This is the first of a two-part post talking sourcing, sustainability, and inspiration with Chef Brendan McGill of Hitchcock Restaurant on Bainbridge Island, Washington State.
What was your introduction to sustainability in the kitchen?
My entire adult cooking career has been in Seattle, so I feel that an undercurrent of sustainability has been part of my general practice in the kitchen from the beginning. Cooking in the Pike Place Market seemed like a way to be very close to producers; the food certainly doesn’t have much of a carbon footprint when you can walk to the stall where a farmer sells their food. In the nineties, we were all idolizing scarcity: foie gras, truffles, tuna from Tsukiji, etc. When I started working directly with farmers, I saw better, fresher product at more attractive prices than it’s “jet fresh” counterpart. Also, there’s a face attached to the food, and a story. I can smile and think warmly of my farmer friends when I’m handling and cooking their produce.
What’s your framework for making sustainable choices on a daily basis?
When I came to Bainbridge it changed everything – no compost service, no deliveries from Frank’s Produce, but lots of small producers willing to deliver personally. The connections that have formed over the last three years have been mind-blowing; our compost goes directly to the farms from which we buy our food, and some of those farmers are helping us make choices regarding our own farming endeavors. We are invited to help select seeds and work on custom farming plans for programs we’ve developed.
To offer an interesting selection of local foods year round, we have to work with farmers to get as much planted as we’ll need. Then we preserve what we must to extend it past its season. Our menu development follows availability, and that availability hinges on plans made a year in advance. It’s a lot different than picking up an order guide and par sheet and strolling through the walk-in with a clipboard, but this is the only way to do what we’re doing, and most likely the only way I’ll do anything from here on out.
We made some choices in the beginning that were somewhat arbitrary – wine from the northwest (WA and OR) and the old world (FR, SP, IT), specifically not from California or Australia. Some of the framework may be silly, but I can sleep at night knowing some bottles floated over on the slow boat, while I’m so proud of Northwest winemaking that I would never offer Californian wine here. There are terroirs in the old world that are so definitive, so essential to enjoying wine, I couldn’t have a wine list and overlook them.
With food it’s more rigorous – we allow for vinegars, olives and olive oil to be imported, and we have citrus from California or Florida, not to mention fresh herbs in the wintertime, celery for stock, etc. We’re working to replace each of those items, but the turnaround on a project such as producing a year’s apple cider vinegar is a big commitment, and doesn’t always work the way you want it to. Every breakthrough feels like a victory; just did a deal to get all of the salt for seasoning and for our fermented foods from the Strait of Juan de Fuca. We’re raw-fermented spring heirloom cabbages from a biodynamic farm three miles away, the only other ingredient being local salt.
Our seafood program is probably our best example for sustainability – only wild fish, only from Neah Bay. With the exception of the sardine runs in Wilapa Bay and Astoria, and possibly the Columbia River for sturgeon. All of our shellfish is producer-direct and from the hood canal or south sound. We’re in a geographically very fortunate position for this.
Why are you a member of Chefs Collaborative?
It’s great to work with like-minded chefs, participate in the events that promote this sort of commerce, and have access to a community with a collective wealth of knowledge and experience.
Can you describe a sustainability challenge you’ve overcome?
The big jug of red chili flakes – all cooks know about this. Who knows where they come from, or exactly what kind of pepper they’re made with. But, it’s how most chefs season a spicy dish. During our long incredible Indian summer last year, the local farms were pumping out a bumper crop of spicy peppers, really cool heirloom varietals. We pickled big buckets of them, which we have been able to draw from throughout the year.
Another great example is our octopus program – I wrote off using the Phillipines product after my Harvest Vine stint. We used Spanish octopus, and after traveling and cooking octopus on a few continents, I re-discovered octopus when we got our first from Neah Bay.
Occasionally a 70 lb. Giant Pacific Octopus ends up in a rockfish net, and the fishermen don’t really know what to do with it. Our fishmonger bought one for us off a dock when he saw it, and it got me thinking… I approached a large-scale seafood distributor about the fishing boats they buy from and if they experience bycatch, and with some coaxing we found a cod boat from the Bering Sea and convinced him to freeze all his octopus bycatch, promising we’d buy whatever he came back with. He returned with 600 lbs. and we’ve been able to stock a freezer full ever since.
Starting out, was there a chef whose career you admired and wanted to imitate? Which chef would you drop everything to stage with?
Starting out, I was a big Thomas Keller fan. Relentless pursuit of perfection, stratospheric standards, etc. These days I’m settling into my own style and feeling a little less idol worship than I used to. I would drop everything to go stage with Magnus Nilsson. I want to go skijoring with him, bag some game birds, carve into some dry-aged moose and try the incredible Swedish lake trout he describes.
What are your five favorite ingredients right now?
Elderflowers, doug fir tips, wild cress, bay laurel blossoms, fiddlehead ferns.
What one piece of advice would you give to aspiring young chefs?
Be prepared to work like a dog for your entire life, but don’t fall into the martyr mode that poisons our industry. Love what you do, so don’t go around being all mad at everybody who you don’t think is as brilliant as you are. Do right by people; honor your commitments. Watch out for the booze and hard drugs, they never made a chef a better chef. Get a steady girlfriend so you don’t run around chasing tail all night when you should be sleeping and/or thinking about being a better chef. Travel the world, eat as much as possible.
Congrats to Chef McGill on winning the 2013 Food & Wine award for “People’s Best New Chef“!