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July 18, 2013 at 6:00 AM

Pioneering chef sells Flying Fish

Christine Keff file photo by Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times

Christine Keff file photo by Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times

Flying Fish is turning in a new direction.

Christine Keff, who founded the internationally-influenced seafood restaurant to instant acclaim in 1995, said she has sold it to Xiao Ming Liu, a businessman who owns 15 restaurants in China. The restaurant remains open with the same staff, and Keff will remain as a consultant for at least the next six months, helping reinterpret the menu toward “high-end traditional Chinese cuisine.”

It’s a dramatic change for one of the city’s celebrated restaurants — and as dramatic a change for Keff, whose many honors include a James Beard award as best chef in the Northwest. She’s also consulting for Argosy, and has been approached about other opportunities.

“I don’t know how things could have worked out any better,” said the chef once described as always ahead of the curve. “I’m cooking, I’m developing food… it’s the part I’ve always loved the most. When you own a restaurant, you end up doing other things.”

A year ago, Keff said, she couldn’t have imagined where she would be today. But after 18 years running the business, including a 2010 move from Belltown to a sparkling space in South Lake Union, she said she was getting tired.

“With the move, we took on a lot of debt, which we never had at the other place,” she said. Combine that with the recession and with a clientele less interested in fine dining, and the business was “getting harder and harder.”

She listed Flying Fish for sale on a Friday morning, she said, and it sold by the afternoon. The new owner has built a research facility in Sammammish, where Keff is already working with his chefs. He had eaten at Flying Fish several times, she said, and opted to use it as an incubator of sorts to translate his dishes to American tastes and eventually open more restaurants here.

Customers will start seeing changes in the Flying Fish menu in another few months, she said, though “I’ve always had influences from all over the world in my food. I’ve always taken things and made them different.” This project is an education for her as well, she said, working with subtler flavors and even more dependence on ingredients rather than seasonings.

Any regrets about passing the torch on her creation? So far, she said, no. “I still go to work over there every day… I still see my peeps, and all my peeps are there. They kept everybody.” And if she moves on to other projects, that will be interesting too.

“I have no idea where I’ll end up, but it will be doing something with food.”

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