Bruce Naftaly’s memories don’t sound so radical now: Rows of zucchini flowers packed and delivered “like a treasure chest of jewels,” berries from a blueberry farmer with a crop small enough to hand-pick pests from his plants, a liaison linking Pike Place Market farmers with restaurateurs interested in knowing their growers and buying the freshest ingredients.
But it was Le Gourmand, the peerless little French-Northwest fine-dining spot Naftaly founded in 1985, that helped turn such then-obscure farm-to-table sourcing into Seattle’s signature style. Naftaly earned the title “Godfather of Northwest Cuisine” in the days when critics were startled at the notion of a chef listing his purveyors on the menu.
Naftaly closed his Ballard landmark earlier this summer, though Sambar, the sweet and sophisticated little garden bar he and wife Sara owned next door, will stay open through the end of September. Naftaly is handling Sambar’s menu for now, he’ll do cooking classes in the Le Gourmand space until the building sells (and elsewhere after that), he’s got plans for a cookbook, and Sara, Le Gourmand’s pastry chef, is working on opening a bakery-cafe. The couple might cook at pop-ups or for private parties, for the many who already miss what they brought to Seattle’s table.
“We didn’t stop doing it because we stopped loving it. That was never an issue,” Naftaly said.
“It was just a matter of 24 hours in the day.”
Here’s an edited, condensed version of our recent conversation. I had to tell Naftaly at the end about my own formative first visit to Le Gourmand, as a young news reporter invited along as a last-minute fourth for a critic’s review. We ate housemade poppyseed crackers, silky rabbit pate, cream sauces, crepes made with “personally milked” cheeses and house-made butter. For a kid who spent years dreamily reading the menus posted outside Chez Panisse but never walking inside, it was an introduction to a whole new level of how good food could be.
Q: Why did you choose to close Le Gourmand?
A: “There was just absolutely no time for anything but intensely running this particular treadmill. It’s intense and it’s beautiful and there’s nothing you’d rather be doing when you’re doing it, but.. we were working extremely hard, as we do, and the economy kind of fell apart a few years ago, which meant you were working harder. The trend in what people wanted was not going in our direction. And (son) Sam, he’s 12, and we wanted to be able to spend more time with him. Sara always wanted to have this bakery-cafe, and we couldn’t do both things and do them the way we wanted. I wanted to do a cookbook…
“We’re not immortal, unfortunately. You do have to look at things and make some decisions. Also, a lot of the things I’m passionately interested in, that didn’t seem to interesting to people before — knowing who’s growing your food, using whole animals from nose to tail — all that has finally filtered down into the culture. You can kind of look around and say, my work here is done.”
Q: Since the building is still for sale, why not keep both restaurants open through the end of September?
A: “We (announced) we were done in February, and we went out with this huge bang, five months of being just as busy as we could ever be… that was extremely humbling and gratifying, but that was a sprint. It became a physical impossibility. And we had said we were going to close at the end of May, and then we had so many people on the waiting list we extended it one month, and felt we didn’t want to sound like a carpet store.”
Q: What’s life like now, only doing the bar food at Sambar?
“It’s like having one full-time job instead of three full-time jobs. There’s been a lot more sleep, approaching normal amounts of sleep, which is something strange and wonderful after so many years. I’m getting to spend a lot of time with the family, as they say, and that’s been really nice…We get some time together which is not just standing 10 feet apart in the kitchen.”
Q: What will your cookbook be about?
A: “It would just be my take on flavors and food, and how you get from the raw ingredients to the finished dish — sort of like the cooking classes, only in a book form. I’m especially interested in the less precise ways of cooking savory food. There’s more than one way to get from A to B.”
Q: When you started, what did you want out of Le Gourmand?
A: “Pretty much the same thing as (when) I started back at Rosellini’s Other Place, being the head chef there. The idea there was — it’s a grandiose concept — you’re trying to do three-star Michelin food using local organic ingredients… using the best ingredients that one could find, scouring the countryside, and meeting people whose passion was growing the ingredients.
“They put all that love and passion into the ingredients and then you were the lucky recipient of them and got to put your passion and love into them, and hopefully you could see the results on the plate.”
Bruce Naftaly file photo Laura Morton/The Seattle Times