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April 23, 2009 at 10:18 AM

How many chefs does it take to . . . promote a restaurant

Don’t let them tell you “too many cooks spoil the broth.” Not true. Here’s how I know:

That’s me on the right last week at Harvest Vine, where I waited tables in cramped quarters, something I’m all-too-familiar with having done it elsewhere for half my working life. It’s a job I sorely miss, and sore is the operative word to describe my out-of-shape middle-aged body — after I ran it up and down the restaurant’s stairs at least a hundred times. Oh well, that’s what happens when you do as I’ve done: traded my former occupation for the sit-on-your-tush-and-write-about-it version.

What’s downstairs? The txoko, a small, Basque-style eating place excavated and annexed in 2002:

And, adjacent to that is a spacious new room perfect for private parties, doubling the size of Harvest Vine:

That dining room was news to me, and it’s interesting to see yet another expansion at a place that opened as a tiny tapas bar with only a handful of tables. Especially since I’ve been reading, writing and talking about the ways in which restaurant owners are attempting to fill their tables and keep their businesses afloat during these famously difficult times. Which brings me (literally and figuratively) to the “Seattle Chef’s Table” dinner last week at The Harvest Vine.

The Chef’s Table held special interest for me because it was an idea hatched and dispatched by six of the city’s biggest names in the business, independent restaurateurs who figured, “Enough already with the monster events. We’ve all got our own hard-core fans, so why don’t we offer a series of `progressive dinners’ that allow us to strut our stuff and hang out together at each of our six restaurants?” Business might be off, but clout they’ve got — in spades: three of these chefs (the owners of Rover’s, Cafe Juanita and Lark) are James Beard “Best Chef”-award winners, while the other three (from Tilth, Crush and The Harvest Vine) are competing for the award this year:

From left: Jason Wilson (Crush), Maria Hines (Tilth), Holly Smith (Cafe Juanita), Joseba Jimenez de Jimenez (The Harvest Vine), Thierry Rautureau (Rover’s) and John Sundstrom (Lark)

Their idea was to share the wealth, so to speak, by introducing their regular customers to a restaurant they may have always wanted to go to, or to a chef they’ve always wanted to know but perhaps have yet to meet. The intimate gatherings were conceived as an effort to bring diners out of the woodwork, now that so many “regulars” — at restaurants large and small, fancy four-star joints and family-friendly chains alike — are scaling back on their dining-out budgets. Not that you can tell from the sold-out seats at previous dinners held this year at Rover’s and Tilth, and again last week at The Harvest Vine, where folks were busting down the doors to sample the wares:

And, go figure: the upcoming double-header at Lark is sold out on a successive Monday and Tuesday in May, followed by close-to-sold-out events at Cafe Juanita (in September) and Crush (in October). These six-course dinners ($90 a pop, plus tax, tip and paired wines) have been such a success, “We’re going to finish with a special Holiday Feast,” says Rover’s chef, describing an affair to be held at an as-yet-undisclosed warehouse location in November. The date’s pending, so keep your eye on their Web sites if you’re interested.

So, what was I doing in Madison Valley dressed in my waitress-whites? Well, when I ran into Maria Hines recently at the Star Chef’s gig at McCaw Hall, we had quite the gabfest about the way chef-restaurateurs (whose job description used to read “cook-and-run-your-restaurant”) have increasingly had to market themselves beyond their restaurant walls if they want to succeed, donating their time and talent at charity functions, vying for slots on reality TV shows, Twittering and Facebooking and smiling for the camera every time someone says, “Say cheese!”:

When Maria brought up the Seattle Chef’s Table dinners, mentioning the next event at The Harvest Vine, she said, “You should come!” and I said, “You’re right, I should. Need a waitress?” So I put my money where my mouth was, arriving at the Chef’s Table event at 5 p.m. (the guests were due in an hour). There I found Maria in her civvies behind the tapas bar at her pal Joseba’s, prepping chickpea cakes to accompany her course — grass-fed lamb loin with nicoise olives and fresh artichokes:

Thierry was there, too, saying: “The soleil’s over the yardarm! Time to pay the Piper-Heidsieck”:

Joseba’s main squeeze made an appearance:

No, not Carolin — who spends most of her time at their Belltown pinxtos bar, Txori (promo’d by the chef hanging with Thierry, above). This squeeze: soon to be fashioned into Joseba’s “bonbon d’foie gras”:

Here I am, bearing the wrath of PETA:

The guests went wild for those luxe lollys that snapped, crackled and and popped — and came garnished in green, thanks to these not-so-secret ingredients:

Once we opened the doors, they nibbled hors d’oeuvres and drank fino and cava for an hour or so. It was a warm night, so Carolin threw open the garage-door-wall and folks schmoozed outdoors and in. Chatting with the guests as I passed the noshes reminded me once again why I loved waiting tables. And when the woman on the left, who drove up from Olympia to attend, took one look at me and said, “Are you Nancy Leson?” I handed her some foie-on-a-stick and replied, “No, but I hear-tell we bear a striking resemblance”:

Throughout the evening, the chefs kept busy preparing and plating each course. Here’s John (far right), prepping his geoduck ceviche Jeremiah, there to lend a helping hand. As you can see, Thierry’s doing what he does best:

John’s ceviche is a popular dish at Lark, and I’ve eaten it many times paired with a cocktail at Licorous, Lark’s bar-sibling. It was a real refresher-course when served with wild watercress, radish and begamot lime oil:

Turns out Holly was in Delaware visiting the relatives, but Cafe Juanita’s chef de cuisine Stuart Lane did a terrific job “representing.” His elegant guinea fowl-and foie gras tortellini in ginger brodo (translation: outrageously delicious soup) was a favorite among the diners:

Don’t believe me? Read this first-hand account from a fine fellow named Steve — a food-blogging retiree and avid home-cook from Vashon Island, with whom I had a nice conversation about our mutual love for Kurtwood Farms.

Jason’s course was wild-caught Mero sea bass, a proudly sustainable Hawaiian fish, served with local ramps, preserved lemon and vadouvan — a French-accented curry blend whose scent was so alluring, umpteen people stopped me mid-stride to ask what it was they were smelling as I served it:

Foie gras was the theme of the day. Thierry’s dish — smoked goose with parsnip, beets and coriander nage — came with a thick lobe. At these meals, the chefs will make concessions for diners with food allergies or aversions, so long as they know in advance. There was a vegetarian in the crowd, and when her veg-dish was dragging after her table was served, I went upstairs, put my hands on my hips and said, “Yo, Thierry! Where’s my veg?” “We just called Cafe Flora,” he replied, “They’re bringing it up the street in a minute!” — cracking up the lucky dozen seated upstairs at the tapas bar fronting the open kitchen:

Among the guests happy to chat with “The Chef in the Hat” were Dawn and Eric Wright (you might know them as the voices behind Wright Eats). Having tasted the smoked goose, and gotten more than a gander at the foie gras, I’m sure they’d agree that Thierry’s goose-and-foie was indeed the right eats:

Here’s the dish without its parsnip or the nage (later poured from a pitcher, tableside).

The photo above was the sample shown to the waitstaff before service began. What? you thought I was working the floor alone? I’m good, but I’m not that good. Four Harvest Vine employees were on hand to assist with service, and when one of them got called out-of-house unexpectedly for a family emergency — leaving us short a man — I was especially glad I was there to lend a hand. If you frequent The Harvest Vine, you may recognize this guy, Juan Carlos, who runs the floor most nights:

For dessert, Joseba served Gateau Basque — a luscious tart infused with cherries and a touch of (!) foie, served a la mode with tiger nut ice cream. Tiger nuts are the tubers used to make horchata in Spain. And the flavor was more savory than sweet, in case, like me, you were wondering, “What’s a tiger nut? Is it anything like a `Rocky Mountain oyster’?”:

It was nearing 11 p.m. when the last of the guests headed home. This mother-and-daughter team asked Maria to autograph a menu. I guess that’s why they call the Divine Ms. Hines a “celebrity chef”:

As fun as serving that dinner was — those stairs notwithstanding — the best part was yet to come: family meal!

Once the kitchen was cleaned up (God bless that darling dishwasher who worked — alone — in a closet-sized dishwashing area), we all sat down to eat. Leading the brigade of cooks was Joseba’s right-hand-man Taylor Thornhill, seen here in the white tee working with his right-hand-man, Kylen:

And speaking of right hands:

OK, so it’s his arm — and that’s a crab crawling up his elbow. I’ve got to tell you: I’ve seen a lot of tattoos on chefs in the last several years, but Taylor’s are astonishing. His walking gallery of fine food-art includes a pheasant, a fish, a pig and a veritable produce section:

After producing this shindig, the chefs hung out for a while, talking shop (I’d tell you what they said, but then they’d have to kill me):

But it was late. And as as you can see from the look on Joseba’s face (sans its famous mustache!), it was time to go home. Running a restaurant is an exhausting and never-ending job. And no matter how much you’re “celebrated,” how much diners are willing to pay to eat what you prepare, or how many restaurant critics are singing your praises, at the end of the day, being a chef-restaurateur is a labor of love: emphasis on the “labor.”

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