Jackie Roberts experiments with imported vegetable seeds to inform the menu of her Post Alley restaurant.
“WHEN I MOVED to Seattle in 1976, there was no fennel here,” says Jackie Roberts. But being the tenacious cook she is, Roberts finally tracked some down from an Italian farmer at Pike Place Market.
Roberts has been serving up fresh, seasonal food for 36 years at the homey-yet-edgy Pink Door, the restaurant she has owned on Post Alley since 1981. It might be the most urban of restaurants, located in the heart of the Market, but its menus are germinated in Roberts’ own vegetable garden, where she experiments with varieties she grows from imported seed packets. “I’m a hands-on restaurant owner, and my front garden is my panacea,” she says.
Growing organic, flavorful food is a passion for Roberts. She buys from Italian seed companies because they offer varieties of vegetables impossible to find here. Along the sidewalk outside the home she shares with her partner, resident beekeeper and Pink Door executive chef Steve Smrstik, is a sign sporting a ladybug and declaring the garden pesticide-free.
The couple moved to their home in Laurelhurst in 2011, choosing it largely for the potential of its sunny front yard. The wall-to-wall lawn didn’t last long; Roberts had all the grass ripped out. Now the low wall surrounding the property is decked out in pink cabbage roses and yellow day lilies that match the cheery color of the home’s front door. Pots of geraniums brighten the dormer windows.
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Despite all the bloom, this is a working garden, where the front gate opens to the geometry of raised beds. To create a warm microclimate, Roberts built the wall of stone, edged the beds in stone and floored the paths in light-colored gravel. “We started out with a formal plan drawn up by landscape architect Kia (Catherine) Micaud; then we rusticated it up,” says Roberts of the slightly tousled, vegetable-rich beds.
As a child, Roberts lived in upstate New York and gardened alongside her father and Italian grandfather. “I learned so much by osmosis,” she says. “My father and I used to go out and pick dandelions; he called them a spring tonic. Now I’m growing dandelions.” For years, she grew garlic in her Seattle garden from seed her dad mailed her from his plants in New York.
Roberts believes the essence of gardening is growing from seed, some of which she sows directly into the ground, or under cover in her little greenhouse. She’s always trialing plants, considering which greens, herbs and vegetables are worth growing for the restaurant. She works with Brian Butler of Butler Green Farms on Bainbridge Island, who grows fresh produce for the Pink Door. “We collaborate on seed choices,” says Roberts, who calls out the roasting carrots and beautiful cauliflowers Butler grows for the restaurant.
Roberts rotates the beds in which she grows cucumbers and beans, and harvests the garlic to make room to plant zucchini. She grows carrots and celery from Italy, blueberries, beets, peapods, broccoli, tomatoes and more tomatoes. She especially likes bitter greens, and grows giant spinach, radicchio and chicory.
“I let things go to seed on purpose … like accidents,” says Roberts, who shakes the arugula flowers to spread the seed about. Poppies and nasturtiums seed about happily amid the vegetables.
“Mixing the soil, getting it just right, is not unlike cooking,” says Roberts. She hasn’t had the soil in her garden tested; she can just tell if it’s right. “I’m thinking about bringing in some seaweed,” she muses.
Around back, Roberts removed the old, overgrown laurel hedge along one side of the property so there’s sun enough to grow raspberries. Aged apple and plum trees, remnants of a much older garden, still bear adequate fruit for making jam and apple butter. This back hillside garden, which slopes down away from the house, is sufficiently sheltered to overwinter lemon verbena. The deck off the house holds pots of nectar-rich flowers for the residents of the four nearby beehives, tended by Smrstik.
Roberts uses a small greenhouse to extend the season and increase production. She starts seeds here, like her ‘Cuor di Bue’ tomatoes. The name means “heart of the ox,” and Roberts describes them as pulpy, sweet and ideal for tomato sauce.
“We really are what we eat,” says Roberts. “Gardening and cooking are just so linked.” Especially in her world, where her talents and skills stretch from digging in the dirt to serving up beautiful fresh food in one of Seattle’s most beloved and enduring restaurants.