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January 3, 2012 at 7:00 AM

Skelly and the Bean: When is a restaurant more than a restaurant?

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When is a restaurant more than a restaurant? I’ve been wondering how we even define “restaurant” anymore, watching projects like Belle Clementine, where subscribers more or less buy season tickets to dine, or Thierry Rautureau’s customer-investors at bistro Luc, or the pop-up restaurants coming and going and coming back again. But I don’t think I’ve seen a more dedicated leap into new territory than “Skelly and the Bean,” the new gathering place coming this month from Zephyr Paquette.

You might remember Paquette cooking “Real Good Food” at Carol Nockold and Connie Palmore’s late beloved Dandelion in Ballard, or more recently searing Moroccon skirt steaks with Tamara Murphy at Elliott Bay Cafe. She’s putting the finishing touches now on a restaurant-slash-“incubator” on the north end of Capitol Hill (2359 10th Ave. E.), open to everyone but fueled by friends and fans. Dinners Wednesday through Sunday (plus Sunday brunch) will feature what you think of as a traditional eatery, with Paquette’s locally focused foods. The rest is devoted to the incubator, for fellow cooks trying out new projects. Paquette pictures it as a space “for the semi-popups, the graduates who have really nailed it, the people who want to try out their food truck ideas,” for classes, for whatever else may come her way.

Why share her spot?

“How did I get to where I am? Well, I went into kitchens that I liked and said, “Can you teach me what you know?” she said. Her business plan is based on profits from the restaurant side; she sees the rest as a chance to contribute to the community and learn some new things herself. One night might be a Persian feast, another a cheese-making class, another a showcase for a top local culinary student.

The restaurant is nicknamed for a young family friend, Pascal (“Skelly”), now 9, who handed her three dollar bills and $7 in coins when they were playing Legos one day. His father wouldn’t let her return it. “Pascal thinks you’re supposed to open a restaurant,” he told her. She hung on to that first investment for two years, and shared naming honors between the boy and his litttle sister Nina (“The Bean”).

After the little boy’s push, she became inspired by Thierry Rautureau’s strategy of selling memberships to finance bistro Luc. And sure enough, she found enough supporters to make the restaurant a reality, with an $1,000 investment paying back $125 in food per month over the next year, plus guaranteed tables and pre-sale tickets to events. To her delight, people are showing up with more than money.

In these last few weeks before opening day, fellow cooks and members and supporters are coming in to paint, to line the walls with wood reclaimed from a Montana barn, to donate or barter equipment from a fryer to place settings.

“I really am trying to make it a community space…where people walk in and go, “I did that. I painted that wall. This is my place. I built that,” Paquette said.

Sound like fun? Or does it sound far out? If you’re thinking the latter, there’s always the traditional side of her new venture, which reminds me what my favorite restaurants are all about — good food and good community. In the end, as innovative as her restaurant hopes may be, they’re about fundamentals too.

“I miss Carol, she said.

“When I get to tough points, I pull out her rolling pin and make a pie, or I whip open one of the cookbooks…but I miss the food that Dandelion did. I don’t see that around very much, stuff that’s got that comfort food quality but with a little edge of fun to it.

“I think it’s a little bit trying to get back to that comfortable place.”

Nancy Leson photo of Zephyr Paquette at Elliott Bay Cafe.



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