. It was a great experience,” she says, but she “didn’t see opening another restaurant as where my energy was best served.”
Instead, as she’d done before Crave, she cooked in other people’s restaurants — Local 360, Stopsky’s Deli. Then chef Dan Thiessen invited her to teach a summer course at Walla Walla’s Wine Country Culinary Institute, where he is executive director. The small town reminded her of southern Idaho, where she grew up. She felt she could get ahead there. She ended up accepting a full-time position at the school and bought a house in Walla Walla.
In the six years since, Leventhal has centered her life around teaching, gardening and ceramics. Art was her passion long before she started cooking. Lessons began at an early age, and she majored in art at Bates College. She finds it ironic that she ended up as a chef because she grew up in a home where both parents worked, and no one really cooked. A summer job in grad school with a caterer sparked her interest in cooking. In 1992, armed with an MFA in ceramics from the University of Michigan and a few kitchen fundamentals — knife skills, and how to set up a line cook’s station — learned from the catering gigs, she settled in Seattle and tried to figure out how to make art and make a living at the same time.
“There’s an oxymoron there,” she says. “Art shouldn’t be about money; it should be about your heart.” Whether cooking or working with clay, she has struggled to put a price on things she just wants to share with people. She sees parallels between being a chef and a ceramist. For both, you need basic skills: how to sear a piece of fish properly, for example, or how to mold clay. “It’s just another medium. Both are craft-driven. It’s mastering a craft, then elevating it.”
She maintained a small art studio in Ballard while she lived in Seattle, but restaurant jobs (Cyclops, El Nino, Deux Tamales) paid the bills. A couple of years after settling in Walla Walla, she decided to make more room for her art — literally — by turning her two-car garage into a full-fledged ceramic studio. Though she shapes each piece by hand, not with a wheel, she thinks of herself as a potter, rather than a ceramist, because the art she makes is also functional. Her pieces are sensuous, with fluid lines that suggest distinctly feminine forms. Her textures mimic nature. For glazes, she favors spring greens, soft blues, rich purples. She likes a little luster on the finish.
She’s been refining a line of oyster plates for a while. With their curved, swirling lines, variegated textures and shimmering patinas, they look like sea creatures themselves. Some are just big enough to hold one or two oysters; others have room for a dozen. She fashions podlike salt cellars, sauciers and air-plant containers, as well. Recently, she’s been creating rustic mezze plates and tagines, plus sconces and centerpieces in conjunction with the Walla Walla orchid grower Orchidacea.
Fittingly, the Seattle restaurant Art of the Table has some of Leventhal’s pieces. Unique tableware has become an expected component of fine dining. It’s partly the Instagram effect, but also, Leventhal says, it’s connected to the artisanal and locavore movements. “We are celebrating the farmer, the artisan butchers and now the potters.”
At 53, Leventhal views the move to Walla Walla as “such a gift.” She hasn’t completely severed ties with Seattle, though. She remains on the board of the annual “Premier Chefs Dinner,” a fundraiser for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. (Her lymphoma, treatable but not curable, is responding well to a new study medication.)
Her 70-year-old house in Walla Walla is the only one on the street without a lawn. The previous owner created a deliberately unruly natural landscape of trees, grasses and shrubs that Leventhal has joyously nurtured and improved. Her dining-room windows overlook a deck and a couple of fish ponds where ducks come to mate. She grows berries, herbs, stone fruits, vegetables and edible flowers, some of which end up in the kitchen of the restaurant her students run.
When she’s not teaching or gardening, she’s working with clay. “It’s not cerebral. It’s letting your heart connect to the medium and enjoy the moment. I feel like I’m at a place in my life where I get to enjoy being alive.”
Robin Leventhal’s Cucumber-Tarragon Mignonette
Makes 4 ounces (enough for approximately 2 dozen oysters)
Time: 10 minutes
1 tablespoon shallot, finely minced
¼ cup Champagne vinegar (can substitute white wine or rice wine vinegar)
2 teaspoons fresh tarragon, finely minced
Freshly ground pink peppercorn to taste (can substitute black pepper)
2 tablespoons English cucumber, finely minced (substitute winter crisp apples or, in summer, ripe honeydew or cantaloupe melon)
1. Pour the vinegar over the shallots to quick pickle for at least 15 minutes.
2. Add pepper and tarragon to the shallot and vinegar.
3. Add the fresh minced cucumber, apple or melon right before serving for the brightest contrast in flavor and texture.
4. Top each freshly shucked oyster with one to two teaspoons, depending on their size, evenly distributing the minced components. Best used within a few hours. Use any leftovers in a vinaigrette for a salad or as a sauce for an entree fish dish.