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February 10, 2012 at 7:00 AM

Chef at helm is new to Ray’s Boathouse, not to Seattle


Photo of the ever-smiling chef by Barry Wong/The Seattle Times

Chef Wayne Johnson has been identified with Andaluca at the Mayflower Park Hotel for the past 12 years, except for the recent buzz when he was cooking cool as a cucumber (his secret ingredient) on Iron Chef America.

Now the Kentucky native with the Spanish culinary flair has moved to Ray’s Boathouse on Shilshole Bay, one of Seattle’s mainstay icons of Northwest seafood. He’s taking over for recently departed chef Peter Birk at a place where he’s likelier to serve smoked sablefish and grilled Alaskan king salmon than to put out pintxo platters and paella. He’s thrilled.

Chefs are multi-taskers with an urge to always learn more, Johnson said yesterday, taking a break from the “busy and joyful” work of learning the Ray’s ropes. The lure of running the cafe and the boathouse and the catering operation all at once seemed “an exciting, thought-provoking change.”

“There’s a lot to play with.”

This week, his first, he’s in the cafe learning the menu and the players and the plates. Next week he heads to the boathouse, learning the classic recipes and “geting the palate understanding what that dish is supposed to be saying.” There are certain foods Ray’s diners expect as surely as they expect a view, but the eventual goal is to add some new flavors, to put a shine on a place whose style he already enjoyed, to “make it something a little different but still the same”. Sarah Lorenzen, who worked with him most of his tenure at Andaluca, has taken over as chef at Andaluca.

Ray’s looked nationally for a new chef, using a recruiter, but also reached out to a handful of people, including Johnson, said spokeswoman Lori Magaro.

“He’s a great chef, his food is delicious….that’s one piece of it…but he also has a couple of qualities that a lot of people don’t have,” she said. He’s a strong mentor and educator, and the staff members were hungry for a great teacher. He’s active in good causes and charities in the community, he’s already well-known to the Ray’s team. He’s humble, a good guy, and a close friend to many. “We wanted to bring someone into our family,” Magaro said, a chef whose personality was a fit both in and out of the kitchen.

For Johnson’s part, he said he loves training student chefs. He doesn’t notch his belt on how many high-profile jobs he lands, he said, but how many sous chefs and banquet chefs and other cooks he sends out well-trained and knowing what they want out of a cooking career.

In coming months, Johnson’s looking forward to differentiating the boathouse menu more clearly from the cafe, and to playing with all the opportunities a catering menu gives him. Juggling three departments “is more fun. It keeps me creative. It keeps you wanting to find new things to do.”

And yes, he does know that the tenor of the whole place might change when the sun comes out and the deck doors open and the crowds descend, hungry for views and for crabcakes. “Whenever someone says summer, they go, “Oh, you just wait. You ain’t seen nothing yet.”



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