Last week we let you know that former Seattle restaurateur Danielle Philippa is now a full-time rockabilly singer. That news made us want to check in on what a few other of our favorite Seattle chefs are up to these days. Got someone in mind you’d like to see us track down? Happen to know where a notable chef landed? Put a note in the comments, and we’ll do another update next month.
Robin Leventhal file photo: John Lok, The Seattle Times
Robin Leventhal, former chef-owner of Crave
I happened to recognize Leventhal when we wound up on the same airplane flight last year. Others recognized her too. That wouldn’t seem so strange — Crave, her comfort-food haven on Capitol Hill, was popular and well-loved before it closed in 2008 — except that when we landed in San Francisco, strangers there nudged each other and whispered her name. That’s the legacy of Leventhal’s time on Top Chef four seasons ago, bringing national attention not just to her cooking chops and personable nature, but to her work spreading awareness of cancer research. Leventhal has battled lymphoma, and recently began another round of chemotherapy for her incurable — but treatable — form of the disease.
Leventhal’s work now is a mix of food and art and inspiring causes. She’s become a licensed auctioneer, and focuses her work on benefit auctions — she’d love it if that grew into a second career. She still volunteers her time and kitchen skills for some serious fund-raising work, both for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and causes like Save Bristol Bay. She consults on food and restaurant projects, and cooks at winemaker dinners and other pop-up events. She raises a little flock of chickens in her Ballard yard. Her master’s degree was in ceramics, and she’s got her hands “back in the clay again,” finding some of the creative balance that was sidelined in her years at the restaurant.
“Yes, food is creative, but… at the end of the day, there’s a purity to creativity that’s lost when you’re running a business,” she said.
That said, she still dreams at times of opening another restaurant. “I live across the street from Le Gourmand, and I wanted that space so bad (when it went up for sale),” she said. She passed, listening to her head instead of her heart. “I’m no longer the young buck that can run a line and crank out 150 meals a night, and I’m OK with that.”
Instead, her challenge is “How can I use my energy in a way that’s satisfying and rewarding and has meaning in it?”
Laura Dewell, Pirosmani and Credenzia’s Oven
I’d normally be hungrily jealous of anyone who got to eat a meal prepared by Laura Dewell. I’ve missed her cooking from Pirosmani, where she won national raves for introducing diners to foods from the republic of Georgia, and at Credenzia’s Oven, with its rustic breads and warming Mediterranean fare. But I can’t be jealous of the many people now benefiting from Dewell’s talents. She’s the founder of Green Plate Special, a non-profit program in the Central District teaching middle schoolers how to raise and prepare their own foods.
The students have grown what was “a derelict lot” into a thriving garden producing everything from amaranth to cilantro to scarlet runner beans to tomatillos.
Dewell said the project brings together a number of her passions. She has a bachelor’s degree in child psychology. She became interested in how children learn about food and cooking while raising her daughter on her own. And, while working with students, she’d been surprised to see how little kids knew about food. “I was watching kids not have any idea how to whip cream, or have any idea that whipped cream came from cream, or that tomatoes came from a vine,” she said.
At Green Plate, in addition to gardening, lessons are focused on cooking techniques like knife skills. “Everyone needs to learn how to cook, not just a bunch of recipes from books, but understanding about being in a kitchen and enjoying that process…” she said. “We’re looking at health, we’re looking at nutrition, but we’re not pushing it down their throats.”
They’re currently teaching science and math through gardening and kitchen work with students at Madrona K-8 school, and working with students this summer through the Seattle Parks and Recreation Department and the YMCA as well as Madrona.
When funding allows, they’ll have a kitchen on site, for now they’re cooking in a church up the street.
“The garden is amazing, and the kids are fabulous.”
Monique Barbeau, Fuller’s
As executive chef of the former Fullers restaurant at the Sheraton Hotel, Monique Barbeau was a star chef in the days before cooks became celebrities. She won a James Beard Award as Best Chef: Northwest. She was a guest on Julia Child’s “In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs” show alongside names like Charlie Trotter and Rick Bayless. At Fuller’s, reviewers praised her “unparalleled wizardry” in the kitchen.
Barbeau has done teaching and consulting work since leaving Fullers. She hosts cooking classes and does the occasional catering gig. Most of her time, though, has been invested at her house in Tacoma as a stay-at-home mom to Owen, 13, and 10-year-old Claire. She had just, she said in an email, watched her daughter gently folding egg whites into waffle batter and wonder about reducing the amount of salt.
“I have had a great time fulfilling this aspect of my life… I still feel like I am in the business (ha) as I cook all the time, and I am very grateful that my skill set was put to a good cause,” she wrote. One particularly apropos project: Improving the cafeteria lunch program at St. Charles Borromeo, her children’s school.
Barbeau is active in Les Dames d’Escoffier, a philanthropic organization of women in the culinary world, and says she has “a few irons in the fire” for interesting projects in the coming year.
Danielle Custer, 727 Pine and Taste SAM
Danielle Custer once worked under Barbeau at Fullers, but won fame after leaving Seattle for Dallas. She was named by Food and Wine as one of the best new chefs in the country there, and won a James Beard award as a Rising Star Chef. She returned to the city she considers “home” to cook at 727 Pine, and, for the past several years, to be a director at the Bon Appetit Management Company, overseeing Taste restaurant and other projects. Her newest project, hitting the streets in October is… a food truck. “Monte Cristo” will specialize in “mobile melts” (that’d be grilled cheese), “one of those things that makes everyone happy.”
Custer knows that food trucks are usually the realm of start-up chefs, not those into big-picture project management (most recently developing the Bon Appetit cafe at Starbucks headquarters and overseeing 150 full-time employees). But the grilled cheese truck is an idea that first started percolating (or, more properly, coagulating) in her mind 7 years ago. She thought it would offer her a change to use the skills she learned as an administrator while getting back to the cooking line, and a truck “lends a sense of flexibility and the ability to change that I think brick and mortar restaurants have a harder time” doing.
“I was really happy with my job…(but) I’m really looking forward to reconnecting, re-engaging, touching food, getting to know my customers again, getting to know my staff at a level where I’m working side by side with them.” She’s praising local producers like Firefly Kitchens kimchi and Deluxe Foods jams, which she hopes to work into the truck’s menu.
She sees grilled cheese as “an endless painter’s palate” of specials: She could add culturally influenced ingredients like kimchi, put crunchy pickled vegetables on the side to compete with an intense cheese spread, make up a mix from “incredibly simple and super nostalgic” sandwiches to exotic offerings. “Monte is definitely going to be on the gourmet side of things…there’s very rarely a recipe or a menu item or something I eat out today that I don’t think ‘I could turn that into a great grilled cheese sandwich.’
Bon Appetit is backing the truck, and she’s still an employee of the company. She’ll be working on it with chef Royal Gunter, also of Bon Appetit. The rig is currently being prepared for the road in Portland; in the end it’ll have an18-inch charbroiler for “the panini look,” a 36-inch flattop griddle, and a cheese broiler. The menu will include a rotating mac ‘n cheese and — how could it not — tomato soup.
“I know it seems so strange, like I’m going backwards, but I am so excited about the fresh perspective this is going to give me,” she said. She had wanted to be a cheesemonger after graduating culinary school, she said, and she managed the wine program at Taste and hopes to figure out a way to include Northwest wines on Monte Cristo.
The project “puts a lot of my dreams all together on one little truck.”