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August 3, 2009 at 10:16 AM

Stratton at Spinasse: “I feel like I’ve won the lottery”

It’s been a year since Spinasse made its much heralded debut. Back then, celebrated pasta-maker Justin Neidermeyer — dubbed “a boyish Pavarotti”— presided in a kitchen built to remind him, and those who came to taste his wares, of his beloved Piedmont. Neidermeyer has since taken his last curtain call, his sights set on a return to Italy, and today Spinasse’s kitchen is firmly in the hands of Jason Stratton, who was there in the Capitol Hill cascina at the start.

Jason Stratton: now the creative artist in the kitchen at Spinasse.

When Stratton returned from six months in Spain to take a job at the as-yet-unopened Poppy, Neidermeyer called on his friend to lend a hand. “He asked me to come on as kind of a consultant and set up his kitchen systems,” recalls Stratton, 29, who began his career as Bruce Naftaly’s dishwasher at Le Gourmand, later worked as a line-cook at the late Avenue One and eventually landed at Holly Smith’s Cafe Juanita — where he rose to second-in-command during his nearly five-year tenure in Kirkland.

“It was hard for me to leave Spinasse in the first place,” Stratton said, remembering those heady days “in that magical space” where he assisted in the kitchen and dining room, curated Spinasse’s Italian wine list and formatted the menu. “I did a little bit of everything for the first few months.”

Stratton remembers watching as the restaurant took shape, the rustic communal-tables coming through the door where they were stained, the wine bottles he’d chosen lined up along the walls, the camaraderie in the kitchen. “I had my heart in it,” he said, “but I was committed to Jerry [Traunfeld].”

And when he heard the silent partners who’s backed Neidermeyer were looking to replace him, Stratton followed his heart. “I feel like I’ve won the lottery,” he said of his chance to run the kitchen at Spinasse. “For what I’ve wanted to do, for what I’ve envisioned for myself, this is exactly what I want.” On his friend’s leave-taking, he notes, “Justin wasn’t really looking to be running a kitchen on a daily basis. He wanted to step out and do some projects on his own.” Stepping in to take his place “was a perfect fit for me,” said Stratton.

Justin Neidermeyer making agnolotti last summer, at Spinasse.

“This is the first kitchen where I’m 100 percent in charge,” said Stratton. “At Poppy, a lot of the dishes were mine, and I had a lot of creative control over the menu, but ultimately it was Jerry’s kitchen and if he didn’t like dish, he’d get rid of it.”

“Jason is an amazingly creative guy, and he has this really great understanding about what flavors work together,” said Traunfeld, who hired the young chef sight-unseen when Stratton contacted him via e-mail from Spain. It was Stratton who came up with the idea of serving chickpea-coated eggplant fries at Poppy. And it’s Stratton whose expertise the James Beard Award-winning chef depended on when it came to learning line-cook lingo after 17 years at the Herbfarm. “Order. Set. Fire. Pick up. I didn’t even know the language,” Traunfeld admits. Stratton, some 20 years his junior, most certainly did.

“A great chef or great cook is born with something in them that knows how to make food taste good,” notes Traunfeld. “It’s not about technique. Some people can just make things taste delicious, and he’s one of those guys.”

“Jason is the kind of person people want to work for — and with,” said Holly Smith. Having traveled extensively in Italy and honed his craft in her Northern Italian kitchen, “his knowledge of the food is impeccable. He’s passionate about Italian food.” What’s more, she insists, “He’s the whole package: someone who gets the front of house as well as the back.”

In the two months since he’s come on at Spinasse, there’s been many changes in both the front and back of the house, Stratton said. Managing the dining room and keeping the books is Michael Galloway. “We came on about the same time, and we’re definitely looking to change what Spinasse has been.”

“Before, it was Justin’s vision to represent the standards of a Piedmontese trattoria, so five antipasti never changed, occasionally a pasta would change, it was pretty static. Up to now, the focus has been on sharing big platters of prosciutto and pasta, and I personally prefer to have my own food, to order what I want, so we’re opening up a little more choice in how you can order, more a la carte.”

Seasonal riches play big on his menu. “This is the first time I’ve really been able to buy a lot of my produce directly from farmers,” he said. “That’s a hard thing to do in a larger kitchen, but being so small here” — with 46 seats inside, a dozen out — “it’s easy to run a dish for a couple of days and then take it off the menu, to grab what’s fresh and best.” Things like four types of heirloom zucchini from Local Roots Farm or pan-roasted quail with the lightest of fresh corn-stock enriched polenta, described by the chef as “a summer explosion” of flavors.

Assisting him in the kitchen is Christian Poulsen, here from the start. “He’s the workhorse, works every station and is amazingly dependable and incredibly funny,” Stratton said. “It’s great being reunited with him.” Ditto for Carrie Mashaney — former pastry-chef and pasta maker at Cafe Juanita. “The way she and I work together is smooth and natural,” he said of his new sous-chef and former co-worker. “She pulls me out in another direction.”

Regarding being pulled in other directions, it’s clear Neidermeyer felt a tug from the get-go. “My world is focused on my world, not what can do with the Seattle restaurant scene,” he told me late last summer shortly after Spinasse made its debut. “I think this is a beautiful, wonderful project, but frankly, I’d like to live in Italy. The first thing I said when we started to put this thing together is `How do I get out?'”

Stratton, on the other hand, can envision a long-term future here on Capitol Hill. “I feel like this is kind of my own place,” he said of Spinasse. “I’d love to buy into it eventually.”

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