More than a few disaffected youths have found fulfillment through hard work and a lot of them end up in restaurant kitchens. Jay Blackinton’s path to the kitchen at Hogstone’s Wood Oven, the Orcas Island restaurant he co-owns with John Steward, founder of Maple Rock Farm, took him first through the fields.
I met Blackinton when I had dinner at Hogstone on a recent eating tour of Orcas Island, chronicled this coming Sunday in The Seattle Time’s travel section. The 26-year-old’s fingers are inked below the knuckles with letters that read “So it goes” when he puts his fists together, remnants of an early infatuation with Kurt Vonnegut. His emails sign off with the 19th century socialist epigram: “The plough is a better backbone than the factory.”
Born in Tacoma, Blackinton, gave up working as a bike messenger in Seattle about five years ago to return to Orcas, where he had lived for a time with his grandparents. “The city and I left each other before it got too out of hand. We are still fond of each other, but keep a healthy distance,” he wrote in an email.
At the Orcas Farmers Market, he met Steward, who started Maple Rock Farm in 2000. Afterward, they bonded over beers. “As I settled in to what would become a post-Saturday-market tradition,” recalls Blackinton, “I realized that this was the ‘farmer down the road’ from whom my grandfather had bought his beloved tomato starts all those years ago when I lived with my grandparents on Pinneo Road.”
Steward offered Blackinton a job splitting wood. “I just felt that he had potential,” says Steward. “At the time, he really was very green and had never been around any kind of farming at all…within two years we had him up and running on the tractor, changing out tools and doing all kinds of field work.”
Steward and Blackinton started farming a parcel of land at Stone Bridge Farm, owned by an island family. What started as one acre of potatoes grew to five acres of vegetables and pigs. “It became a collaboration for John and myself, something that we have built together and are very proud of,” says Blackinton. It is also the place he calls home, less than a mile from the restaurant.
Hogstone’s Wood Oven evolved from a Friday night event held at Maple Rock Farm that according to Blackinton “started out small and quiet and grew into something loud and boisterous. So much so that it gave us the audacity to open a full time restaurant on top of being full time farmers.”
When Hogstone opened in February 2013 the idea was to make pizza that would be “a canvas to share with people what was happening in our fields and in the forests and coastlines of our island.” With a few very large exceptions—notably flour and oil—they planned to grow and forage everything. “If our hands hadn’t coaxed it from the soil or stolen it from the woods we wouldn’t use it,” says Blackinton.
By the end of the year their ideas had moved beyond pizza. “When we started the restaurant, I don’t think either of us had set boundaries on what it would become. I know it sounds corny but it’s just evolved and continues to do so every day,” says Steward.
They closed Hogstone in December 2013 and reworked the space and the menu. Walls came down to better accommodate table service. Counters and bookshelves made of island fir went up.
“Jay is pretty much running the restaurant and doing a great job,” says Steward. “He is definitely setting new standards and is really defining who he is as a cook. He’s taken a leadership role in making his vision a reality.”
The menu is still half pizza. Locals still come by for takeout and have a beer while they wait. The pizza is extraordinary, but so is the other half of the menu, a handful of small plates showcasing supremely fresh ingredients manipulated to achieve thrilling depths of flavor. The porcine intensity of a much-reduced sauce for braised pork neck comes to mind, as does a vinaigrette bolstered with charred onion stems uniting a salad of onion hearts, raw chard and pickled chard stems.
Hogstone is staffed mainly with farm workers and interns, “people who have a real connection to the food on the plates, who can tell the stories connected to the ingredients without any pretension and complete honesty,” says Blackinton. At the same time he acknowledges their lack of restaurant experience. “Part of the charm? Maybe. To balance it out we have a few dedicated industry professionals who help the rest of us keep it in line. After all, we’re farmers first.”
Read more about Hogstone and other places to eat, drink and stay on Orcas Island here.