For this month’s Member Spotlight, we’ve taken a trip (mentally, of course) to the West Coast, to chat with Seattle Chefs Collaborative Board member, Chef Roy Breiman of Cedarbrook Lodge and Copperleaf Restaurant.  Read on for Roy’s multi-cultural, intercontinental journey stemming from an appreciation for culinary traditions and terrior, and to learn what kind of legacy he wants to leave behind.

Chef Roy Breiman

Chefs Collaborative: Could you start us off by telling us a little bit about your personal history?
Chef Roy Breiman: Oh, it’s your typical story.  An American chef falls in love with a craft and pursues it to the highest level. It was really about finding the best route to take. In the early stages, there was a lot of interest on my part and urging from my family to go explore the history and traditions of European families who have been doing this for centuries. I very much wanted to move there to live and work.  This story is very typical nowadays, but back when I decided to do it – in the late ’80s, early ’90s – it was a new idea, and it was very hard to get over to Europe to work for a significant amount of time.  I pursued working in the best restaurants in Europe – the ones run by chefs with great family traditions and excellent culinary reputations.

I was fortunate enough to get a job out of culinary school in San Francisco working with young culinary talents directly of the boat so to speak. French nationals who were uniquely proud of their cooking traditions; chefs who had worked for legends like Alain Chapel, Michel Guérard and Roger Verge.  I learned a lot about history and the tradition of cooking from them and after three years of intense trial by fire kitchen etiquette I ended up in New York  working for Christian Delouvier then at the Maurice in the Parker Meridien in Midtown NYC, again instilling another dose of standard driven work ethic and creativity in my craft  After a few years, I went back to West Coast and had my first big break, but I realized that I really needed to go to France first to round out a foundation for the future. I went to Versailles at age 27, to work at a two star Michelin restaurant Les Trois Marche. After my stage, I traveled through Burgundy via Paris, and fell in love with the south of France.

When I returned to America, I took the position of Chef de Cuisine of Restaurant “Antoine” in Le Meridien Newport Beach and became the youngest and the first American to run one of their fine dining restaurants. Le Meridien had a visiting chef program, so every month we would host a new chef who we had flown over from France.  I spent a year networking with chefs and telling them that I was interested in working with them. After two years, I was fortunate to be accepted at Le Chateau Eza a small eleven room Chateau located between Nice and Monaco.  I got approved for a three-year Visa. It was absolute ‘visualization manifestation’! I saw exactly where I wanted to be, and from there, began to consider my responsibility as a chef and the legacy I wanted to leave behind.

Tunisian olive groves harvesting with local Bedouin family

C.C.: Speaking of a chef’s responsibilities and legacy, would you tell us about your “AHA” moment with regard to sustainable food?
R.B.: While in France – a country with a huge agricultural tradition – I learned a lot about the process of identifying superior products to superior cuisine. When all is said and done, that is the essence of great cooking. The quality of the product is translated to the quality of the dish. The farmers really are the stars. The flavor profiles are different due to terrior – vegetables here are different from vegetables there. The food in France was full of flavor and positive energy. I correlate that with the stewardship of the lands over the centuries; that correlation between superior product and what we do as craftsmen is the key to nurturing. I became aware of this when I returned back to the U.S. after several years of feeding my family with market food, and meeting the farmers who would come to area restaurants, and the fisherman who would bring fish from the Mediterranean to our back door.  These experiences helped me as a young human being to discover what my cuisine was going to say.  I felt excited to carry the message of this connectedness and these types of practices in my food.

When I came back to the U.S. in the early 90s, the Farm to Table movement was in its infancy. There was this groundswell having to do with our local product and what we’re doing with it here. Before I even built a menu, I would travel around to get to know and build relationships with farmers, fishermen and cheese makers. I wanted to build relationships with these artisans, and to be an advocate for sustainable food systems of the regions I happen to be in. We as chefs are responsible for promoting and working with regional products, almost as a mandate, highlighting farmers and growers from that region.  Your profession is a vehicle to share who you are with other people. There’s is no escaping it now.  Your profession is an intrical part of your life’s work a stamp on who you are. It’s our responsibility to tell that story and leave a legacy for the young, upcoming professionals who can carry on the message.

C.C. What about the history and progress of your current business? You’ve had a lot of success recently!
We had an interesting start! Cedarbrook Lodge and Copperleaf Restaurant is an amazing evolution, built initially by the folks at Washington Mutual and inherited by a local management company, Coastal Hotels, who empowered us to turn it into a fully sustainable, urban property with a small, cutting edge restaurant serving regional, farm-to-table, seasonal cuisine. 18 acres, 10 acres of restored wetlands. 104 rooms, 1/4 acre of chef’s garden. We grow everything from scarlet running beans to lemon verbena to stevia.  We have our own mushroom inoculation area and a water purification system stemming from that. We do on-site composting.  We recycle in the kitchen – grease goes to green energy company to be made into fuel. We do soil management.

On the farm making goat cheese

It’s an interesting model – a green initiative, which has had lots of momentum lately. The room amenitites are all green certified. The architecture is well-crafted with natural, sustainable woods. We inherited it in September of 2009.  Yogi, the president of our management company, asked us to come up with a concept. Mark Bodinet, my chef, and I have been working on it since the beginning and have had a working relationship since 2000. Loyalty is important to success. Cedarbrook has been a fun project for us to work on together and has been very rewarding. It’s allowed me the freedom to be an advocate, and develop new projects with my other business, the West Coast Kitchen, LLC (focusing on sustainable food concepts) plus the opportunity to sit on several boards. It’s resulted in a higher awareness, and the opportunity to better understand how to use my own personal relationships with others to benefit our regional food systems.

C.C.: What is the biggest challenge to building a sustainable business?  What tools/tips do you have overcome those challenges?
I think it may be getting past the “it can’t be done” mentality in mainstream hospitality paradigms that are inherent in our industry.  The thought that responsible sustainable practice that benefit our guest, communities and our planet can’t be done without excessive costs associated with it.  It’s taking the first step in any number of directions – that’s the most important element. NIKE says, ‘just do it’. It’s really as simple as that. Find one thing that you can tell yourself to ‘just do’. My focus is on a huge industry – hospitality – and how these resources can be managed to leave lower carbon footprints or run more sustainably. For me, it started with understanding the scope of ways in which I could contribute and then deciding which ones fit within my business model.  Once that awareness is made by the business owner, it’s about doing one thing that will contribute in one of these areas.  It starts with willingness inside to give back to what was so freely given us!