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Feast or fiction

Would you know Pacific Northwest cuisine if you bit it on the ass?

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Stadium Bistro Chef Peter Weikel laughed. He laughed for a long time. Then his business partner and father, Peter (same name) laughed too. They shared a nice family moment as I sat there dumbly waiting for an answer.

“No, seriously,” I prodded after a few more seconds. “Describe for me what is Pacific Northwest food.”

More laughter.

Is our native cuisine that funny? Or, were they laughing because they didn’t know what else to say? Maybe the question wasn’t ridiculous, but rather, the lack of a definition was laughable.

Does Pacific Northwest food even exist?

Jeffrey Chodorow thought so. He opened the Wild Salmon restaurant last spring in New York City — Third Avenue, near Park Avenue — around important people. A fusion king who dazzled foodies with his China Grill in the ’90s, and who was Rocco DiSpirito’s partner on the reality show, The Restaurant, designed an entire establishment around our apparent cuisine. He went out of business right after the New Year. 

Kids, don’t try this story topic at home.

Pacific Northwest what?

Our region is void of touristy and signature dishes. We don’t have a pizza named after us. We lack geographically uniting bread. No one travels hundreds of miles for our barbecue sauce. We have fabulous wild salmon, but so do the Japanese, Canadians, Scandinavians, Alaskans and (brace yourself) Russians.

Sure we’ve made a global impression with our coffee — but try growing that here. You can’t, and therefore, no one has handed down coffee recipes long enough to create a regional style.

Maybe if slugs were tasty we could salvage things, but at first glance, it appears we have nothing to give.

But, it turns out, we have much to keep.

Once Chef Weikel composed himself, he explained the situation.

“It’s not about any particular dish,” he says. “It’s about the ingredients we have here. We have so much produce and variety in the Northwest.”

Weikel notes that we share latitude with France; therefore, for him at least, Pacific Northwest cuisine is about taking what is natural to our region and applying it to techniques borrowed from elsewhere.

Charlie McManus at Primo Grill agrees.

“Chefs tend to look at the natural bounty of this area and then figure out how to incorporate that into the style of their cooking.”

It’s probable that cooks have done that here since Capt. George Vancouver yelled, “Land ho.” Maybe his chef made meat pies with our venison and pig’s ear mushrooms. Possibly, George, Peter Puget and Joe Whidbey dined on oyster stew derived from the Hoods Canal.

Dan Hutchinson, chef at Brix 25 in Gig Harbor, makes a similar point of mixing outside influences and local produce by incorporating an exotic sunny spice to flavor many of his Northwest inspired dishes.

“Cinnamon is my favorite — I use it a lot because of its earthiness,” Hutchinson says.

He takes diners around the block via the tropics by highlighting the taste and feel of our area with a spice no more Northwest than 100 straight days of sunshine (or even 20 days).

“Cinnamon brings out the damp, forestry feeling and smell we have here,” Hutchinson adds.

Eat fresh

Alan Archambault says growing contemporary vegetables and fruits in the Puget Sound area dates back to early settlers. A local historian and curator at the Fort Lewis Museum, Archambault says these pioneers paired wild game with produce they grew in vegetable gardens next to their kitchens.

“They ate a lot of stews with carrots and potatoes,” he says.

The Native Americans adored the settler’s potatoes. Archambault adds the natives especially loved the small ones. “They traded fish and games for these little tubers.”

Chodorow borrowed those same flavors to create his now defunct menu at Wild Salmon. Dishes that included king, coho and sockeye salmon grilled, cedar planked or poached were served with sauces like wild Oregon morel pinot noir and spiced Yakima peach rason chutney.

Chodorow imported nearly his entire menu.

“The biggest struggle has been the freight bill,” Chodorow told the Associated Press in a May 2007 story. All the major ingredients came direct from the Pacific Northwest. Which is the whole point, Weikel says.

“The flavors are mellow up here. They are easy to meld together.”

Hutchinson also expounds passionately on the merits of our local produce. He believes a classical French style works best, but also sees similarities to California cooking — though with an emphasis on heavier flavors.

“Pacific Northwest foods are almost destined to go with red wine,’ Hutchinson adds. “Bing cherries, dark chocolate, mushrooms — those are our tastes.”

Wrap it up

There you have it, according to these chefs, our cuisine is earthy, woody, deep — mellow, easy-going — damp and briny.

Apparently we are a bunch of beavers and otters up here.

Maybe Weikel pictured the same thing and that’s why he found my question so funny.

Or maybe I just had a piece of moss between my teeth.

[Stadium Bistro, 204 St. Helens Ave., Tacoma, 253.683.4150]

[Primo Grill, 601 S. Pine St., Tacoma, 253.383.7000]

[Brix 25, 7707 Pioneer Way, Gig Harbor, 253.858.6626]

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