It took a while, but the national spotlight is finally landing on chef Brendan McGill.
For more than 10 years, McGill was a quiet standout in Seattle restaurants, sizzling in the kitchens – but out of the public eye — in places like Il Bistro and Harvest Vine. Since 2010, he’s been making a quiet name for himself at his own restaurant, Hitchcock, on Bainbridge Island. It made the Seattle Times list of top bites for 2011, with Providence Cicero writing that McGill “is a chef who can make a turnip taste sexy, a roast chicken look regal, a rockfish rock.”
But the noise will likely get louder around Hitchcock and its adjacent deli with McGill’s win of Food and Wine magazine’s 2013 People’s Best New Chef award. Food and Wine editorial staffers picked 10 finalists in each of 10 regions across the country for the award; McGill’s competitors included Seattleites Brian McCracken and Dana Tough of Spur (and other projects), and Chris Weber of The Herbfarm.
He received both the national title and the Northwest/Pacific regional title in a recent online vote, and will be featured in the heavy-hitting magazine’s July issue along with the annual editorial picks for the nation’s Best New Chefs. (People’s Chef winners are still eligible for the editorial awards.)
The magazine dubbed McGill amazing “because his cooking is the best possible version of a refined and well-traveled French grandmother, making as much by hand and using as many local ingredients as possible.” McGill told them his farm-driven menu is “more like what Jacques Pépin’s mom did than some kind of revolution.”
For the most part, to him, it’s zeitgest.
“I’ve figured out what I like to do now. I’ve learned my own style, I can follow my own path, and this place has just become something different than I anticipated. How that reached the national level I really don’t know,” he said.
McGill, who grew up in Alaska and graduated from culinary school at the Art Institute of Seattle, was working in Pike Place Market and living in Belltown when he first found his way to Bainbridge. The family of his then-girlfriend, Heidi, had homestead there since 1890, and “I’d come out here, I’d see stars and we’d go clamming on their property,” he said.
He and Heidi married, and he found he had fallen in love with the island as well. Despite its agricultural opportunities, though, “we would go out to eat and it didn’t seem any of the local restaurants were focusing on that aspect. There were a lot of food service trucks around.” (It’s since improved.) At the same time, he was finding that buying directly from small farmers was surprisingly hard even working in Seattle, where many restaurants used the same major suppliers — good ones, but the same ones.
When a space opened on Bainbridge’s main business drag, he figured he could count on tourist traffic to bolster local visits. He envisioned a menu of chicken and chops and simple pastas, but said the clientele – a good percentage of islanders, in the end, as well as Seattleites and tourists — drove him in more of a boutique direction, encouraging touches like his charcuterie and choose-your-price tasting menus. Just as equally, the menu was driven by the island’s growers.
“I work with a million purveyors, and everybody has got different schedules, (like) if you order from them on Mondays and Wednesdays they’ll harvest for you on Tuesdays and Thursdays, unless something’s going on with one of their interns or something. Since the menu just follows what’s available from the farmers, it’s not a disaster if something doesn’t make it. You just don’t sell it that night. That’s probably what makes it possible to follow that model,” he said.
The a-ha moments have come with the little things, as when a guest chef, a friend from Seattle, commented on a bunch of parsley being the best he had ever picked through. “It’s dramatically different what happens when you buy parsley from an organic farm in Indianola compared to when it just shows up from the box. That translates,” he said.
“You can multiply that by every part of the dish, that’s where my interest became focused on.”
It forced him to stretch the menu, too.
“People think you’re just trying to be weird with your smoked duck hearts or something, but we get some beautiful heritage breed ducks from an organic farm on the island. You have to use every single part for it to be economically possible to sell them.”
Now, three years in, he’s made it through the seasons enough times for him and his staff to start to “wrap our heads” around the menu, working within the short windows when certain ingredients are available and refining their approaches.
He’s particularly proud of “the things you would truly never see anywhere else, because of the spirit of the place that they’re tied to here.” He’s thinking of dishes like a plate of Taylor Shellfish mussels that he started out cooking in a dark British ale with house-made bacon. He was fermenting kombucha at the time for the deli, and a batch went too long and became too acidic for tea, but was “unique and tasty” for steaming the mussels.
“It got us thinking of replacing the acids we cooked with, instead of using lemons and bottled verjus from California or vinegars imported from around the world, what can we do…locally?” They moved on from kombucha to house-made mead for the dish, and then nettle wine and on to nettle tea.
“That tells a longer story than saying, ‘I went and bought the most expensive Wagyu beef from Niman Ranch and I grilled it… It’s a history of a specific cuisine.”
For his future plans, McGill thinks Hitchcock will stay largely as it is, “except we’ll try to refine it and make it better.” He could see outlets of the deli opening in other areas, once he gets past the practical hurdles — “that’s easily scalable.” And he’ll start doing some simple experiments growing on the Bainbridge farm he moved to from Seattle last year with his wife and young son, summer crops that are “easy and fun to grow and right within our reach” while he leaves the bulk of the farming to the experts. He’s already produced a year’s worth of quince paste from the property’s orchard, and he can pick his own bay leaves, “things that I used to be OK with showing up in a plastic jug from (restaurant supplier) Merlino… It’s fun for a chef.”
His own heroes in the food world make up a long list: “Everything Matt Dillon touches,” and the farm-to-table business of La Boucherie/Sea Breeze on Vashon Island, the business sensibilities of Skillet’s Josh Henderson, his own small business mentor Mike McConnell, and more.
“I’ve got this undying love for La Bete. I cooked with Aleks Dimitrijevic at the Harvest Vine and we became close friends. What he does there, it’s usually genius… at the highest end, it’s good for a chef like me to try to go to a place like Canlis or go to New York and eat at a place like Le Bernadin… (but) probably the most influence on us from outside is Magnus Nillson’s Faviken. That book, I think, has the first utterly original thoughts on food in a long time. I think the sub-arctic Nordic influences, we can learn a lot from that here in the Pacific Northwest.”
Now, McGill’s in a place where he might be that inspiration himself to others.
“I’m just really pleased that this is interesting to people. I didn’t open up on Bainbridge to say, maybe there would be a shift in our cultural food values to where a little island restaurant would be really interesting – but I see it going that way,” he said.
“It was good lucky timing on my part, where people would just as soon travel where the food is and go eat that there.”