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October 10, 2012 at 6:00 AM

After 20 years, “chef-genius” Scott Carsberg closes his restaurant

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Scott Carsberg, the uncompromising, “astonishing,” “chef-genius” who has cooked at his Belltown restaurant essentially every open night for the past 20 years, is moving on.

Bisato, the Venetian small plates restaurant he and wife Hyun Joo Paek founded in 2010 to replace their more formal Lampreia, will close Oct. 14. The restaurant has done well, Carsberg said, but he and his wife want time to work on other projects, to rest, and to travel. Paek, a constant presence in the dining room, wants to spend more time with her parents, who live in Korea. Nothing is set in stone, but Carsberg has ideas for food products, research and development, and he’s been working on a cookbook. He says he’s open to anything.

“I’m just thankful. I’m very grateful and thankful and looking forward to the next page…whatever it may be,” he said.

Was closing down a hard decision?

“No, not really. I’m married, you know, and I love her, and I want her to be happy…” he said. “We’ve both done very well here. It’s been a great experience.”

Cooking is still his passion, as is the restaurant. He was there Saturday, as he will be until the end, answering his own phone and preparing his own mise en place.

“I love doing it. I don’t know how to describe it – I get paid to have fun and not many people get to do that. Yes, I’m serious about it, there’s no doubt I’m serious — I want to make it perfect, and I know I never will — but I’m trying…”

“What I want is to improve, I want to improve as a cook, I also want to improve as a human being…It’s a strange time for me, because I’ve always been here…I’ve always been on this corner, for so long.”

He’ll remain a Belltown resident. Although the neighborhood has changed outwardly over his years here, “I know all my neighbors, and it’s a neighborhood, still, to me. I’ve walked the streets every day — everybody walking by now, if I don’t know their name, I know their faces. Seattle is still kind of a small town. It thinks it’s a city.”

Carsberg and Paek opened Lampreia at First and Battery in 1992, an austerely elegant, fine-dining, Northwest-influenced Northern Italian restaurant that was a bellwether when Belltown was just starting its shift from a grungy neighborhood to a hip haven for nightlife. The West Seattle native, whose training included cooking under Yannick Cam at Le Pavillion in D.C. and Gunther Seeger at the Ritz-Carlton in Atlanta, quickly gained a reputation for pristine, precise, minimalist — and sensational — cuisine. (Nancy Leson once called Lampreia “my castle of gastronomy” and Carsberg its “workaholic chef-genius.”) For some the memorable moments came from the after-dinner cheese plate — Carsberg had one of the few restaurants serving one in those early years. For others it was the precisely composed salads, the foie gras, or the “legendary” veal chop. Enough anecdotes also flew about Carsberg’s temperament and “impatience with boorish diners,” wrote Seattle magazine, that “if Carsberg is one of the best chefs in America, he is perhaps also one of the most misunderstood.” (The magazine’s profile clarified that Carsberg did not, as legend had it, throw Tim Zagat out of the restaurant. Not exactly.)

In 2006, he won the coveted Best Chef: Northwest and Hawaii award from the James Beard Foundation. He wasn’t in New York to receive the honor; he was cooking on the Belltown line.

The switch to Bisato, a more relaxed and less expensive setting, made for, as Carsberg put it, “a high-quality experience without all the foo-foo-chi-chi,” where regulars raved over flawless risotto and gorgeously plated lamb chops. Earlier this year, Carsberg received the Birra Moretti award for Best Emerging Italian Restaurant in North America from the organization that oversees the influential Pellegrino list of the world’s 50 best restaurants.

“After a period of time when you’ve done something for a long time, you tend to reflect a little bit on where you want to be. After the (Moretti) award, I felt really comfortable with everything I’ve done on this corner. I’m happy… I still have a lot of dreams and goals, and I want the freedom to do those things,” Carsberg said.

In one sense he’s achieved what he set out to do: “I’ve been able to create my own repertoire, my own style of cooking.”

One of his guys told him the other day that he’s worked in places where it didn’t matter if things weren’t done well every time. “I cannot not do a good job. I just don’t have it in me,” Carsberg said.

Was he always like that?

“I think so, I think what I was afraid of mostly, as a young kid, was success. Failure was always at the back door… but I thought if I became successful then I wouldn’t be good anymore, so I’ve always strived to be better.”

We won’t see him doing a food truck, will we?

“No. I don’t like to drive unless I have to.”

And, now that he’ll finally have time, are there any other restaurants he’d like to eat at in Seattle?

“That’s a good question. I’ve got to think about that. I’m going to have a drink — I’m going to Canon and having a drink.”

And he’s moving on while he’s in a good place, one where he has no regrets.

“I haven’t even thought about that. I wasn’t raised that way, to have regrets. Everything was about learning and experiences in my family. I mean, I reflect on my life sometimes, to improve it, (but) I’ve always done everything I wanted in my life. If I’d wanted to be a real estate broker I’d be a real estate broker, if I’d wanted to be a pilot I’d be a pilot, but I love cooking.”

He’s open to working in other chef’s restaurants — he really does mean he’s open to anything, he said — but no matter where he goes, he’ll also leave a legacy of the talented chefs who trained with him, including Dana Cree (formerly pastry chef at Poppy), a rising national star; Kelly McCown (formerly of Flying Fish), who’s won impressive accolades in California; and one of his favorites, Jess Hayes (“she was instinctive,”) now cooking in Australia. (He didn’t think to mention it when asked for some of the cooks he’s mentored, but empire-builder Ethan Stowell also has Lampreia on his resume).

“Mostly what I give them is a sense of discipline. There’s not a lot of room for a big brigade in our kitchen, so everyone has to do everything…whenever they go somewhere else, they’re able to think on their feet and be creative.”

The ones who didn’t make it were mostly those who weren’t able to keep up, he said.

“Cooking is the last bastion of the human condition. You’ve got to taste, smell, see.. it’s like building, or working with wood. Cooking is every sense. It’s everything. It’s passion, it’s physical, it’s confusion. It’s a lot, and you’ve got to be on top of it.”

Photo of Carsberg by John Lok/The Seattle Times

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