Bobby Morrison | #031 07/13/2020

After cooking in restaurants all over the Seattle area, Bobby Morrison followed his passion and became a butcher. He shares his personal journey as well as insights from his unique perspective behind the scenes in our regional food system.

Transcript

Dillon Honcoop:
Depends on what you’re passionate about and what you want your end goal to be with your food and your health because in the end, that’s what it is. Your food is your health.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
Welcome back to the podcast. Lately, we’ve talked to a lot of people with meat and beef in particular producing it here in Washington State, raising beef on ranch land, feeding beef, all this kind of stuff, but what about the next step, the person that takes that beef and turns it into something that you and I can buy at the store and cook up or that a chef in a restaurant can cook up? I wanted to talk with one of those people. This week, we talked with Bobby Morrison and it turns out he’s so much more than just that. He is a meat cutter, a butcher at Del Fox Meats in Everett, but he has a background as a cook and a lifelong passion that you’ll hear about for food.
Join me as this journey continues. This is the Real Food Real People podcast. I’m Dillon Honcoop and this is all about my journey to get to know the real people behind our food, the farmers, the ranchers, the butchers, the chefs and many more of the people that create the things that we eat. Thank you for being here this week.

What does a typical day look like for you on the job working with food? You work at Del Fox meats, right?

Bobby Morrison:
Correct. Yeah in Stanwood, Washington. It changes day to day, but well, typically, there’s nothing as typically right now with COVID.

Dillon Honcoop:
For sure.

Bobby Morrison:
Our business is busier than ever. Normally this time of year, we’re slower. Maybe we’re cleaned up and out of the shop by 3:00, 4:00, but-

Dillon Honcoop:
How early do you start in the morning?

Bobby Morrison:
Normal 8:00 this time of year, but right now, it’s been 7:00 or 6:00 and we and we don’t clean up anymore. We got a cleanup crew or a guy that comes up and cleans up, so in that way we can cut as long as possible and literally we are cutting from, so say Monday morning, we start at 7:00. We’ll start set up, put everything, scrap barrels, hooks, luggers, trays, get everything, all our [inaudible 00:02:39], everything is set up in place. Then, they almost roll out the beef and start cutting. Then, we have a break at 10:00. It’s about 20 minutes. Then, we’ll have another break at noon. Then, we’ll have a break at 3:00, but we’re cutting beef the whole time. We don’t stop until like 5:00, 5:15. It could go longer. Who knows what else comes up?

Dillon Honcoop:
Cutting beef, how does that work? What do you start with? Just in a nutshell, what does the process go?

Bobby Morrison:
Every shop is different. Every shop is different. Everyone cuts different. Everyone has a different theory or just a different method, however you want to put it. No one really cuts meat the same unless they’ve been cutting together for a really long time. Everyone breaks it just a little bit different. It’s like you could have it an inch different one way or an inch different another and it changes the muscle structure a little bit, but typically, the way we do it is we break everything by the half, and then, it’s quartered on the rail, so you would have what you would call your four quarter on the front and then the hind quarter on the back.
That four quarter that’s on the front, that’s where you get your … We’ll go from the bottom from the neck because that’s at the bottom up to your ribeye. You get your neck, your brisket, shank, arm roast, clod roast. You could get your flatirons and teres majors out of there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Let’s move this over for you a little bit.

Bobby Morrison:
No worries, my voice carries. Then, you’ll get into your chuck, short ribs and into your plate and then up into your ribs. There’s a couple other cuts you can get out of there, but that’s typically that front side, and then, what we’ll do is we take it and we’ll clean up the skirt and the neck and just anything that’s got some age on it. Then, we break it in between the fifth and the sixth rib. Then, we have it, and then from there, we’ll end up dropping it onto the saw, and then, it splits the arm and the brisket. Then from there, you get your chuck, your clod. The way we break is pretty basic. It’s nothing like you would see in a retail shop.

Dillon Honcoop:
Talk about Del Fox Meats. What is it and what’s the whole vibe of what the whole team is doing there?

Bobby Morrison:
What we’re doing is we’re doing on-farm slaughter, bringing it back to the shop and then aging it and then processing it that way.

Dillon Honcoop:
How long do you age it?

Bobby Morrison:
Beef is typically 14 days. We’re right on 14 days because we can’t go any longer or any shorter because our coolers are full and then-

Dillon Honcoop:
What happens if you go shorter?

Bobby Morrison:
Then, the customer doesn’t get a very good product and then we’re just-

Dillon Honcoop:
Aging determines the quality?

Bobby Morrison:
Correct and it also depends on how fat the beef is. When you get into that, it’s a little bit more delicate because you can age things longer if you want to, but again, we don’t have time and the space to do something like that for people. Some people want a three-week hang. We can do it in slower times, but right now-

Dillon Honcoop:
You got to keep stuff moving.

Bobby Morrison:
We don’t have space. We go out to the farm. We have a butcher truck, which the owner of the shop runs or is on. It’s a three-man crew and they go out. They go as far as the Canadian border. They’ll go all the way down to Carnation and farther.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a big territory.

Bobby Morrison:
They’ll go out to the Friday Harbor. They go out to all the islands, would be a lot. They go butcher in the field and then bring it back. Then, we’ll weigh it, wash it or wash it or weigh it, put it in our chill cooler. It sits for 24 hours. In the morning, I’m usually the one that will take it out and rotate. It goes into one of three coolers that we have, depending on which one is full and rotation on. Then yeah, two weeks. Then, we roll them out and then we start cutting just like I was just saying in that exact way. We have one guy who will break, like I was saying, that front quarter. Then, we have another guy who break the hind quarter.
Then, we have myself and another guy and we have another guy filling in right now because we’re so busy. Then, we’re just trimming, break and just cleaning stuff up, making steaks, briskets, roast, netting stuff, just making it simple and then passing it over. We got two ladies that wrap, do amazing job and we got a guy who makes hamburger. He’s got to keep up with us and he does a great job because we it’s like we have to keep up with the butcher truck because they can kill faster than we can process, right? The pace that they keep us at is crazy, right? Because they’ll kill 20 beef in a day, right? They’ll make two or three loads right now.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many pounds is in the average beef?

Bobby Morrison:
It varies from anywhere from six, depending on the farmer and the cows and the feed, but it varies from anywhere from 600 to 1,200 pounds.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s finished product?

Bobby Morrison:
Finished hanging weight product. We get grass-fed cows that are lean as all get out. You honestly wish you could almost add fat to, and then, you have some cows or beef that’s just so fat you just see it and your hand just starts to hurt and the fats hard. You’re just wishing and hoping that your knife is sharp enough to get through it sometimes. It could be a razor and it just stops, and even, it could be older too. That doesn’t help.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re cutting me all day every day?

Bobby Morrison:
We did 63 pigs last week on Tuesday.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s another thing I was going to ask. We’ve been talking about beef, but you do pork as well.

Bobby Morrison:
And lamb.

Dillon Honcoop:
And lamb.

Bobby Morrison:
And goats and alpaca.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really?

Bobby Morrison:
And deer and elk and bear.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Bobby Morrison:
Alpaca is about the craziest thing I guess. I don’t even know if it’s crazy and I’ve eaten it. It’s good.

Dillon Honcoop:
What would you compare it to?

Bobby Morrison:
It’s like a mix between beef and lamb. Red meat, really dark. It wasn’t … I forgot what cut. I think it was like pieces of top sirloin, but it’s really good.

Dillon Honcoop:
Of all those, what’s your fave?

Bobby Morrison:
Pork.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of people are just kind of meh on pork.

Bobby Morrison:
Well, because they don’t understand the value of pork and what it brings to just, I don’t know, I guess my opinion is different because I see it through a cook’s eyes. Then, I get to see it through my butcher’s eyes first because I started cooking before I even got into this meat world. It was planned a little. I cooked all over Seattle for 10 year, nine years from small cafes to big huge catering at Nintendo, to fine dining, doing eight to 10 courses.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of stuff were you making? What was your specialty?

Bobby Morrison:
Oh, man, I never really could say that I could have specialties, but I was so ADD about my cooking. I never cook the same thing. If I do, it’s just like I just always try to improve it. I’ve always had this, “You know it’s good, but I can always make it better,” mentality. That’s just life and everything for me. I’m always looking for ways to improve, but I really like curing bacon.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really? Did that start only once you had gone from being a cook to being a butcher?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, that just-

Dillon Honcoop:
Explain how that works. What’s the process of making and curing bacon?

Bobby Morrison:
Making and curing bacon. For me, I like to just be as simple as possible. I don’t like to overcomplicate things. For me, bacon is pork belly, 50/50 salt to brown sugar.

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, really?

Bobby Morrison:
I just give a nice even coat rub on the belly. Then sometimes, I’ll have it in a container or I’ll put it in a plastic bag and I’ll rotate that bag every day, every of couple days, check the moisture levels because what you’re doing is you’re pulling all the moisture out the fat or a little bit out of the fat because there’s not too much and mostly out of the protein. You’re just sanitizing it almost. Then making it so that beneficial bacteria can grow if you let because you have to age that. If not, you just … It’s about five to seven days rotating. You might have to re-salt it once because if you do it a little bit more, it’s a little salty. Then you just got to add fat and cook it with other things. I’ve aged bacon for a year. Let it get black mold on it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah. I just wipe it off with vinegar.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
See all these things that we’ve been trained for so many years to be scared of when actually they’re part of a natural process.

Bobby Morrison:
Actually, I learned this technique from Brandon Sheard, the Farmstead Meatsmith. Early in my career in between right when I was getting into butchery or meat cutting, I took a couple of his classes when he first started up like eight to 10 years ago, something like that. I’ve been just loving it ever since and just the simplicity of it. You can change the flavors of your bacon by just where you let it sit and just hang out. From your countertop to having it in your fridge.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just because of the temperature difference or-

Bobby Morrison:
Temperature difference, the smells of your kitchen cooking. That’s why unlike a lot of you would see like old text or in other old butcher shops or anything like that, you always see cured meat hanging above things, right? It’s doing that not only for air and circulation, but it’s also picking up the smells of your environment.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about smoking it?

Bobby Morrison:
That’s a choice. You could either smoke it, add flavor within your smoke woods or you can just let it hang out after you rinse your cure off, your salt, sugar after about five, seven days and then you just kind of let it hang out on the counter.

Dillon Honcoop:
Then, how long does that go?

Bobby Morrison:
As long as you feel like.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Doesn’t have to be refrigerated?

Bobby Morrison:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
Open air?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
How long do you do that before you slice it typically?

Bobby Morrison:
You could do it that day. You do it two weeks.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is it better the longer you wait?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah. It just depends on how develop flavor you want to go because I’ve noticed that the longer you do it a little bit, you get more of that funk, cheesy-

Dillon Honcoop:
Gamey?

Bobby Morrison:
I wouldn’t say gamey, but it’s more of a cheesiness. It’s just a different palatable mummy-ish flavor I want to say just because it’s like something that your tongue and your mouth isn’t used to, but at the same time, you can’t put your finger on it. I’ve done this and I’ve taken this bacon into like guys’ trips and they’d get pissed off of me because I don’t bring enough. I bring all this meat, I bring steaks and every, but they just want the bacon. You can eat it, just slice it and eat it raw like then.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah. Just because of the air, the circulation, the salt, the sugar, it’s like prosciutto. You just slice it real thin and you can see like. You can almost see through the fat. It’s cool stuff.

Dillon Honcoop:
How different is that than the bacon you buy in store? Because you can’t do that with bacon that you buy in the store, right?

Bobby Morrison:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
That stuff goes bad.

Bobby Morrison:
It can. The bacon in the store too is because it’s all pressurized cured. Even at our shop, we use a tumbler and we can have bacon cured in four hours. Then, we let it hang out for a day and then we smoke it. Then literally, you have bacon in two days, opposed to five to seven. There’s no way you could do it, you could but you could have a lot of space to do it that way.

Dillon Honcoop:
Store all of it as it cures.

Bobby Morrison:
There’d be no way you could charge the same price.

Dillon Honcoop:
More expensive.

Bobby Morrison:
No one would want to buy bacon. Well, they probably would, but they would just scoff at the price.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about this stuff that you buy at the store that’s like uncured because people that are worried about things that go into cured bacon, that’s curing it probably with different stuff than we’re talking about doing?

Bobby Morrison:
Correct. It has a celery powder. See, I should do more research on this and I’ve always needed to, but I’ve always just stuck with my salt and sugar just because-

Dillon Honcoop:
Old fashioned?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, and I know what it is. Don’t get me wrong. I buy bacon from the store. I don’t have time to cure it like I used to because everyone works a lot, but I like being dad. I like coming home, being present and not having to be like, “Hold on. Let me take five minutes to make this bacon,” because it doesn’t take very long, but it’s like-

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s another thing to do.

Bobby Morrison:
It’s another thing to add to my plate.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many kids do you have?

Bobby Morrison:
Just one. Just one five-year-old, and man, she just keeps me so busy. We’re playing horses this morning. She’s just, “Dad, play with me. Dad, play with me.”

Dillon Honcoop:
I have a four-year-old, so I know the game.

Bobby Morrison:
Man, she just cracks me up. I forgot what she told me this morning, but she called me a knucklehead or something.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where did you grow up?

Bobby Morrison:
I grew up in Ellensburg, Washington. It’s crazy because I grew up in a farm town, beef town and I didn’t really want anything to do with it then. I just wanted to hang out, play my sports, hang out my friends, ride my bike, but no, I wanted nothing to do with farming.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did your dad do back in Ellensburg?

Bobby Morrison:
My parents actually separated. My dad, I actually got the best of both worlds, I thought as a kid because my dad always lived over in Seattle. When my parents split up, my mom moved us over to Ellensburg. I got the city life on the weekends, and then during the week, I got to hang out in the country. I always thought that was awesome because I get to experience it all and most people don’t. It allowed me to connect with a lot of people and in a lot of different spaces and relate to both sides. It’s definitely helped me out in my career and my journey and my path on this food passion that I have.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did your mom do in Ellensburg?

Bobby Morrison:
My mom, she moved over there and she was doing, it was rehabilitation for at risk youth when she first moved over there and then she ended up starting her own business. What was she selling? It was like old Western antiques.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did your dad do in Seattle?

Bobby Morrison:
My dad, he worked for CLC Light as a carpenter. My dad’s always worked with his hands. I didn’t realize I was going to end up working with my hands when I was younger, but I knew probably right around middle school I wanted to cook.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah. I knew I wanted to cook, but I never like-

Dillon Honcoop:
What was it that you were doing at that age where you were inspired by that?

Bobby Morrison:
I can remember actually my cousin cooked, making scrambled eggs with me when I was actually younger. That is the memory that’s always stuck with me in cooking, that was my eggs. Eggs were my first love and cooking was with scrambled eggs with my cousin.

Dillon Honcoop:
By the time you were saying in high school, what kind of stuff were you cooking?

Bobby Morrison:
Not a whole lot to be honest.

Dillon Honcoop:
But it’s still interested you?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, it just interested me. It’s not like I pursued it or went to work in a restaurant. My first job was as a seventh grade, I worked for a logger and then I did that. I did work for him for a long time. Then once, I turned 17, I started working at the Albertsons in town. I did that at 17, 18 and then I graduated. As soon as I graduated high school, man, I was gone. I moved right over to my dad’s house two days. Garbage sack over my back and I was looking for a job in a restaurant as soon as I graduated.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that first gig? What did you do?

Bobby Morrison:
To be honest, it was in the mall, Auntie Anne’s Pretzels. I don’t know if I’ve ever really told anyone that, but only my close friends know. I wasn’t there very long, but at the same time, it’s cool because I did that when I was 18, and then all of a sudden, it’s like, I’ve been cooking for a while. Went to culinary school at North Seattle. Worked in a couple cafes and stuff. Then, a handful years later, all of a sudden, pretzel buns and pretzels become huge, right? Like everyone’s wanting pretzels.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re like, “I’ve done this.”

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, it’s weird, man. People are trying to figure out in the bakery section, cooking, they’re like, “I can’t get these as golden brown as I want.” I’m like, “I can help you.” I’m like but-

Dillon Honcoop:
What is it? About the right amount of butter and the right heat-

Bobby Morrison:
No, to be honest, it’s baking soda and water. It’s just gives it a nice shine. You just brush it on.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah. Just as you’re done baking it and then throw your salt on.

Dillon Honcoop:
No kidding?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah. If it doesn’t work, don’t hold me accountable. Just because you heard it on the podcast doesn’t mean it always works.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s true. Don’t believe everything you hear on our podcast.

Bobby Morrison:
At least try it though.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was the coolest restaurant cooking-

Bobby Morrison:
Experience that I’ve ever had?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Bobby Morrison:
I want to say Purple Cafe in Bellevue, is really what … It wasn’t so much the restaurant itself, but it was the environment and the other cooks and the chefs I was working with that made the experience. That restaurant could have been … It’s in your restaurant could be, it all depends on who’s working in your team because I’ve worked in a lot of different restaurants. I was one of those guys that like I changed restaurants every year. I’ve worked in, I don’t know how many different restaurants-

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that pretty typical in that business?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
You move around?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, because you’re always getting paid the same. Someone might offer you a quarter more an hour. You’re like, “A quarter more, I’ll take it. I’m out. I’m learning something new.” I worked two jobs for a while. I work morning shift somewhere, and then, I go work night shift somewhere.

Dillon Honcoop:
How many hours a day then were you putting in?

Bobby Morrison:
16, 18.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Bobby Morrison:
For a year, year and a half.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s intense.

Bobby Morrison:
I had some hospital bills I had to pay.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
What happened?

Bobby Morrison:
Well, I didn’t know if it was from stress or what, but I ended up getting migraines in my stomach. They called it neuro-cyclic vomiting syndrome. Literally, for a period of three or four years, I had a really sensitive gut.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I would think like ulcers or acid.

Bobby Morrison:
I ended up getting those. They ended up giving me that just because I was thrown up so much. I ended up getting like two ulcers. I had to take medication for that.

Dillon Honcoop:
What were you, too much stress and you weren’t eating or what?

Bobby Morrison:
No, it could have been that because drinking a lot of soda and coffee, because working in restaurants, you get unlimited soda, man. I don’t drink pop. I don’t drink it anymore really, but I used to drink almost like a gallon a day because you get these 32-ounce cups, they call them portion cups. All you got to do is put it up in a window and someone fills it for you unlimited. Purple cafe in Bellevue is probably one of my funnest experiences working. I learned a ton. My chef there, his name is Harry Mills. Guy’s amazing. Just a great team leader and just knew how to challenge people just to the right amount, just perfect and get the best out of them and be able to promote such a great work environment.
If I could go work for someone again and he was doing it, I would leave my job and I would go work for him in a second. I could tell you hundreds of people that have worked for him, they would probably say the same thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Bobby Morrison:
Then another, his name is Kyle Cole. Where’s he chef now? He’s doing a pizza restaurant, I think, at Redmond. The guy’s wealth of knowledge in food and just passion. He pointed me in the right directions, showed me some different chefs, different techniques, taught me about doing the research and looking for the little details that are going to make a difference. Just the little things that are going to make your day that much better, but then are going to make your work even better and taste that much better.
He might not say it, but it’s just his personality and what he just brought to the table every day. He was intense. He was fiery. I think he’s a couple years younger than me even. I’m 36. It was an awesome team, man. Then from there, I went and worked at Google. That was an awesome experience.

Dillon Honcoop:
Doing food stuff?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, cooking in their kitchen.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, it was a good buddy of mine. He got me the job. Wait, sorry. I got to backtrack. Sorry, I went from Purple to Altura which is actually was nominated James Beard Best New Restaurant Pacific Northwest that first year that I was there.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow.

Bobby Morrison:
That chef there, that guy’s amazing. His name is Nathan Lockwood. He’s from this area, went down live in California and worked for, I believe, the restaurant was Acqua. It was a two or three Michelin star restaurant. I only got to work with him for six months. Then, we had some family issues. My wife needed me home more. I had to take a day job. Then, that’s when I started working for Google, working in their kitchens. That was a great experience, ton of freedom. Just evolved at that way, and then after that, then I left and I went into retail butchery. I’ve worked in a retail shop and that was my first experience and that was at Bill the Butcher in Woodinville.

Dillon Honcoop:
How did you make that transition from cooking to butchery because that’s pretty different?

Bobby Morrison:
It is, but it’s always been in my plans going back to when I was in high school and I knew I wanted to cook. I had a friend of mine or my mom’s friend who one day pulled me aside, half drunk and said, “What do you want to do when you graduate?”

Dillon Honcoop:
That classic question.

Bobby Morrison:
I said, “I want to cook and I want to cut me. I want to be a butcher.” She said, “Well, cook first.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
“Don’t go cut me first. Cook first.”

Dillon Honcoop:
What was her background that she could give you that advice?

Bobby Morrison:
She was in beef sales. At the time, she owned her own business selling beef, grass-fed beef out of New Zealand. She had grown up a cattle ranchers daughter who ended up being, I believe, excuse me, head sales for IBP and marketing at one point, I think in the ’80s, and then around the late ’80s and then mid ’90s broke off and did her own thing and saw that beef was going more towards the grass fed. That was mid ’90s. Then, I didn’t get to hang out with her as much because shortly after, she passed away, but I’m doing exactly what she wanted me to do and that plan that her and I talked when she was a little blitzed.

Dillon Honcoop:
Sometimes, that’s when the real truth comes out, right?

Bobby Morrison:
She didn’t hold anything back.

Dillon Honcoop:
You get in to butchery and first you started retail. What’s the difference between what you’re doing now in retail? How big, how much different is that?

Bobby Morrison:
A lot. I think it’s a lot different because different customer base, different process. It’s like you’re going from setting up a case of meat out of a box that literally you’re just like denuding or trimming fat and being able to make it presentable and putting it in a case.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s got to look good.

Bobby Morrison:
You got to make it look good. Then from what we’re doing now, now it’s speed, being able to debone stuff because when you’re working with box stuff, you’re not deboning a whole lot. Just nice skills in general are a lot different. You’re having to use different positions. You’re using a lot more leverage, gravity for a lot of things, seaming. Just the cuts you’re working with are a lot different that you don’t see in a retail space.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the most underrated cut of beef that people don’t usually buy or think about but is actually awesome?

Bobby Morrison:
Oh, man.

Dillon Honcoop:
You people who cut me, you guys are the ones who know this stuff.

Bobby Morrison:
I know and it’s crazy. We were talking this off air about the difference between the city market I want to say and the rural is the best way to put it because you come out to my shop and like a hanger steak is, “Eww, why would you ever eat that? That’s gross.”

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s a hanger state like what?

Bobby Morrison:
For me, the hanger steak is a diaphragm muscle. It’s a singular muscle that literally hangs inside the cow and it helps breathe. It’s part of the skirt steaks and stuff, but it’s going to be one of the beefier cuts. Anything on the inside is going to have a lot, I want say, beefier flavor, so you got your hanger and your skirt. Maybe even your flap flank because they’re more on the interior side and there’s not a whole lot in between.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m thinking like carne asada.

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, your skirt steak or flap … It’s called a bavette.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t there a lot of stuff that is sold in the regular grocery store that’s called carne asada, but it’s just true-

Bobby Morrison:
It’s just carne asada. It’s just a style of thin cut me. You come get carne asada for us, it’s like depending on how you want it. You could get it out of top round. You could get it out of chuck, you could get it out of ribeye. It just depends on who’s cutting.

Dillon Honcoop:
Recently, I just cooked …

Bobby Morrison:
On the grill.

Dillon Honcoop:
… a London broil And way better grilled than the old school way of doing it which always tends to overcook it.

Bobby Morrison:
In an oven with a broiler on.

Dillon Honcoop:
Grill over charcoal, way better.

Bobby Morrison:
I’ve never done that.

Dillon Honcoop:
Way better.

Bobby Morrison:
I’ve never done that. I need to do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
I was skeptical, but man, read online, “Okay, this person says do it,” so I did it. It was awesome, but it really helped me taste the different flavor of the London broil. That was another cut that’s like it’s a little bit more of almost a gamey flavor to it.

Bobby Morrison:
The beefy, to be honest with the London broil, the London broil is actually just a style of cooking.

Dillon Honcoop:
True.

Bobby Morrison:
I don’t know it, do you know was it a top round?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Bobby Morrison:
Cool, because some places market it a little bit different. Like I said, regional-

Dillon Honcoop:
That new style of cooking has become synonymous with that cut but really-

Bobby Morrison:
Exactly. You could do the same thing with … When I was younger, a London broil for me was a flank steak, right? I don’t know why, but that’s just what my mom did. I didn’t know any different until I started cutting meat. It’s regional. It’s how you grow up. If you’re not around it, you’re not exposed to it. You just don’t know. It’s not your fault. It’s just how it is. Everyone treats cuts differently. A London broil, when I was working in the retail shop at Bill the Butcher rarely sold London broil, rarely would even someone come in and ask for a London broil because we would take that top round or bottom round even and we would use them for jerky or stew meat or hamburger.
I don’t know. It was really weird. We just never, but up north, we sell them all the time. All the time. Then, going back to hanger steak, flank steak or not the hanger, the skirt, bavette, what’s another one coulotte which is a cap of the top sirloin, in the city, you got people wanting those like crazy. Then, you come up north, it goes in the grind. I had a friend of mine come up and cut with us and she worked. Her name’s Alice. She works down in Mercer Island, but she’s moving down to Portland, but she came up and cut with us.
Her favorite cut is a flap steak or a bavette. She’s cleaning up all nice. I’d have her making it in stew meat and stuff. She’s like, “Really, no one actually wants this as a steak.” I’m like, “It’s not on our cutting card and Nope.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, so we always turn it into stew meat. It’s great for stew. Then, the one time that we got a no stew meat, I looked at it. She was cleaning up. I was like, “Here, there’s no stew meat. You want to see what we do?” I just took my knife and go, “Wab, wab, wab, wab.” Three pieces, clean off a little bit of fattening and I threw it in the logger. She was like, “You got to be kidding me.” “Nope.” She’s like, “You are breaking my heart right now.” I almost thought tear because it looks nice-

Dillon Honcoop:
If you throw it in the logger, what does that mean? It goes to grind?

Bobby Morrison:
It goes to grind.

Dillon Honcoop:
Hamburger?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, the hanger steak, same thing, goes to grind. Skirt steak goes to grind. She’s seeing this because she markets all these cuts all the time. People just like, she can’t keep them in her case long enough.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah. Then I’m throwing it into grind. She’s just like … I can just see her heart breaking.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why are you so passionate about food?

Bobby Morrison:
I think in all honesty because my mom cooked the living out (beep) of it when I was a kid. Like my vegetables, I will almost eat raw opposed to cooked. It’s just barely blanched when I cook it. They say perfect in some restaurants, it’s like you can go through your carrot or your asparagus and you should be able to cut it with a fork, right? Literally, it shouldn’t smash, but you should be able to have a little bit of force but be able to cut it with a fork. That’s almost too cooked for me. I just like it just barely cook because my mom, she would take a can of cooked beans and boil them.

Dillon Honcoop:
That drove your passion to like, “There’s a different way to do this.”

Bobby Morrison:
I guess because that’s the only thing I can come up with from looking back and trying to just reflect on how I’ve got here, right? Because I do that quite often to just give myself checkpoints and see how I’m doing. Yeah, that’s just a lot of what I come back to. My wife is the same way. My wife works in food. Well, kind of now, but not really because COVID

Dillon Honcoop:
What was she doing?

Bobby Morrison:
She was working at Daniel’s Broiler in Bellevue, serving steaks.

Dillon Honcoop:
They cut back because of COVID?

Bobby Morrison:
They haven’t been open since.

Dillon Honcoop:
They just laid a bunch of people off?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, because they’re all on unemployment, but they actually start back up tomorrow. My wife’s actually got her first shift back on Sunday.

Dillon Honcoop:
COVID has really done a lot to the food world.

Bobby Morrison:
Oh, my God. Man, it’s changed the way we do business. Like I said at the beginning, we’re slammed. We’re so busy. It’s like fall. It’s busier than fall right now. We are doing so much beef and pork and people are wanting to fill their freezers more than ever before.

Dillon Honcoop:
They just want to stock up?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Or is it because they’re home and cooking more?

Bobby Morrison:
That could be it too or they don’t trust the food system. They don’t trust what’s going on. Your podcast you did with Camas, he had a lot of great things to say about our food system and what we do here in Washington. We live in one of the best food states in the world. It’s just hands down. Our climate, everything, that’s changing a little bit, but in the passion that our farmers and the people producing the food have is, I can’t say it’s the best because I haven’t been other places, but all I know is that people that come here are just surprised and just blown away by the products that we’re able to put out.
It’s cool because the different temperature climates that we get all over the state from the San Juan Islands to where we’re at now in Everett, up to Stanwood, up where you’re at and Lynden, all the way over to the desert when you go to Ellensburg and farther over to Sunnyside, Walla Walla. You get in … It’s like you got potatoes up north, you got potatoes out east, you got wine grapes up north, you got wine grapes out east. It’s just like, “Are you kidding me right now?” Not only that, then you got all this cider and apples and cherries and it’s just like, more and more and more and more.

Dillon Honcoop:
What don’t we have here other than like tropical fruit? I’m trying to think of what else we don’t grow in Washington State and grow amazingly well.

Bobby Morrison:
Coffee beans, we grow coffee beans here.

Dillon Honcoop:
We do?

Bobby Morrison:
I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
I haven’t seen that.

Bobby Morrison:
You said, “What don’t we grow?” and I said coffee beans. Someone’s going to do it. It can be done. I know someone tried to do it in Wyoming.

Dillon Honcoop:
Really?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, or Wisconsin, one of the two.

Dillon Honcoop:
Boy, you just opened a whole new can of worms. I’m going to have to go google this now.

Bobby Morrison:
I’ll send you a link. I’ll send you links because I’m always researching, I’m always looking, like I said, to do something better, someone who’s doing it better.

Dillon Honcoop:
What do you think the people buying food at the store or at a restaurant or wherever need to know about where their food is coming from? You’re talking about how lucky we are here in Washington.

Bobby Morrison:
Just ask questions. Don’t just assume that the person serving you, handing you your food knows what they’re actually doing because to be honest, some people, they just don’t educate themselves on it. They could be serving it to you, but that’s just their job. You as a consumer, if you care about your food, you should do the research. You shouldn’t just act like you care about it. Just ask. Just do the research. Grow it yourself. It’s not it’s not hard, but it’s not easy, right? You just have to put in the time. That’s all it takes. Time, a little bit of research and grow your own food. That’s huge.
Know a farmer. That’s another one. If you can’t grow your own food, know a farmer. Everyone should know a farmer or have a farmer like they have a mechanic or a dentist or a doctor, because in the end, that is really what’s going to make you healthy. It’s not going to the doctor and to have them tell you, you’re having issues because you’re eating too much sugar. Well, all the candy. I have that issue. Probably if I go to the doctor, they’re going to tell me, I’m probably close to diabetes because I like candy.
At the same time, I know I do, I should not eat it as much, but at the same time, it’s tough sometimes when your wife makes a bunch of brownies and put salt and powdered sugar on top of them, and then, you got your five-year-old being like, “Dad, these are so good. Will you just have a brownie with me?” “No, I’m not trying to do that.” “Okay.”

Dillon Honcoop:
There are a lot of trends and fads out there and there are a lot of things that people are really worried about with their food. Are those things accurate generally that people worry about or are they kind of, in my experience at least, people are not worried about maybe things that they should be and that all obsession, super scared about things that aren’t actually bad at all?

Bobby Morrison:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
Has that been your experience, knowing the backend of the food system?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah. Again, it just goes back to educating yourself as a consumer. When I was working at the retail shop in Woodinville, I was blown away with how much the consumers knew about the product that I was selling compared to even some of the people that I worked with because they didn’t know. Literally, I had customers tell them more about the meat that’s in that box than what they knew. For me, it was a real eye opener to be like, “I need to know more if I’m selling this and I’m talking to someone.” I’m going to tell you the truth. It’s just that’s the way I have always been.
I try to be as honest as transparent as possible. I try to pass that on to my daughter. I just tell people to educate themselves and I’ll do whatever I can to help put them in the right position to do that. I’ll answer all their questions, but yeah, it’s just looking them up, talking to the people raising it, looking into the people that are processing it, looking at those practices, looking to where it’s coming from, what’s the carbon footprint. There’s a lot of different variables and it depends on what you’re passionate about and what you want your end goal to be with your food and in your health because in the end, that’s what it is, is your food is your health in general. The healthier … You could say, “Yeah, I eat healthy,” but at the same time, it’s all in perspective.
My wife says we really healthy and I’m like, “We could eat healthier.” She’s going to scoff at me when she hears this, but at the same time, it’s like we grow a good amount of food at our house. We don’t have a big pot or anything, but it’s like the experience that we get or I get when I can watch my daughter come out to the yard pull carrot out or we’ve been eating strawberries like crazy like handfuls a day and just that experience and it’s like having her like eat a white strawberry and the bitter sourness that it has compared to just like one that’s too far ripe where it’s like fermented where you’re just like, “Oh, that’s alcohol,” but it looked awesome.
It’s like being able to experience that. To be honest, when I was five, I didn’t get experience. I don’t know. It’s just bringing those food experiences and just trying to connect with your food as best as possible. It’s like, yeah, it’s hard to do in the grocery store and everything, but it’s convenience. I totally understand convenience shop on the outside of the aisles, shop in the middle and you’re just going to go down a road that is not the best, but it’s not going to kill you. I don’t think yet. I can go off on tangents. I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Do people need to be worried about their food like living here in Washington State? Again-

Bobby Morrison:
Again, if you’re getting stuff from our state, no, not really because people are worried about the food, and again, do your research because the restrictions and the guidelines that we have to follow when we’re processing animals, the USDA is really strict, right? We have a lot of strict rules that we have to follow to make the meat that we’re producing. Wholesome and safe for people to eat. Yeah, there are bad actors out there and people that try to fake the funk, but again if you care and there’s a reason why these guidelines are in place, being able to find people that are transparent, wanting to show if they hide things, I wouldn’t trust them so much. If you can’t see what’s going on, it’s tough for me to trust you.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s my thing with food that’s grown farther away and especially in a different country or truck.

Bobby Morrison:
Totally.

Dillon Honcoop:
How do I know that …

Bobby Morrison:
You don’t know-

Dillon Honcoop:
things are enforced?

Bobby Morrison:
Exactly. Like you go to a grocery store and box meat, it’s like especially … It’s amazing what food and food programs can do for the quality of your animals. My buddy over in Ellensburg, Kyler, he’s starting up his beef business. It’s Pacific, PNW Beef. He’s got this cool feed program and I haven’t got to try his beef yet. I’m really anxious because he’s talked it up to me, but his feed program is he’s using, I believe it’s spent grains from Iron Horse Brewery over there. He’s got this, I think, I might mess this up. Sorry, Kyler, but it’s like chaff or something. It’s like loose hay that they mix a specific variety I think. Then, he’s got this other waste product. I believe it’s from a bakery that he mixes in with it.
It’s all formulated, right? Then they mix it and what he says is like the fat is like soft. How the hell is he describing it? The way he was describing is almost wagyu because it’s just got this soft, saturated, just melt really quick. For beef, it doesn’t happen very often, right? It all depends, but sometimes you see it and it’s just gross, but sometimes you see it and you’re just like, “Wow, that’s really interesting.” All fat on every beef is different. When you get the saturated stuff, it’s easier to cut, but sometimes you’re just like touching it and you’re just like, “Wow, it’s liquid already. How does it happen through gloves?” It’s just like, “How can that clog your arteries?” I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
It sounds like the science is evolving on that with fats too. It used to be, “Oh, fats are way clogging your arteries and cholesterol and stuff.” Now, they’re saying no, it’s actually the cholesterol that your body produces and it actually is a response to potentially eating too much carbs which they told us to eat for a long time. Now, they’re like, “No, actually fat is maybe not the terrible thing,” but they used to tell us that it was.

Bobby Morrison:
I’ve been so busy, but I want to try this beef, and not only that, it’s from my hometown and it’s a friend of mine. It’s cool. I’m getting relationships with all different types of farmers from all different backgrounds. My buddy Kyler, he knows Camas. He’s good friends with him, who you did on your podcast, and then, it’s like I got small farm friends that I moved from like Snohomish down to Orting. Everybody is having issues getting their animals processed, 100%, whether it be pigs or lambs, their beef.

Dillon Honcoop:
What’s the issue?

Bobby Morrison:
Everyone’s busy, man.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just not enough processors like you guys there at Del Fox to do it?

Bobby Morrison:
Not just processors, meat cutters in general doing what I’m doing. Well, it’s because it’s hard work with not a lot of pay in the end. We work like 10 hours a day, 10+, 12. Where was I? I had golf with my uncle yesterday and I was telling him and he’s like, “Oh, I was a machine mechanic. That’s not that bad. You’re preaching the choir.” I’m like, “Yeah, I get it,” but you wake up and your hands are numb and you can’t button your shirt in the morning. Then driving to work and your hands go numb again. Then when you get on the block, you’re starting to cut. You can barely grab a piece of meat with your left hand because it’s numb then you can’t grip your knife because it’s numb. Then, you have to just shake it off.

Dillon Honcoop:
Just from using your hand so much.

Bobby Morrison:
All day. All day, flipping, pulling, tearing, grabbing. I feel really good because I’ve had time off, but it’s going to be nice to go back to work on Monday. We’ve gone a week, but yeah, it’s my back, my arms. I feel good now, but last week, my body was in a bad shape. I could barely bend over.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’ve never thought of that that being a butcher would be that hard on your body, but it makes sense.

Bobby Morrison:
Man, I’m standing in one spot for like nine hours. I could feel my ass disappearing, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Bobby Morrison:
Then my hamstrings are just so tight and I’ve just been trying to stretch them all week long. I change my shoes maybe twice a day, once a day. I have a pair of boots and I wear my Romeos. I just go back and forth because I got to change. Your feet are important. I learned that-

Dillon Honcoop:
That affects your back too?

Bobby Morrison:
Yeah, and I learned that being in the restaurant working 16 hours. It’s different because I had different shoes on then. I’m more in a boot now. Kitchen shoes are more comfortable. At the same time, we work with hoses and water all the time. I don’t feel like being wet at work. That sucks because it’s cold.

Dillon Honcoop:
For sure.

Bobby Morrison:
We’re out here in 80 degrees, but we go in the cut room. It’s 40, going in the cooler and it’s 30, 25. You go in the freezers, it’s -15. I’m usually in a hoodie and a button up of some sort.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you for sharing your story.

Bobby Morrison:
No problem.

Dillon Honcoop:
All the steps that I wouldn’t have expected, but as you explain all of it, it makes sense, the journey that you’ve on. For sure.

Bobby Morrison:
It’s not going to stop, man. It’s just going to keep going, getting better, evolving, meeting more farmers, doing more every day. I’m always looking for the next step, new projects, staying busy in this meat world.

Dillon Honcoop:
Awesome. Thank you so much.

Bobby Morrison:
Thank you. Appreciate it.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
After that conversation, I really want to try that old school way of curing bacon that he described earlier on. I should go back and actually write down the steps that he explained and see if I can make it happen. What a fun conversation with Bobby and a guy that’s just really passionate with such a broad perspective of our food system and what’s good and what’s bad out there. I have so much fun talking with the people that we encounter here on the podcast. Please support us just by following us on social media, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram @rfrp_podcast. Check it out.
Also, go to our website if you haven’t already, realfoodrealpeople.org and feel free to email me anytime, dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org

Announcer:
The Real Food Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at savefamilyfarming.org and by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers, connecting consumers to agriculture and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at wadairy.org.

Ashley Rodriguez | #021 05/04/2020

Ashley Rodriguez isn't a farmer, but she has a passion for food all the way from the field to the plate. The Seattle-based chef, food blogger and show host shares her food journey, finding inspiration in her family's farming roots.

Transcript

Ashley Rodriguez:
That’s definitely part of what I do is wanting to honor the ingredients and the work that the farmers do, the work that the earth does to get these beautiful, beautiful ingredients.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m not sure if I’ve ever met someone more passionate about food and the art of food and where it comes from. Our guests this week on Real Food Real People podcast is not a farmer. She is a chef as well as a blogger. Now she’s on a show as well as has her own podcast. She’s got lots of stuff going on and she’s all about food and the ingredients. Even back to the farmer. Ashley Rodriguez is her name.

Dillon Honcoop:
And man, she has a cool story. Again, she’s not a farmer, but she does have farming in her family background. And so, it’s really interesting to hear. She feels it’s in her DNA. Some of this stuff. Great conversation. We talk a lot about what’s happening right now with COVID and the changes that’s doing. Not just to our food system more on a technical sense, but in a human sense and the way we’re thinking about food changing because of this Coronavirus pandemic, as well as just her background and how the show Kitchen Unnecessary came to be.

Dillon Honcoop:
How her blog, Not Without Salt got started. There’s a lot to the story and it goes way back to even while we talked about photography. It goes back to the pre digital camera days, when she started taking pictures of food, there wasn’t Instagram, and in fact there wasn’t. Well there were, but she wasn’t using a digital camera. They were using film. So she’s been doing this for a long time and it’s really important to her and she’s got a lot of cool stuff to share. I’m Dillion Honcoop, and this is the Real Food Real People podcast. Again, our guest this week is Ashley Rodriguez, a Seattle area chef and food blogger as well as now a show host and a podcaster as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
Looking back, when was it that you became a foodie would you say? Because you are like the embodiment of a foodie, right?

Ashley Rodriguez:
I have a foodie. What does that even mean? When I started enjoying food, is that?

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, yeah, I suppose there’s two times. When you realized you were foodie, but then maybe when you actually were a foodie before you recognize that you probably fell under that moniker?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah, I’ve never called myself that so-

Dillon Honcoop:
Oh, so maybe I shouldn’t be saying that you’re a foodie?

Ashley Rodriguez:
I don’t honestly really, what is the exact definition? I don’t know. I am someone who really enjoys food. And that began at an early, early age. I remember asking for a pasta maker when I was probably about 10, and really I wanted that one that was the Ron Popeil. Like I’d seen the infomercials, right? I want it that one that you just like press it and forget it. But my grandmother got me the Italian style, like clamp it to your counter top hand crank. And I was kind of disappointed, and then I was not because I just had so much fun with it. But I remember attempting to make my parents a really fancy meal. I made them like go out and sit in the garden and I had a menu and I’m going to make all of this.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And I made homemade pasta like at 10 years old, all by myself. It was disgusting. It was like lobby. So gross and my parents just like ate it out of the goodness of their hearts. They were so kind. But now, I just remember it being super slimy and gross. But, I just was always so fascinated with the kitchen and what you could create. My grandmother, my mom’s mother was an incredible Baker and my mom had a confidence in the kitchen. That’s, I recognize now is quite uncommon. And so, she wouldn’t cook with recipes very often.

Ashley Rodriguez:
She baked a lot. So, I just remember watching that. And I think my biggest takeaway from all of that was to not have any fear in the kitchen. And so, I took that with me into just continuing to follow my curiosity and, “Oh, can I make homemade chocolates? How does chocolate get made?” And I even like played around with making chocolate at home, by ordering the cocoa beans. It’s always my curiosity that has sort of led me down all these paths. And then while in college I was studying Art. I want it to be a high school art teacher, and part of that education brought me to Italy and that’s really, really where I fell in love with food and fell in love with food as sort of the medium that brings people together and around the table.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And that’s where I also kind of made this connection coming home, realizing, “Oh, some people make a career out of like cooking and playing with food all day. That’s amazing.” So things sort of shifted for me then.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s still under the art umbrella, culinary art.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Totally. And I think I didn’t want to waste all the money that me and my parents had been spending on my liberal arts, art degree. And so, I sort of used that as an excuse to pursue pastry art. Because I felt like that was a really nice way of combining like the artistry and my love of food, plus, I mean, who doesn’t love sweets? So, I didn’t go to culinary school because I didn’t have the money after I just finished up my liberal arts degree, but I wanted to jump into this. So, I just jumped in full force.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And for my graduation present, my parents got me this like encyclopedia set of French pastry, like the classic how to make everything basically. And then I started working in bakeries, and my husband and I, we moved to LA, got a job at a restaurant there and just start working my way and learning that way.

Dillon Honcoop:
So where did you go to college?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Seattle Pacific.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. So you were in Seattle then, but moved down to LA with the purpose of pursuing this whole food pastry thing?

Ashley Rodriguez:
My husband and I, we got married young and we wanted to go off and sort of have our own adventure. And so, it was kind of like where do we want to live? And I wanted to live in a place that I could work in a great restaurant and get that sort of education. So we were looking at New York or LA, but New York was far too expensive. So, we settled on LA, but I ended up getting a job before we moved down. And it was like I put together this ridiculous resume because I had no experience whatsoever.

Ashley Rodriguez:
So, it was like a book that I made with images that I had taken them for, that my husband had taken. Like all these homemade chocolates and stuff. And I just attempted to woo the pastry chef who, she was walking pups, pastry chef at the time. So, Sherry Yard. So, I got a job at Spago in Beverly Hills. So we moved to LA for that job basically.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wow. So, that was like your first real gig doing that?

Ashley Rodriguez:
That was my first real restaurant job. I had worked in a bakery for about six months. Kind of worked my way up and got bored real quickly with that. And then yes, Spago was my first restaurant job, which was such a trip.

Dillon Honcoop:
As far as working your way up. That’s starting on a pretty high run.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Like just being thrown into-

Dillon Honcoop:
Off the ladder.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
I liked the photos though, because, correct me if I’m wrong, amongst various things, your hubby is a photographer, right? So, he probably took some pretty incredible photos of what you’re doing too.

Ashley Rodriguez:
He did. He did take some really good photos. Yeah. Yeah. He’s a wedding photographer, photographer of all sorts. So yeah, he did lots of weddings down there. And then he also worked for, he managed this high end boutique cause he was also kind of toying around with the idea of getting into fashion. So, we lived a very, very crazy life down there. It was fun.

Dillon Honcoop:
And then you came back North.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Or I guess you had a few other positions down there before you came North?

Ashley Rodriguez:
No, actually, I see it at Spago and it took a long time for, sorry to hear the dogs wrestling?

Dillon Honcoop:
They’re getting tired of the quarantine life too?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah. Very. No, they love having us on all the time. They’re like, “This is great. This is the ideal life.” Yeah, so it took a while to get acclimated to living in LA and sort of get accustomed to restaurant life. But once we did, I was kind of moving up quickly or in that realm. And I actually told my husband, I was like, “Hey, Gabe, once I become pastry sous chef, like we’re buying a convertible. We just got to do this.”

Ashley Rodriguez:
Like fully, fully digging into, we have no money, no money whatsoever. So, conversations were happening. Wolfgang was planning to open up another restaurant and I was on my way moving up to the pastry sous chef position. So, we started looking for a convertible. We found this great deal. This woman was selling her son’s car, so we bought this beautiful black Saab convertible. And then two weeks after we bought it, we found out we were pregnant. So, things definitely shifted for us at that point. Then we didn’t have any family down there.

Ashley Rodriguez:
I was working, long, long hours. And then once you kind of become sous chef or chef, then you’re given longer hours. So, not necessarily something I wanted to do as a young mother. So, then we decided to move back home.

Dillon Honcoop:
And Seattle is home?

Ashley Rodriguez:
We actually moved back to Bellingham. So, Bellingham is where I grew up.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah. And then we lived in Bellingham for several years, and then we ended up back in Seattle where we are now.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, motherhood kind of jumped on the screen, took over for a bit, but you still had that love of the whole food thing. When did that start coming back? Because I know the whole motherhood gig is all consuming.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah, it never went away. It was always there in some aspect. So, when I moved back to Bellingham, I partnered up with a local catering company called Ciao Thyme and they so graciously took me under their wing, and I started a business under their business doing wedding cakes and dessert catering. And then eventually I became their pastry chef. And so, I was pursuing those avenues while we had our first child, and then that’s when I started kind of dipping my toes into the world of blogging as well. Excuse me.

Ashley Rodriguez:
So I started a blog after our first son was born and that was sort of a way of like a free website, free marketing for my wedding cake business. Then by the time our second son came around, the story that I wanted to tell was shifting. It was getting back to that feeling that I had while living in Italy of, food is amazing and I’m so passionate about it. But what I really want to write about and pursue, and to tell the story about it is my heart behind all of it, which is to connect to people and to feed people.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And I had some incredibly intense, deep spiritual moments at the table. And I think I’m always trying to pursue those moments and to use food as a way of sort of helping other people tap into those experiences as well. Because I just think that food is such an incredible gift. So, that changed the story for me, and that’s when the blog, Not Without Salt was born. I started really developing my own skills as a photographer, as a writer, as a recipe developer. And I use that platform to experiment and to practice those skills.

Dillon Honcoop:
Being a blogger, being in the world of food, a foodie, if you’re comfortable with that term?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yes, you can say it.

Dillon Honcoop:
You’re okay with that?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Okay. It often comes back, like you said to photography, you’ve mentioned this multiple times, and being able to show that food because presentation, what the food looks like on the plate is a big part of the art. Right? But that didn’t really spread until this phenomenon of taking pictures and you know, we millennials have made fun of for taking pictures of our meals for a long time, but it’s really become a thing. Right? Well when you, when you started in this and you talk about your husband taking photos of your early creations as part of kind of your resume to get that job down in LA, that was kind of even before this whole trend, right?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Oh, for sure. Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like when would that have been? What year?

Ashley Rodriguez:
That was 2004.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, that was like what the birth of Facebook year, if I want to say. Or three or four or something. It didn’t even exist before then. Well, MySpace, I mean people were doing this whole thing then.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
Instagram was years away.

Ashley Rodriguez:
It was.

Dillon Honcoop:
So how big of a role does that play? What it looks like in beautiful photography. And how much has that been a thing that has kind of made your blog as well?

Ashley Rodriguez:
That’s an interesting question, and I don’t often think of it in that way because for me it’s always food first. But I am such a visual person, and of course I have a huge collection of cookbooks, and I love flipping through the pages and admiring the pictures.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Ashley Rodriguez:
So, fairly early on in my blogging career, I started taking over the photography side of things because with a background in art and I had taken some photography classes, I could get by, and I knew what I wanted. I knew what I wanted the end result to look like, and sometimes it was easier for me to just grab the camera from my husband’s hands rather than try to like communicate with words what I wanted him to try and get. So, I started just playing around more. And as digital photography became bigger, it was a lot easier because then I could like take a picture, look at the back of the screen and say, “Oops, nope, that’s not quite right.” And then that’s really how I learned, because when we were just doing, film photography can get really expensive to make all those mistakes.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the Gen Z’ers listening right now, or like there’s a kind of photography where you can’t see the picture right away. What’s this?

Ashley Rodriguez:
I know, it doesn’t make any sense. It sounds old, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
It changes everything though.

Ashley Rodriguez:
It’s romantic.

Dillon Honcoop:
How you shoot stuff.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Totally.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that was becoming my question. Those first photos that you sent off to get that first gig, where those on film or digital?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Oh they were film.

Dillon Honcoop:
I figured there’s a good chance that was film back then.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Sure. Yeah, we got them printed. I mean, who does that with photos anymore? Yeah. And blogging is really changing, people are on Instagram these days. And so, I haven’t been, I haven’t blogged anything on Not Without Salt this year, which is really crazy for me to admit because it’s been, gosh, I’ve had that blog for, I always make the connection between how old my middle son is. He’s almost turning 12, so I’ve had that blog for 12 years, and it has been a journal for me. But my passion is shifting and the medium of Instagram is such that I can connect with a community there, and share recipes and inspiration and the same way. I miss longer form writing, but I’m doing that in other ways as well. So, I’m not saying the blog is dead, but definitely isn’t what it used to be.

Dillon Honcoop:
You talked about your grandma and how she was kind of a food inspiration for you. Tell me a little bit about her. What was her thing? What was her life? What brought her to that place where you said she was like, really excellent Baker and cook?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Both of my grandmothers, I have such wonderful food memories of each of them, and their recipe collections sit right next to me in my kitchen. And every time I pass by those old boxes of handwritten recipes, it’s such a gift that I cherish. Because the other day I was sitting in my house, and for some reason there was this strong, like meaty smell and immediately came hit me like walking into my my dad’s, mom’s house, on Sundays when we’d come over for dinner, like roast beef, just like slowly cooking, in the slow cooker. And it’s like, “Oh my gosh.” It was just such a strong, intense smell memory. And when we’d come over for dinner, she would love to ask like, what we wanted to have for dinner.

Ashley Rodriguez:
She loved making us happy through, through food. And then my maternal grandmother, she was the Baker and I remember, but she was such a humble cook and Baker. She never thought, I mean she always apologized for whatever it was that she made. And you know it was the most incredible, I mean, her pies were unbelievable. And I remember, I was in my 20s I’m sure. And I was like, “Grandma, can you please teach me your pie graphs?” And she just never thought that she was like, her knowledge was worthy of sharing or-

Dillon Honcoop:
Did she have a recipe or it was just off the top of her head?

Ashley Rodriguez:
It was completely by feel, and it defied all my baking science. Because I’m like, your crust is so flaky, how’s it so flaky? And I would say, I knew that cold butter handled with care and all the cold ingredients and you bake it well, blah, blah, blah, blah. All this knowledge that I had garnered from working in bakeries and restaurants and reading tons and tons of baking science. It got thrown out the window when she just dumped like a half a day cup of oil and milk into the dough and then just mixed it by hand.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And then, I was like, “Wait, no, what’s happening here?” And I was trying to get the measurements and she’s like, “Well, you just do it till it feels right.” And yeah, I have her pie dough recipe is in my second cookbook juxtaposed right next to my pie recipe. And actually, I wrote that cookbook while she was still alive. And she passed away shortly before. I guess it was shortly after it had been published. But I read that section from my cookbook as her eulogy.

Dillon Honcoop:
What was that like?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Hard. And it still is hard, but I connect with her every time I’m in the kitchen. I feel her. And you know, that’s the power of food, right? Is that it’s such a necessity, right? We need to eat to live, but it can transcend so much if you allow it. And I think that’s what my time and working in restaurants, it was about consistency and getting the food out in a very timely manner and writing about food and taking pictures of food, taught me how to be mindful and present in the kitchen. And that’s such a powerful experience.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And I think about the food memories that were created from the lives of these two incredible women in my life. And I hope that my children and hopefully someday I’ll get the pleasure of having grandchildren, that I can sort of help to shape their lives through these memories. And you know, that’s the gift that I get to have with my own children and I do not take it for granted that I get the joy and the honor of having a platform and to be able to inspire and get people excited about being in the kitchen. Especially now, goodness, people are cooking and baking like crazy these days. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Right? This quarantine life has changed so much and a lot of awful things have come out of it, but definitely some good things too.

Ashley Rodriguez:
So many beautiful things.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t there something that just feels really retro about it? Like the togetherness, and the home cooking, and just a quieter, slower way of life?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah. I’ve not thought of it in the retro sense because it’s something that I’ve always pursued in the nowtro. It’s something that I think, again, going back to those times in Italy saying like, “Oh, this is really what’s important.” They stop their lives. The things that we say, “No, it’s too important. We need to be open, keep our businesses open during all waking hours.” And it’s like, “Nope, we’re going to stop and spend three hours in the middle of our workday, to sit around the table to acknowledge one another’s humanity, to cherish the gifts from the earth, and just have a moment to enjoy this day because every day is worthy of savoring.”

Ashley Rodriguez:
And it’s like, man, it’s something that I want to pursue, and I think in these times of quarantine, it just allows for more of that. And when so much of our regularly scheduled programming has been taken away, then it allows for us to really quiet out a lot of the external noise, so that we can see things for what they really are.

Dillon Honcoop:
Like I said, it felt very retro to me. It reminds me more of my life when I was a kid. And I actually want to connect that back to, because I know that your grant both sets of your grandparents are like mine. They’re both Linden area dairy farmers. Right? This was the scene that you grew up with, your grandparents being in the dairy farming community?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Mm-hmm (affirmative). More so my mom’s dad for sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much did that influence the whole perspective on food, where it comes from, and that farming way of life to where you work hard and you get up early, but there’s also coffee time, and there’s people who swing on the yard, and you chat for half an hour, that work hard but still a slower way of life kind of thing.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Right. I think, it wasn’t out of the norm for me. I loved going down and visiting grandpa’s cows, and saying hello to them. And I think it’s in my DNA more than it’s in my, more than I even recognize that I know where food comes from. I’m not invisible to the hard work that it takes to grow and produce these food items. And I think that’s definitely part of what I do, is wanting to honor the ingredients and the work that the farmers do, the work that the earth does to get these beautiful, beautiful ingredients.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And I kind of see myself as sort of a last piece of that cycle of and/or the artist who gets to paint with the most luxurious, silky paints of the highest quality that then, it just makes the final product that much more beautiful. And I think if you are passionate about food, you have a deep and utter respect for every aspect of that ingredient.

Dillon Honcoop:
In the food world. How much is that recognized? I mean you recognize that because of your family background. What about others? And what about the things that we have here in Washington State where there are so many incredible things that are produced here?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah, again I think if you have a passion for food, you take that back to its literal roots and you you want to honor that ingredient every step of the way. I think it’s hard for people who don’t have the luxury of, I mean, this is my career, this is my job, right? I get to have the pleasure of talking with food producers of being really, really connected to my food. I think not everyone has that the mental capacity, the interest or the time to really be able to sit and think about where everything comes from-

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah, you just got to pick up something at the store and get home and make it.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Right. But I hope in a kind and loving way, part of the work that I do is to help people sort of acknowledge and appreciate the ingredients all the more. And I think that’s why I continually also, I want to be creating unique and creative food, but I also want to keep it really, really simple and for it to taste good, you got to use the best quality ingredients. And so, I want to continue to highlight the story of the ingredients throughout the entire process and not just, I don’t want it just to be an ends to the meat or means to the end. Sorry.

Dillon Honcoop:
How different is that here in the Pacific Northwest than when you were down in LA?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Oh, man. It’s hard. I never was so wrapped up into the LA community that I feel like I got a good pulse on it because I was living and breathing the restaurant. But I was really fortunate enough to develop a really great relationship with my pastry chef, with my boss at the time, Sherry. And she was working on her second cookbook at the time. And so, I got to spend some time working on that with her. And she took me all around to the farmer’s markets, and we even went out to this farm in San Diego to meet the farmer who grows these strawberries that, honestly, I think she’s one of the first people that taught me how to truly honor and care for the ingredient.

Ashley Rodriguez:
We would get these strawberries into the restaurant and they were like treated like newborn babies. The moment they came in, we would take them out of their carton, and prepare a nice bed for them on a sheet pan. And so, that they all couldn’t be touching one another. They all needed their own space, and they were treated like royalty. And with one taste, you understood why?

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, you have to be like that with strawberries too because they’re so soft. Especially if they’re grown all the way ripe on the vine and they’re one of these really sweet varieties that’s designed to be picked ripe. A lot of the stuff that we get in the store from who knows where, some of the times is picked not quite right.

Ashley Rodriguez:
They’re red on the outside, and white on the inside.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah, yeah. These were like a mirror to bra for us to block like these tiny little, they were like strawberry candy. That’s what it tasted. Well, it tasted like what strawberry candy tries to be. It was so good. I grow some in my garden just so, I mean and it’s like never enough to do anything with. It’s just to be wandering around your yard and putting it in your mouth and then you just have this like quintessential taste of like, “This is what a strawberries taste tastes like.” And luckily for us living in Washington, we get to have those moments, those like two weeks at the end of June where it’s like strawberry season is here. But I love that, my kids when they were really little, they see strawberries in the store and it’d be December and they’d be like, “Can we get strawberries?” I’m like, “No, it’s not time.”

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you. Thank you.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Right? Oh yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nothing against those folks, and fine if you really got to have the strawberries, but the real strawberries are in June.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Remember it’s so worth it to like wait until you have that, and then it’s like we’re standing in the sun and it’s like, “No children, no, no. This is why I’ve said no to you for the last 12 months. This is the reason.” And then of course you can freeze them, and join them or make jam or and yes, I can buy strawberries out a season too. But nothing compares to that like first taste of a strawberry where it’s just like that Ruby red intensity all the way through. Oh my gosh.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’m really into this because strawberries are my favorite. I grew up on it. My dad’s a red raspberry grower, and believe it or not, I’m not in love with rasp. I don’t hate them. It’s just really not my thing. But strawberries-

Ashley Rodriguez:
See, Rapsberries are my favorites.

Dillon Honcoop:
See, that’s what everybody says.

Ashley Rodriguez:
But I mean strawberries are so good.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s probably because I grew up picking them and just the smell to a lot of people is like, “Oh wow, that smells so good.” And to me it smells like work and long hot.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Smells like hard work.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you talk about these strawberries, and you talk about the seasonality of when produce, whether it’s fruits or veggies or whatever, are actually ripe here locally, that’s something that’s being talked about lately with this whole COVID situation, and the disruption in our food system. People are saying, “We’re so used to being able to have any fruit and any vegetable available, 24/7, 365. And this time, and the disruption of that system is showing us that maybe that’s not what our future should look like. And maybe we need to start recognizing that, “Hey, we have strawberry stuff in June, but no, we don’t have it in October. And that’s okay.”

Ashley Rodriguez:
Absolutely. For me, it’s worth the wait. It’s worth, and every season. Listen, I recognize we live in one of the most bountiful and beautiful parts of the world, and so, that there are places that are definitely food deserts where things are just hard to come by anytime. But every season there’s something to look forward to. And I love living off of like, “Okay, this is spring. We’re in the heart of rhubarb season, and young greens and there’s always something to be enjoying and looking forward to.”

Dillon Honcoop:
And we should be doing that here in the Pacific Northwest. Because, like you say, there are other parts of the country and world where they don’t have that luxury at all. And we tend to take it for granted, and then we don’t really take advantage and we go to the store and get strawberries and rhubarb that’s grown in South America. And it’s like, “Why, when we can do it here?”

Ashley Rodriguez:
I think it’s cyclical, going back to thinking about my grandparents, I don’t fully know how hard life was for them. I mean I saw and I know things were challenging and especially as farmers, and with large families and all of that. But, I recognize that, when the food conveniences first started coming, it was a lifesaver. I mean it was like it saves so much time and energy, but I think we’re also now coming to see the ramifications of some of those conveniences. And maybe it’s not worth it. And maybe, we can sort of readjust our lifestyle a little bit, to sort of reconnect to that seasonality-

Dillon Honcoop:
Pendulum. All the other way a little Bit.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And hopefully people can find some joy and satisfaction in being in the kitchen and not see it as the chore that so many of can see it. And listen, I love cooking, but it can still feel like a chore, feeding my family day in and day out. But that’s why I do also try.

Dillon Honcoop:
Wants to keep It real.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah. I try and make it accessible and hopefully people feel that.

Dillon Honcoop:
When is it now, you’re in Seattle, you’re in the food world, foodie, blogger, et cetera. When do you actually connect with farmers now in your life? Do you ever, I mean, farmer’s market, anything beyond that? How do those worlds collide in our current culture?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Well, in the times of quarantine, not very often. Although, yes, I love going to the farmer’s market. I love going to the farms in the summer to pick the berries. And every year we do the that big farm festival that happens up and welcome in Skagit County. So I love reminding my children and connecting the dots then that this is where, this is where the food comes from. I just started working with my friend Devin, who just started a company called Small Food Drop where he’s connecting farmers directly to the consumer.

Ashley Rodriguez:
So I can get farm fresh eggs, meat, flour directly from the farmers, from the producers right to my door, which is so incredible, especially during these times where we’re just trying to stay home and even limit our exposure going to the grocery store. So, if I can get eggs or the yolks just are like the sunset, it’s so gorgeous. And this flower from up in Skagit from Cairnsprings that it’s like I’d have to drive, miles and miles in order to go get this. Or anyways, there are ways and that is really, really exciting to me.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you’re talking about Devin Day, by the way who is episode 10 on the Real Food Real People Podcast here we talked to them.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Oh, that’s awesome.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. So we’ve had his Valley Farmstead Rabbits and the Neil’s Big Leaf maple syrup that they do.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Oh, my gosh.

Dillon Honcoop:
We talked all about that, but it’s been, since we had that episode that he’s developed a Small Food Drop thing. So, I’ve been talking to him a lot about it, and that’s a good mention for people who are interested to check that out. I know it’s small now, but he’s wanting to grow and grow that.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Oh, he’s just, he’s a go getter, that one.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah, it’s really, really exciting. I mean, the fact that I can get that syrup, I have a couple of bottles sitting on my counter right now and it’s like, “Ah, why do I need to leave the house?” I’ve got… it’s really, really, really exciting, what he’s doing.

Dillon Honcoop:
He texted me right after he launched the Small Food Drop thing because we were talking about this kind of stuff, like after our podcast episode, we just kind of kept talking for like two hours after that episode.

Ashley Rodriguez:
That’s awesome.

Dillon Honcoop:
And about all these things, and a few weeks later really it wasn’t that much longer. We were in all of a sudden COVID world and he’s like, “Hey, check this out.” And so yeah, I ordered some Cairnspring Mills flour, and then he texted me a little bit later and said, “Hey, it’s on your front doorstep.” I’m like, “You delivered it yourself?” He’s like, “Yeah, we had to go over there and check. We were up in your area, have to check out some chickens that were going to raise. So I dropped it off.” So, it’s really cool and it’s kind of bringing the local personality back to food there and I hope he has a lot of success with that. What about Kitchen Unnecessary? Talk about how that came to be in this whole cooking outside thing. I’m a huge fan of that but not nearly as gourmet as you are. But I do love cooking over an open fire.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah, I’m happy to talk about Kitchen Unnecessary. This is a project that my brother and I started about three years ago, and it started around the campfire. We go camping every year. I have two brothers and we all have three kids. So, between all of them and my mom and dad, there’s 17 of us that just go out into the woods and start up a fire. The moment we get there and just keep it going the whole time. And I’m cooking breakfast pretty much breakfast and dinner over the fire, and it started because with my love of food, I want to eat good food no matter where I am.

Ashley Rodriguez:
And of course, I love those classic campfire dishes as well. But I wanted to see what I could do within the limitation of only having a cast iron pan and a fire to cook with. And I think one of the first years I did like a braised chicken thigh over the fire and we had some fondue or just threw some cherry tomatoes with some shallots into the pan, let him blister and then melted Fontina cheese, and we just all sat around the campfire dubbing Costco pretzel buns into that big pot of cheese. And It’s like, Oh my gosh!

Dillon Honcoop:
Now you’re really killing me. You were getting me with the strawberries earlier, but this has really put me over the edge. Like can we take a time out so I can go get some munchies right now? Because you’re making me hungry.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah. Exactly. So Chris and I, my brother were just sitting around the fire and he’s an incredible filmmaker. Like, “What can we do with this?” And so, Kitchen Unnecessarily was born, and we both have a love of the outdoors. I have a continual growing with wild foods and they had like played around with mushroom foraging was some people that I’ve met down here in the Seattle food community and just love this idea that food surrounds us. And so, we connect with these local or just guides these experts and we go out and we find a wild food ingredients and learn with them and then go start a fire and cook a feast in the middle of the woods, or by a river or wherever the case may be. We’ve fly fished in Montana, fished forged, hunted in Alaska, and of course living in the Pacific Northwest, we have such a bounty.

Ashley Rodriguez:
So we’ve done, gathered gooey ducks and clams and oysters on the beach and then within a few feet just lit up a fire and smoked some clams and boiled some pasta for a smokey clam Carbonara. And I mean, it’s really, really fun. And it’s a project that I’m so excited about, and we’re working right now, we can’t go out and do the episodes in the same way that we’ve been able to, now that we’re kind of in quarantine. But again, we can all get out in our backyards and have these cool, unique experiences. So, Chris and I are working on developing a series to really teach you how to cook over your fire pit or even over your grill and to kind of take it beyond what you thought it was capable of in the comfort and safety of your own backyard.

Ashley Rodriguez:
So be looking for that. And we just launched a podcast as well, which has been super, super fun to continue the conversation with some of our guides and to connect with people in the outdoor and food space to talk about the joys of being outside and the bounty that really surrounds us. It’s really, really incredible. Chris and I-

Dillon Honcoop:
Now it’s called Kitchen Unnecessary as well. Right? It’s like Kitchen Unnecessary, the TV show essentially-

Ashley Rodriguez:
The podcast. Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
And Kitchen Unnecessarily the podcast.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Exactly. Yeah. So, it’s been really, really fun. I’ve been now in the food space for about 15 years, and it’s really incredible when you can kinda do a little deep dive into it, into a whole new Avenue of it. So, it’s keeping me excited about all things, food.

Dillon Honcoop:
So what’s next? What else do you have up your sleeve?

Ashley Rodriguez:
Well, right now, it’s hard to see much beyond the day in front of you, but I’m fishing next week since fishing is opening up.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, nice.

Ashley Rodriguez:
No, I think that, that is what’s right in front of me. I mean I’m going to continue to be inspired by food and hopefully, share the things that are getting me excited, and I hope that looks like more cookbooks, more adventures with Kitchen Unnecessary, just more of the same. I am having so much fun in this space and I just want to see it continue. As long as people are there, then I will… Even if people aren’t there. But it really helps us out financially when people are there, and excited about what I’m doing and buying the books and cooking the recipes and eager to watch the episodes and all of that. So, it’s a gift to be able to do this.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, thank you so much for opening up. What a cool story and I think this is the first podcast episode here for Real Food Real People where I’ve gotten hungry like four different times. Enjoying the conversation.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Good. That’s part of my job.

Dillon Honcoop:
So, you’re succeeding On that front.

Ashley Rodriguez:
Yeah. I wish we could be together and I could actually feed you rather than just tease you. But.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, someday I’ll hold you to that. But in the meantime, I guess we are talking over digital connections here is going to have to do. But thank you so much for sharing-

Ashley Rodriguez:
My pleasure, thanks for the opportunity.

Dillon Honcoop:
… the personal side of the story. Yeah.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
Seriously. I wasn’t making it up. I got hungry multiple times throughout that conversation and I think shortly after we did that chat, I had to quickly get out and get some lunch or something. I don’t remember what I ate, but I’m sure it wasn’t nearly as gourmet as anything that Ashley makes. What a cool person though. Right? And a cool perspective on food, that it’s not just a chore. It’s not just something that we do automatically, that there’s art there, and there’s humanity there. She brings so much to that and even caused me to think about things differently than I have in the past.

Dillon Honcoop:
We need people like that in our food system, if we want to call it that. After a conversation like this, makes it kind of sound impersonal. But we need people like that to remind us of those things and to remind us of the importance of growing the food and working the soil of picking the food or whatever harvesting, however that’s done, processing it into stuff that’s edible and able to be bought at the store, and the people who are actually buying it and selling it and cooking it. This whole thing all the way to those of us. Well, all of us who eat it at the end of the whole process.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for being here on the Real Food Real People podcast. There are a lot of ugly, terrible things happening with this global pandemic right now. But I guess we’re just trying to maintain some positivity here and look toward those silver linings. And I think one of those is a change in the way that we’re thinking about food. And we want to be part of that change. We want to help give, it’s so interesting that we just launched this podcast at the beginning of the year. Or actually just before the beginning of the year, just before Christmas.

Dillon Honcoop:
And here we are now. Totally, we had no idea this was coming, but here we are in a time when people are rethinking where their food comes from, and we want to help be a way for people to get reconnected to their food. As people, including myself, I mean, as much as I grew up around farming and I host this podcast and all this. I had had plenty of reminders recently too, just how near and dear our food and where it comes from and whether it’s safe and produced with high quality and protections. I’ve been reminded of that as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
So that’s what we want to do with this podcast, and that’s why we would really appreciate your support. Not only to subscribe and we certainly appreciate that on whatever podcasts platform is your preferred way to get it in. A lot of people, I’m just looking at the stats. A lot of people are subscribing like on Apple podcasts, but people are listening on Spotify. iHeartRadio or podcasts or whatever they call it, Google podcasts as well as looking pretty popular, but there’s a lot of other ones too. So whatever your favorite is.

Dillon Honcoop:
Anyway, it helps for you to subscribe. But even more as we try to get more people reconnected to where their food comes from in this time of pandemic and uncertainty about the future, share it on social media if you could. Maybe send it out to your followers in a post or in a message or whatever works and tell them something about what kind of spoke to you in our conversations here, and let me know too. You can find us on social media, Real Food, Real People podcast. Of course, it’s probably just the easiest way to search it. RFRP_podcast on Instagram. Same handle on Twitter. And then what is it? RFRP.Podcast on Facebook. Basically the same thing.

Dillon Honcoop:
So find us there. Shoot us a message there. Share our stuff and let’s continue to grow this circle of people who appreciate the people who are growing our food and making our food for us here in Washington State.

Announcer:
The Real Food Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Safe Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at safefamilyfarming.org. And by Dairy Farmers of Washington, supporting Washington dairy farmers connecting consumers to agriculture, and inspiring the desire for local dairy. Find out more at Wadairy.org.

Niels Brisbane part 2 | #006 01/20/2020

He's passionate about bringing farmers back to the table, in more ways than one. In the second half of their conversation, award-winning Seattle chef Niels Brisbane and host Dillon Honcoop talk about how a facelift for farming could help reconnect eaters with the people who grow their food.

Transcript

Niels Brisbane:
Farming needs a facelift basically, essentially, and there it needs to be appreciated for what it is, but then the other piece is like it’s a lot of work and so there needs to be a financial incentive.

Speaker 2:
This is the Real Food, Real People podcasts.

Dillon Honcoop:
Hoodies, connecting with farmers and figuring out how farmers can have a seat at the table. Again, in sort of defining what is the cuisine of the Pacific Northwest. Last week we got to know award-winning Seattle chef, Niels Brisbane and his unexpected journey from sports to fine dining, to reconnecting with his farm town roots in Lynden, Washington, the same town that I grew up in, even though I hadn’t gotten to know Niels until this podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
This week, we’re sharing the second half of that fascinating conversation I had with him, where we get into in the second half into the vision, his vision for reconnecting people with farmers and reinvigorating both our regional cuisine and the farms that are growing food right here. If you miss last week, go ahead and listen to that conversation if you’d like to learn more about Nell’s background. Thanks for coming along the journey again this week and let’s dive right back in where we left off last week. So you’re involved in this world that’s like culture and art and very urban, yet you grew up in a small Podunk farming community. It happens to be the same community that I grew up in. Interestingly, we didn’t know each other-

Niels Brisbane:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
… until now. What was that like? How did that speak in to what you were doing and what did people even say when they found out, you’re from Lynden, Washington? Like what?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, for me that very much roots why I cook and why I’m involved in food at all, because it really does come back to how do we create a better food system? And part of that is like for me, I always want to be able to give farmers options. And like one of my favorite farmers, Dave Hudlin is in the Skagit County and has a great vegetable farm, grows [inaudible 00:02:43]. His tomato greenhouses are, they should be the eighth wonder of the world. They’re incredible. If you’re ever in Skagit, go visit Dave Hudlin’s farm.

Niels Brisbane:
But he always says is, I’ll butcher the quote. But it was basically like, “If you’re a farm and you’re selling to one person, then you’re an employee, and if you’re selling to 100 people, now you’ve got a business.” And so farmers need to be able to, I mean, the worst thing of walking into a negotiation, whether that be, especially when it’s a buyer is if they know you can’t walk out, and negotiate that price any better because they’re like, “Well, that product is going to spoil otherwise if you don’t sell it to me at this really low price.” And so that’s not a good place to be. So developing a system where there truly is an economy around things and not just a path that’s been traveled before.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s a big problem in farming.

Niels Brisbane:
It’s a huge problem in farming.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because different than most other economic arrangements. If we say that farmers are usually the ones with their back against the wall-

Niels Brisbane:
Usually.

Dillon Honcoop:
… they’re price takers as we here said.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you experienced that, you see that kind of from this other vantage point.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly. And if anyone gets the squeeze, it’s usually the “like lowest person on the totem pole.” And for a farmer that it’s because they’re the first person with the product, that’s why they’re “like the lowest person on the totem pole.” Is like, the chef doesn’t want to pay that high price, so they put the squeeze on their producer or onto their wholesaler. The wholesaler needs to keep their margin. So then they push that squeeze onto the farmer and so they by default have to take that lower price.

Niels Brisbane:
And if they got to… so we were really big on like working directly with farmers and buying, trying to work with them and it’s a headache, but like trying to figure out ways where you can be like, okay, grow all these carrots and we’ll buy all of them. Or we’ll do like what do you want to grow? What did you make a fantastic margin on last year? It was this random beat. Okay, well like maybe we can come up with a great beat dish and move this product for you.

Niels Brisbane:
And actually having those conversations. I mean, what ends up happening is like the complexity from a restaurant standpoint is again this was like a huge benefit that a place like Canlis could afford with time and money is allowing me to figure out all of those pieces and the other sous-chefs to like figure out this sourcing mayhem. I mean, we had, over 100 people that we would source from, from like farms and figuring that out logistically is a nightmare.

Niels Brisbane:
It took, I mean, a huge part of my job honestly was like, it was the creative part, but it was like figuring out how do we get the best product through the front doors in a consistent way. And in most places they just want to make one phone call and get the produce through the door, which means they work with a wholesaler and that’s why that business model exists, but it puts the squeeze onto the farmers and the restaurants lose the face of like, this is a farmer that’s trying to work hard to sell this product.

Niels Brisbane:
And to me that’s just like a shame. And so trying to think of new ways to structure it so that again, like these farmers can have a face in the economy again, it’s like just so that they can kind of compete again and be understood is ultimately how I kind of see a renegotiation of this food system. So whether that be, I mean, it’s either there’s small farms that are starting to figure it out of like, okay, well, I’ll sell at the farmers market and I’ll do a CSA and then I’ll do some wholesale and all these different pieces. And if any one of those were to fail, the business wouldn’t go under.

Niels Brisbane:
Like, but if Darigold declared bankruptcy tomorrow, there’d be a lot of farms that would not have anywhere to sell their milk, and that to me is like, well, that’s an issue. Like they’re not… I mean, they own their own businesses, so they’re taking all the risk, but they only have one buyer. So they really don’t have the reward of being an independent business owner on some level anymore because it’s like they’re dictated to. And so like there’s…

Dillon Honcoop:
And we have something unique hee even, like you mentioned Darigold being a farmer’s cooperative. Then in some other parts of the country where they don’t have that.

Niels Brisbane:
They don’t even have that. Right. Exactly. If anything like Darigold is the best model and so because at least you’ve got a large group that can kind of create that advocacy. But-

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s still that risk, that question mark.

Niels Brisbane:
There’s still that risk of like, well, what’s going to happen if that didn’t work out? And it’s like, well, it’s going to take a lot to rebuild it. It’s not going to happen in five or 10 or 20 years even. But like there’s the companies that are thinking about that. It’s like, well, what if we made cheese? What if we made a new dairy product or whatever it is, rethinking about it and being like, well, this isn’t less work, that’s for sure.

Niels Brisbane:
But actually creating a face of like, well, this is… I mean, it was a joke at the restaurant because I was obsessive with dairy specifically as my… we had five different milks that we kept in the restaurant based on what the usage was. So we had a milk that we would use for steaming for coffee, and we had a different milk that we would use for our basically like milk focused sauces.

Niels Brisbane:
So sauces that you actually were supposed to taste the milk. It wasn’t just like an ingredient. And then we would have a milk for desserts and each one was not just like, a random dartboard, we’ll buy from this farmer this week. It was very thought out. We had brought in 25 plus milks. I mean, it was a really unique experience to be able to even do that in the Pacific Northwest of like, there’s actually 25 plus dairies that you can go out and buy milk from and you could taste the difference between each farm and you could… people were blown away, I think it was like MyShan up in Lynden, actually it was really close to where I used to live and I actually didn’t know…

I don’t think they were an independent farm when I was living up there anyways, but or independent like as in you could buy their stuff wholesale. But they’ve got like a Guernsey farm and people had never really tasted that before, and I don’t know what their processes, but it’s like their milk has a distinct like caramel note that you don’t get from, say like a Cherry Valley, which is down here in King County, and they would have, there’s was like super grassy.

And so if you tried to make coffee with theirs, it tasted like you were licking and eating dirt, like, a little bit while you were drinking your coffee. And so it wasn’t so good for coffee even though it was a fantastic milk. But then their milk was fantastic for coffee because it just, the carameliness really meshed and really high fat content, which is also perfect for coffee versus the grassy one.

If you were matching that with, sauce that was going with beef, that grassiness and the fact that you were, the ironiness, the dirtiness of it, “like it was perfect for me.” And so it was like actually tasting those different pieces and… but people always laughed about how much milk we had in the restaurant and it was a bit of a nightmare. And the cooks would come to me and be like, “Chef, we’re out of this type of milk. How am I supposed to make this sauce?” Because they like understood how different it tasted when you did these different sauces. And so it was interesting.

Dillon Honcoop:
You grew up in a town surrounded by dairy farms like this, and berry farms and potatoes and everything else. What was your awareness of farming at that time growing up? Like were you around farming at all?

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah. So my best friend growing up was Rick Heerspink. And so he’s part of the Edaleen Dairy world. And so I spent a good amount of time on his dairy, scraping the lanes and everything else, and that was just… and also just the idea of like, it’s a Saturday evening or afternoon and you want to, go to the basketball game on Saturday night. And just like the uniform experience of everyone of basically could be like, “Well, yeah, I just have to finish my chores. I’ve got like…” just like having high schoolers that would buy their own vehicles because they’ve been working since they were 12 years old or earlier.

Niels Brisbane:
They’ve been getting paid since they were 12 years old is probably the best way to put it. They’ve been working since they could walk. But just the farming community in the way that, everyone is just like, it’s a lifestyle more than anything. It’s like there’s, cows don’t take days off. They need to be milked every day. And just how I remember, I mean, we had like hobby animals. My dad, I mean, he had a construction company, but he sold Quarter Horses on the side.

Niels Brisbane:
And so at like one point we had up to 18 Quarter Horses on the property. And we always had, more of the hobby animals, the chickens for eggs and we would always get a couple of… we’d would finish a beef cow every year and some of those other pieces where I was like, I had been on enough farms and enough of like the horse farm, that it’s like you get the ideas of farming. I won’t claim to have been a farmer like some of my peers were, but still just like the concept of getting pulled out of school because a fence broke and all of the animals are out and like you would leave and you’d go and everyone in class is like, “That makes sense.”

Niels Brisbane:
And then also just the idea of like middle of the night or early in the morning or you’ve been working all day, but you have to finish this product or a project because you have to finish it. Like it doesn’t matter how long it takes or how long you’re out there, it’ll be like put your headlamp on and keep fencing because we can’t not do it. And just like that mentality versus then working in basically less so in the restaurant.

Niels Brisbane:
Restaurants can kind of be similar to that. But even still you can be like, you got that stock on lay. Like it’s not ready but, fine. Just cool it down, we’ll start it again in the morning. It’s like, that’s not an option in farming. It’s like, there’s farmers who will cut corn for days on end essentially because it’s like a rain is coming and otherwise that is garbage if that… so that mentality of, it like, it creates this foundational work ethic that is different. And so while I don’t, like I said, I won’t claim to be a farmer, but that work ethic just kind of infuses life in Lynden and I think is a valuable life lesson.

Dillon Honcoop:
So I know you’ve said in an article I read about you that when you were at the bread lab working with farmers on developing things, that it reminded you of working with people amongst the farming community or being around that culture when you were growing up in Lynden, a county north, mind you. So how much does that influence then what you do?

Niels Brisbane:
It’s huge. I mean, I think, like I said, like it’s all, for me, the food system is built on the backs of farmers. But I do sense that there’s been this… especially, I mean the age of farmers has, I don’t know the current statistic, but basically it’s like there’s a whole generation that is getting older and is in their 60s and would love to retire soon, but they don’t have anyone coming in under them.

Niels Brisbane:
So there’s our generation, in their 20s, 30s, 40s, there’s nobody that’s farming. Not nobody. There’s a lot less people that are farming in those generations. And I think part of that is just like, because farming needs a facelift basically, essentially. And there, it needs to be appreciated for what it is. But then the other piece is like, it’s a lot of work. And so there needs to be a financial incentive for how much work it is.

Niels Brisbane:
And so it’s like, nobody wants to be working 80, 90 hours a week to make 50 grand. It’s like they’re going to go to other jobs and eventually there’s going to be a reckoning with that. And so my hope is that by creating different avenues and different ways and honestly like a different mentality around how people think about farmers, we may actually be able to get people interested in farming again.

Niels Brisbane:
And it’s like, I mean, most of my favorite people in working with the restaurant, some of my most like, nearest and dearest relationships from the restaurant were with farmers who I got to spend time with, visit their farms. They would come by once a week with their produce and you’d make them a cup of coffee and sit for two minutes and they could complain about the weather. And it’s like, that’s amazing.

Niels Brisbane:
But they need to be a community that has the spotlight shown on them a little bit more. But part of that is not just shining the spotlight on them, but actually giving them financial options and directions so that they could actually be like, well, this is, I could grow a whole bunch of this and sell it or I could, process it in a different way and may work on ways to create that infrastructure because that infrastructure has been dropping for the last 50 years, and how do we create, build up infrastructure so that it can support these small farms? And ultimately they, it’s like people want to feel proud of what they’re working on. And so if they can see that people actually appreciate it, then it’s like, well, then I think there’ll a resurgence to farming in these younger generations.

Dillon Honcoop:
So you see the future and the dark clouds over the future of farming and local farming. You see that as a real threat to the system that you’re involved with and even the food system, the restaurants, fine dining, all that kind of stuff is threatened by what’s threatening farming?

Niels Brisbane:
I would say hugely. I mean, the farming community has, I mean, there’s a lot of pressure on them. I mean, I’ve heard this from a good source, but it was that like suicide in the farming community is higher than suicide in the veteran community, which has traditionally been the highest kind of group in the country. And as well as like, I mean, there’s been such consolidation of farming and just kind of the loss of identity in that.

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, there’s just pressures being put on those farmers where it’s, again, they are getting the squeeze of the Whole Food system on top of them and everyone’s trying to keep their margin. And so then the only margin it can come out of is, the people who are actually producing the food, who have to accept that price. And so, I mean, it’s hard because we live in a country where our food system is subsidized in so many ways that it’s, as a percentage of income, the US doesn’t spend very much on food.

Niels Brisbane:
And so we don’t spend much on foods. So then we pay taxes that can then get subsidized. So it’s like we do spend a lot on food, but it’s like, it’s not a realized cost yet. And so it’s not helping, but the small farmers are not the ones receiving the subsidies. And so-

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, and it’s a system that really kind of wants its cake and to be able to eat it too, if you use one of my dad’s favorite phrases because we want our food cheap, but we want it healthy. And we want it locally sourced and produced and grown on a small farm where people care and all this stuff. But at the same time we want it available year round.

Niels Brisbane:
And shelf stable.

Dillon Honcoop:
And shelf stable and we want it to be in beautiful packaging and all this and close to home. All these things and-

Niels Brisbane:
And I want it in five minutes.

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah. And a lot of those pressures are what’s pushed in some of these farms to get bigger or it to be tough for small family farms because they’re forced to try to survive with those demands. Yet at the same time that consumer is coming to them saying, “Hey, why are you getting so big? Why you’re making money on this?”

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, don’t get me started on that.

.

Dillon Honcoop:
And you keep coming back to that and I think that’s so important. But it’s something that people tend to balk at because they feel somehow there’s this idea of the small farmer, just making food and that’s what they do. And then very quickly, if it’s recognized that, that farmer is making some money at that, then it’s like, well, that’s-

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah. “You’re a sellout!”

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s the sus… It makes them suspect. Is that maybe part of what you think needs to happen when you talk about a face left-

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
… for farming?

Niels Brisbane:
I think it is like, I mean, figuring out ways where people need to realize that like what is the farmer bringing to the table? And it’s A, our whole food system, but have selling products that are directly recognized. I think. So creating more individual self identity and venturing out, which is scary, especially in Lynden. It’s like there’s-

Dillon Honcoop:
Or any small farming community.

Niels Brisbane:
Any small farming, doing something different is like, because if you succeed then people are like, well, then it’s like that can almost be, there’s like a Danish term where it’s like the tallest tulip gets cut. And so it’s like, it’s not even… sometimes even succeeding above the average is not even a good thing in those small communities because it’s like, well, you’re not helping the community then.

Niels Brisbane:
But then it’s, if you try something and fail, then you don’t want that because you’re like, I should’ve just stuck with what I wanted to do. And so like I get that, that is a real struggle and a real conversation. But there needs to be tools for people to start investigating that. And this is another way that I think more… I mean, you made a perfect point of like what the customer demands and how many things the customer demands it’s like, so now you can’t just produce a delicious vegetable anymore. You have to produce a delicious vegetable and have a well, like a good Instagram feed and like it has to be in the right packaging and-

Dillon Honcoop:
I won’t trust it unless it’s marketed the way that I like.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly. And so it’s like, but to me, yes that’s really hard because it just keeps kicking up that overhead and making that a bigger and bigger slice of the pie. But it also does create an opportunity for all of these, “non farmers” who have grown up in the farm. Like if you grew up in Lynden and you loved to draw and you went to art school and you feel like there’s no place for you back in Lynden now because you don’t farm and you have no interest in farming, like no because all these farmers need to redo their packaging and rethink about that.

Niels Brisbane:
And it’s like, a really talented graphic designer may be exactly what those farms need. And so it actually allows people to, not just stay in Lynden if you farm, sell equipment or repair equipment. Like there could actually be these, you can create this own independent economy right there that actually supports all of these pieces. But that’s hard. There’s no place for an independent graphic designer and labeled designer in Lynden if there’s only, 10 independent farms. But if there’s 50 independent farms, 100 independent farms, like each one of those needs a new graphic every couple of years and now you’ve actually created a position for someone who, “didn’t have any place in Lynden,” in the traditional economy.

Dillon Honcoop:
So changing communities beyond just the traditional-

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
… farming community. At the same time, you’re talking about pushing the farming community into a place where some have gone, like you talked about MyShan, they’re an example.

Niels Brisbane:
Or Twin Brook

Dillon Honcoop:
From our community that both you and I grew up in examples in there are across the state people who have decided to go direct and really embrace that and brand themselves. But really that’s not the lion share of farms yet.

Niels Brisbane:
No, not at all.

Dillon Honcoop:
And that’s definitely not the comfort zone of a lion’s share of farmers in the state.

Niels Brisbane:
Pretty much not.

Dillon Honcoop:
But you’re saying that’s kind of what’s needed?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean that’s what I think is needed. I’m embracing the difference and not to say that, that won’t… I mean, I don’t know if every single farmer in Lynden could be independent. I don’t know. Like at the end of the day people will still need bulk milk. But I think that there is, a market for someone to do some value added products that, like who’s to say that Lynden… maybe it’s one farmer starts selling a blue cheese or something like that, that just goes wild and Danish blue or Dutch blue or whatever you want to call it.

Niels Brisbane:
And all of a sudden there’s such a demand that they require, more milk from, but they can pay a little bit higher price because it’s a premium product that they are getting that higher price for. And now all of a sudden they can create their own little cooperative that, of 10 dairies or 20 dairies that are all feeding into this specialty milk or specialty cheese product. And then you’ve got, maybe a yogurt maker that kind of does the same thing and eventually you could create a system where a farmer, there’s a plethora of co-ops that they could join essentially or they could then totally go independent and launch like, okay, I want to go elbow to elbow with, [inaudible 00:26:04] and I think I can, make a better product than them and my eggnog recipe is twice as good as theirs.

Dillon Honcoop:
Good old fashioned competition.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly. And like actually support that. And so maybe it’s not, if there’s 100 dairy farms, we’ve got 100 different cheeses coming out of Lynden. Like maybe that’s not necessarily how it goes, but there is room to create specially like, I mean, Lynden is adorable. It’s like it’s a cool town. And like, honestly, the brand of Lynden just isn’t being like flexed. I mean, that’s one small little. I mean, you could take that-

Dillon Honcoop:
And you can say that about a lot of towns around-

Niels Brisbane:
A lot of those towns what Twin Sisters is doing in Ferndale like that what they’re doing is very cool. And you could potentially… I mean, you go to France and again it’s taken generations of commitment, but there’s over 100 different types of cheese, not only just like producers of cheese, but literally types of cheese like in France. And you go to all these little different areas and each one is producing a different type.

Niels Brisbane:
And to me, if you can create that brand of like, it’s essentially what like goat milk did of like, getting people aware of the milk industry, but it’s like, okay, we need to hyper focus it though and be like, what is unique about this place? Like let’s embrace what we do differently. Let’s embrace the fact that like, well, if we feed our cows a little bit differently, we can get a change in the finished cheese that makes us totally unique.

Niels Brisbane:
And we know the 10 farmers that produce our milk and so we can get them all on a really regimented feed, process and you can create these systems that have a lot more flexibility and in the end give, if a farmer can sell to five different places and has those options, then they can actually shop around for the highest price.

Dillon Honcoop:
And giving them the incentive to do things like something that otherwise may be a big financial risk, it may be a pain in the butt, will require a lot of, investment and infrastructure, whatever on the farm. It’s like why am I going to do that if that’s really not going to get me anything?

Niels Brisbane:
You’re spinning your wheels to just get to the same place.

Dillon Honcoop:
But if there’s a system that will reward that, and I think there’s a lot of people who want to do that, but just feel like, I don’t know where the reward is going to be-

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
… in our system right now.

Niels Brisbane:
And that’s the thing is you’ve got a lot of great business people in that area. I mean, basically if you own a business, you have to be. You get a quick primer on becoming a business person. And so like, they’re not going to do it if they don’t see the payoff. So people, working in the university where you have a lot of academics that are like, “Well, why don’t the farmers just do this?” And I’m like, “Because do you know how much equipment that would cost?”

Niels Brisbane:
And they’re selling things and making literally like pennies per gallon, and once they pay for all their costs then they’re like, do you know how long it would take for them to pay off $1 million piece of equipment making pennies per gallon? Like you’re talking generations. Like there’s no payoff for that. Or they could just, keep making that money, take the little bit of profit and put it in the stock market and it’s going to grow faster than… So it’s like they’re good business people. So they’re not going to be foolish with their money. And so again-

Dillon Honcoop:
And then when you pay off that piece of equipment too, you’re just going to be like, well, you-

Niels Brisbane:
Then you don’t have to replace it.

Dillon Honcoop:
And also it’s going to be like, well, you’re huge. Look at this huge equipment that you have. You’re just a factory. Well, no, it’s we just had… I don’t know. What do you think about the criticisms for farmers too? I mean, I’m sure you hear that a lot in the urban community, even in the foodie community and environmentally focused world, and that disconnect of what it takes to actually make some of those things happen.

Niels Brisbane:
That’s a very interesting conversation I’ve had. So just as I’ve been moving to the more business development side of things and realizing that there’s a minimum size of profitability, even like, if you want to be a whiskey maker that and you want to spend this whole time making whiskey and you just want to make like one barrel of whiskey a month, at the end of the year you’ve got 12 barrels of whiskey and to make back all your costs and pay for your living wage and it’s like you’re going to have, each bottle is going to be thousands of dollars, and nobody’s going to pay that.

Niels Brisbane:
So it doesn’t matter how good it is, it’s just not profitable. So you’re going to have to build up a little bit. And so, but yes, there is this like romantic idea of how big a farmer is, size wise and I think people don’t understand that you need to be a certain size to even break even or be profitable hopefully. And as far as changing the perception of that, I don’t know. People need to… That people don’t view farming as a business, which is a little bit sad.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why?

Niels Brisbane:
I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
Why is that?

Niels Brisbane:
I don’t know. Maybe because it was like subsistence farming used to be a thing. So it’s like if you can cut down the trees, you need to build your house and grow the food you need to eat for a year, then “you’re a farmer.” But I’m like, that’s more of a settler.

Dillon Honcoop:
Well, and really if you’re a subsistence farmer then everybody has to be a farmer.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly.

Dillon Honcoop:
Because you’re just growing the food for yourself.

Niels Brisbane:
You’re just growing food for yourself. So it’s like realizing that, and again, this probably feeds back into the problem of why we have less and less farmers is like, we need more farmers so then, or maybe the farms we have can just produce more, and so then less people have to farm so they produce a little bit more, so then less people farm. It like feeds into itself.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s what I think we’ve been seeing.

Niels Brisbane:
I think so.

Dillon Honcoop:
And I think it gets worse than when people start to demonize that.

Niels Brisbane:
And actually criticize the beast they’ve created, which is interesting. It’s like, if you want the farms to be smaller, you should go start farming. It’s maybe the answer. I don’t know.

Dillon Honcoop:
What does it feel like to be at this place where you have this growing understanding of not just the science, not just the nutrition, not just the food and the art, but now looking at the business side of it and all of these things coming together. That’s kind of where you start talking about the word system. Right?

Niels Brisbane:
Absolutely. Focusing on food systems is kind of a project that’s the next phase. It kind of gets back to the, “How do we make a million of them” question. I mean, restaurants are so great because you have a small, like you only have to feed 150, like in Canlis’s case, like we feed 150 people a night. That’s it. And if it’s different from one night to the next, they enjoy that. You don’t get a slap on the wrist for that.

And so it allows you to be very dynamic. But on the downside, you’re feeding only 150 people a night, and 150 people can’t consume that much food. And so it’s like you spend a lot of time. So like, I spent all this time sourcing five different types of milk but at the end of the day I’m serving people these tiny little portions and telling them this huge elaborate story, which is super fun and great. But it’s like, I’m only buying a couple gallons a month or maybe a week, like maybe three gallons a week.

That is not going to substan… like, and that’s not going to help any farmer really on their bottom line. I mean, I’m sure they love the press. I’m sure they love the Instagram post, but like ultimately they’re running a business and they need to sell more than three gallons a week. And so that made me realize like, okay, the next step is figuring out how to create a larger buyership essentially because I know that’s something I can do, is how do we create a system that can actually, move product and start to work on those outlet things that I was, you know…

How do we create those products through great marketing and great, having just really delicious products to start? And how do we then take the burden off of farmers needing to take that leap of faith and be like… I mean, how is a farmer getting produce the world’s like next greatest cheese where it’s like they have zero… they’re starting from zero? Just because they produce milk doesn’t inherently mean that they know how to make chees

So there’s a disconnect for some like I come from the food world. Like I know how to make cheese, I know how to make a delicious wheat product. And so one of my… I had taken a huge amount of inspiration from the head baker at Grand Central, actually it’s a local bakery here in the city, Mel. And she’s the head baker there and has been doing it for like over two decades and has been working really hard.

I mean, I think she’s got it down to this point where she’s only sourcing Washington flour and it’s like, that is taken 20 years of nonstop work. And now she’s not only getting it down to Washington flour, but she’s getting it down to like individual. Like there’s a farm out in Walla Walla, Small’s farm that’s doing a really, really incredible job with flour. And he built a little mill and he’s a character and a half. And I would laugh.

He would come into the restaurant and he’d talked to you about, why the flour is going to be a little different this year because it’s coming from here. And it’s like she’s working really hard to continue to narrow down. But she’s also baking hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of loaves per day. And they’ve got multiple cafes. And so she actually represents a pretty big buyership.

And so she actually carries some weight in the flour world, and she can go to different markets or she could approach a farmer and be like, plant, I don’t know, 600 acres of wheat and I’ll take it in the first quarter. And it’s like, wow, that pencils out really nicely for me and that’s a great option. And here’s a mill that we can get it milled at and cleaned at. And so building more models like that, which again, like, yes, it’s not the rustic bakery where he’s producing 25 loaves a day and like that’s really beautiful on Instagram stories and all those different pieces.

But you’re not feeding people that drives costs up and you just aren’t, it helps one farmer maybe. But it’s like, if you really want to create these larger food systems, you have to be thinking about that next size up. And so Mel’s done it. She’s my food hero and she’s done a really incredible job at Grand Central working on that. And to me that level of thought and care needs to be put into every other area. So the dairy industry, the fishing industry, the meat industry, the vegetable growers, berry growers, they all need a Mel type person that can actually dictate change and support it financially on the backside and is willing to do that.

Dillon Honcoop:
So is that what’s next for you? I know you’re working-

Niels Brisbane:
That’s what’s next.

Dillon Honcoop:
… on a project that hasn’t been launched, isn’t really public yet. How much can you share with us right now?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, so right now I’m working with several companies doing like business development and product development. So it’s all about, and a couple of them are more of my babies than others. And we’ll potentially take over all of my work. But it’s all about leaning on how we can really move product and checking all those boxes that you talked about earlier. It’s like how do we make something that’s healthy for people and shelf stable and produce locally and has nice packaging and actually is moved in a volume that, we can go to farmers and make requests and have them again perk up and be like, you want that? Like nobody’s ever asked me for that before. Let me do the numbers. That makes sense. That works for me. Like let’s do it. And that’s how you can move the needle and then all of a sudden-

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s where the disconnect usually happens, because farmers are like, “Hey, we can do this in quantity,” and consumers are like, “Well, but no, we want something that’s more artisan and more hands on. And so farmers, why don’t you do this. Farmers, this is what we want.” And farmers are like, “I can’t afford to do that. Well, maybe I could, but I’m not sure if I can make the risk to switch to something like that.” So that’s where that gap always seems to where that gap is. So one of the-

Niels Brisbane:
And it’s a huge disconnect. And that was like, that was something we would come into conflict with at the restaurant, because even with… I mean, we even were willing to like finance things for farmers like, great, let’s buy all your seeds so that you can grow this specialty thing for us. And figuring out ways to play ball with them so that the risk wasn’t all in their court. But people don’t realize it’s like, I mean, farming is not a high margin industry, and so trying something new, a small margin on a small number is not worth their time and headache and amount of effort to like… I mean, doing something new takes a lot of mental energy and if it’s not going to pay off, they’re just going to stick to the bulk thing and as they should because that’s what makes sense. And so-

Dillon Honcoop:
Have you had to explain that to people who don’t understand? Well, what do you say to people who are like, well, why don’t farmers do X?

Niels Brisbane:
I would say I’m getting better at explaining it to people. I mean, it’s an uphill battle and part of it is people don’t understand business well enough. And to me that should be like, that should be what high school is, is like teaching you business and probably mostly through like getting jobs. But people that don’t understand business is probably the biggest disconnect. And they just think that, these farmers are swimming in money or honestly that business people are swimming in money, like starting a business it’s just instantly makes you rich and it’s like, nothing’s further from the truth. My uncle has a say. He’s like, “The fastest way to make $1 million is to start a $5 million business.” So 4 million in the hole and you got 1 million leftover. So there you go, you’re a millionaire. And so-

Dillon Honcoop:
So true.

Niels Brisbane:
So there’s that piece in just trying to explain the economics of it, but honestly like experience is kind of the only real teacher in that. So encouraging people to be like, great, put some numbers on a page and like, show me a business plan where what you want makes sense. And there’s no farmer that, if you have a business plan that makes sense, wouldn’t try it. Those are not farmers, but most of them are going to give it a shot and they’re going to be like, “Well, if it makes sense on paper, it’s good enough for me. I’ll give it a shot.” So that’s trying to get people to actually wrestle with the problem of like, even in there, trying to come up with analogies can help, but there’s no real experience. Like experience is the teacher.

Dillon Honcoop:
And this whole journey, what’s been the most challenging, difficult, hard thing for you personally?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, probably this thing that makes life hard, which is people, and trying to… like the politics of all of it and figuring out how to move things forward when there’s 100 reasons not to. And it’s like an asking, trying to get groups to, everything from like you’ll work really hard to get to groups of people to finally like, mutually trust and get excited about a project and then have it fall through. And then, you’re just adding to the distrust of that’s already out there.

Dillon Honcoop:
And what’s the distrust? What does that look like?

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, even just like simple things like, it’s not like a systemic problem, but just like of one person. If a farmer needs a piece of equipment and they’re like, well, if you like, I need this piece of equipment and I’m willing to buy it because I’ve got that CapEx sitting on hand, but you have to promise me that you’re going to buy for the next three years like this much so that my business plan works out, and everyone’s excited and everyone’s like, okay, we’re going to do it.

Niels Brisbane:
And then, from the higher ups on the other side, the product gets pulled and they’re like, sorry, we have to back out. Like, even if we’re going to get beat up on this contract a little bit, but it’s like then the farmer’s stuck sitting on that piece of equipment and they just took a huge loss and it’s like all understandable because somebody has to take that risk and that just adds. So then it like, it makes those farmers like, I’m not going to do that again. That was really dumb. So it’s like, it creates a distrust between… honestly like a distrust of like change and a distrust of trying new things, which is fair.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about trust of farming from the public? I think about that in terms of you saying that farming needs a facelift. That tells me that there’s a problem and I feel that too. I guess I’m just curious from your perspective, what is that problem? What do they see farming as right now, and how is that right and wrong?

Niels Brisbane:
I think they see farming as this like old system of that’s like archaic on some level and has no, I don’t know the best way to put it. But it’s like it’s an archaic way of thinking and operating. And so like trying to think of a way where people can view that as the trade that it is and the skill and the amount of knowledge that’s there and the amount of hard work that’s there and the amount of stress that’s there.

Niels Brisbane:
I mean, there are ultimately a whole bunch of small business owners, which I think is what this country is supposed to prize as like the most championed group, but it doesn’t right now and that’s a little sad. So I don’t know. I don’t know exactly. I mean, I know how to like, or I have some ideas of how to potentially create that facelift of just two groups of people not really knowing each other is maybe what like the best way to describe it.

Niels Brisbane:
And so they need to interface with each other too because it’s like nobody, it’s the same problem of like the divisiveness that’s going on is because people aren’t sitting in a room talking. And it’s like you can often, you realize how similar people really are when you’re sitting across from each other sharing a meal or buying their product or anything else. And so that is it’s two groups of people that don’t understand one another.

Niels Brisbane:
If you grew up in a city, it’s like going to another country, going to Lynden sometimes. And not in a bad way. Like it’s just very different. And honestly, I think a lot of Seattleites would really enjoy their time there, and a lot of Lyndenites would, if they could get around the traffic, would really enjoy the city. Like they’re two great groups of people and they need to understand one another.

Niels Brisbane:
And I mean, for me, food is all about bringing people together and it’s about creating community. And when you share delicious food, pretty much all other things fall away. And so when you have farmers producing fantastic food and needing to sell it to large amounts of people, they are two groups of people that should get along very, very well. And there’s just that middleman that’s been, that’s difficult.

Niels Brisbane:
So it’s like, I mean, the amount of money that people will pay for something at like a farmer’s market can be astronomical because they’re looking at someone in the face and they know how much work it was for them. And they’re like, $12 for a gallon of milk, no problem. Like, I’ll pay that. And that’s just doesn’t exist in the current system. And so not that I think all farmers should go to the farmer’s market, like that’s not a business model that will work for everyone either. Like this is still the 21st century and we have to operate accordingly. But there’s businesses that can be created to help bridge those gaps and tell those stories and move things forward in a different way.

Dillon Honcoop:
I feel like there’s so much we could talk about here and I’m just loving the things that you’re saying because you’re coming from this different perspective. But it resonates so much with my experience and the things that I’ve been seeing, and I like the optimism too that you’re bringing not just talking about the problems, but you’re so much more focused on the solutions.

Niels Brisbane:
That’s all that really matters.

Dillon Honcoop:
Thank you for opening up about your passion for all of this and all the work that you’re doing. Really, you’re kind of between two worlds and working to connect them. It sounds like it’s what you’re all about. So I’m really excited to see what happens with your ventures and I’m pumped for when we can find out more specifics-

Niels Brisbane:
Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
… and open door for when you want to come back on the podcast-

Niels Brisbane:
I would love to.

Dillon Honcoop:
… and tell us more about some of that stuff because I think you’ve got got cool stuff ahead.

Niels Brisbane:
Cool. Thank you so much.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People Podcast. These are the stories of the people who grow your food.

Dillon Honcoop:
Isn’t Niels such an interesting person, such a talented guy? And so crazy for me to meet somebody like that through this podcast who grew up in the same small farming town as I did. I think my sister, if I remember right, was in high school across country with his older brother. But seriously, that conversation we just heard was the first time that Niels and I had actually met in person.


So as I listened back now to that conversation with Niels, I realize we didn’t get very much out of him about how his new ventures to reconnect eaters with farms will actually work. But because of his passion for food and farming and because he’s obviously such a tenanted leader, I’m really excited to see what he does with that. I have a feeling we’ll be talking with him again down the road.


Make sure to subscribe to the Real Food, Real People Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Google Podcasts, and basically just about any other podcast platform you prefer to make sure you don’t miss any future conversations with Niels. And of course all of the other amazing conversations with farmers and people behind the food that we eat here in the Pacific Northwest. Also, feel free to email me any time with thoughts that you have on the show. Whatever it is that you’re thinking about, good, bad, otherwise, I’m all ears. dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email address. Dillon is, D-I-L-L-O-N @realfoodrealpeople.org.

Announcer:
The Real Food, Real People podcast is sponsored in part by Save Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at savefamilyfarming.org.

Niels Brisbane part 1 | #005 01/13/2020

Award-winning Seattle chef Niels Brisbane is reconnecting with his farm-town roots to champion farmers' importance in establishing a cuisine of the Pacific Northwest. In this first half of their wide-ranging conversation, he and Dillon tackle science, art, nutrition, agriculture and much more.

Transcript

Niels Brisbane:
It’s pretty incredible what the Pacific Northwest has to offer and really plugging you in with lots of farm visits, lots of manufacturer visits, actually, these are the purveyors you can get this from.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
This week we hear about the personal journey of a guy who became a sous-chef at one of Seattle’s top restaurants, but that’s not what he set out to do. It’s an incredible story. We actually had such an amazing conversation that I’ve split this into two parts. This week is the first part with Niels Brisbane and him telling his personal story from sports to science to art, all relating to food and now how he’s become passionate about farming and farmers. He’s trying to change our regional food system. An incredible story. Take a listen. Also, make sure to catch next week as well as we continue this story with Niels Brisbane.

Dillon Honcoop:
Basically, you started off as a wrestler and you wanted to be a scientist was the starting point, right?

Niels Brisbane:
It was the starting point, yes.

Dillon Honcoop:
What were you doing? You were down in California?

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, yeah. I started down in California. I was at UC Davis, which is just outside of Sacramento. I was there. I was studying biology. Like I said, I was there as a wrestler, which was fantastic. I loved being a part of the team.

Niels Brisbane:
Shortly after starting, after the first season, it was springtime at some point, it was 2010. The financial crisis had really started to put the squeeze now. It had been a couple of years, so now the financial crisis was really squeezing on the universities. We had just gotten a brand new dean. She decided she needed to create some funds. She cut women’s crew, which needed a lot of funding. Because of Title IX, she had to find men’s sports to cut as well. She ended up dropping men’s wrestling, men’s swimming and diving. Anyway, she had to free up some funds.

Niels Brisbane:
She dropped the program, which was a bit of an identity crisis for all of those athletes. We had people transfer out. People deal with it in all sorts of ways. UC Davis is, for its biological sciences, is top 25 in the nation at the time. They’ve actually moved up since then. For me, athletics, while absolutely I’m crazy about them, were an avenue to get into, to leverage towards great academics.

Niels Brisbane:
I decided to stay at Davis. The university wasn’t totally brutal to us. They let us keep our athlete status, so we still got a lot of the benefits of being athletes in a college.

Dillon Honcoop:
Even though you weren’t able to-

Niels Brisbane:
Even though we weren’t practicing it. We continued to practice for a while. At first, there was everything from writing letters to doing some demonstrations and having other coaches come in and try to support and do a lot of lobbying to try to get them to reverse this action. None of it stuck.

Niels Brisbane:
Then I was in school. But still, even during that time out of Linden now and having to feed myself for the first time, and then as an athlete there’s that next level of how do I feed myself well, how do I make sure I’m getting all the nutrition that I need. They were trying to basically get me to move up a weight class or be larger in my weight class. Wrestling is always this tight dance of you want to be the largest possible without bumping up into that next weight class.

Dillon Honcoop:
A lot of body manipulation.

Niels Brisbane:
A lot of body manipulation. Actually, it was really interesting. While I was working at Washington State, one of the PhD students there, she was a nutritionist and had spent time at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado and just a really, really intelligent lady who we always had a lot of really nerdy conversations together.

Niels Brisbane:
She had always talked about that she worked with the wrestlers specifically and just how obsessed they were with nutrition. She was a dietician and all these other … versus some of the other athletes that they were very concerned about diet and all these different things; if their weight fluctuates, if they … They’ve got a lot more to play with versus wrestlers are very, very tight. She said it was the only team that was basically 100% organic. They only ate organic foods. They were very concerned with what they ate. I was like, yeah, that’s wrestlers.

Niels Brisbane:
While down at Davis, I was studying sciences, was focused … At the time, I had some very … everything from physical therapy to something in the medicines to very much thinking about health from the traditional pharmacological standpoint.

Niels Brisbane:
Then as we … I don’t know exactly why. I think it was just the nutrition class, Nutrition 101, we had a very, very well-regarded professor. She was published all around the country, considered in the best of her field. Me and a couple of the other athletes took her class. It was amazing to me how little there was of substance on some level where they’re breaking things down into such … Nutrition as a field is a very young field. Nutritionists would tell you this. It’s only been around … it’s really been studied for … I can’t remember when it exactly was founded, but it’s less than 100 years. It’s only been studied and focused on for not very long.

Niels Brisbane:
Tests haven’t been really great as well as usually nutritional testing requires you to survey people and basically be like, “What did you eat last week, and how did it make you feel.” Those are questions that people aren’t really great at answering anyway. Just the feel of nutrition is a really difficult field. It needs a lot more support and it needs a lot more help, but then also just realizing, oh, there’s not … It’s in its infant stages and it’s not ready for the application necessarily.

Niels Brisbane:
It was incredible to work with these incredible professors and realize that there’s not a lot that I can actually glean and use in my athletic endeavors other than eat whole foods and eat more vegetables and eat fruits and eat protein from good, clean sources and stuff like that.

Niels Brisbane:
That was interesting which then pushed me, basically the lack of formula to nutrition and realizing; a. Oh, this is just a really complicated science. There’s the best people are working on this and we just don’t know yet.

Niels Brisbane:
Coming to that point, I was also then living with my best friend down there and a fellow wrestler. He was just a phenomenal cook. He had grown up doing some cooking. He grew up in Japan and then moved to Hawaii after that and was just really very talented in the kitchen. We were all weird wrestlers that were focused on nutrition and eating and not huge partiers.

Niels Brisbane:
When most Saturdays people would be sleeping in and do all this other stuff, we would be traveling 45 minutes to go to our favorite Japanese grocery store and pick out which type of soy sauce we wanted.

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s different types of soy sauce?

Niels Brisbane:
Oh yeah, there’s tons of different types of soy sauce, yeah. That was always my favorite. He’d be like, “You can’t put that soy sauce on fish. That’s like a meat sauce or that’s for beef and that’s for vegetables,” and this sauce and that sauce and just learning about these cultures that have such a deep respect for their food. They’ve thought about it for a very long time. Japan, there’s a reason it is just a culinary mecca.

Niels Brisbane:
He was a great teacher. He was very passionate about Japanese cuisine. I learned a ton from him. Also, being athletes, we were competitive. We’d actually prepare each other meals trying to one-up each other constantly. It’s the most friendly competition ever. We did, we were cooking all the time. We were cooking from scratch and realizing what that does to your body and how that makes you feel. It was very eye-opening for me and really just opened up the Pandora’s Box of, oh, if you want to influence how people eat, then you have to be able to produce something delicious. That’s the baseline of everything.

Dillon Honcoop:
Your starting point was science more though.

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
But then really, through this friend, brought in the art of it too.

Niels Brisbane:
Absolutely. Absolutely.

Dillon Honcoop:
Now in your position, having been a chef in a fine-dining restaurant in Seattle, Canlis, and all the other things … but you’ve also researched with the university and done all the science-y stuff, you consider yourself more of a scientist or an artist?

Niels Brisbane:
Oh man. I don’t know. I think I would consider myself more of a scientist. I think that the art piece of it is … it’s like culinary school. The first week they’re like, “Do you have a trade or is cooking a trade or is it an art?” I think that whenever they wanted to waste class time, they would bring up that topic. People would just go at it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Is that okay for it to be just a trade?

Niels Brisbane:
I think so. I think the trades are heavily under-respected.

Dillon Honcoop:
What about at culinary art school, I’m sure that they wanted it to be understood on a higher plane than just a job, right?

Niels Brisbane:
Right. Yeah, they did.

Dillon Honcoop:
It’s an artistic expression.

Niels Brisbane:
Right. I get that, but also I think it’s the trade of hospitality and the trade of being able to take care of someone like that. I don’t know. I’ve thought about this. On some level, I almost feel like building a table or even … that can be a piece of art, or you can build a table and have it just be totally utilitarian. Is IKEA producing art? I think that would be a hard point to argue. There’s woodworkers out there, there’s tens of thousands of dollars for one of their tables. Is that a piece of art or are they just a really skilled tradesman?

Niels Brisbane:
I don’t know. On some level, I think that for it to be … art has a certain provocative nature to it. It’s not just consumed or enjoyed. It has to create thought.

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s a message.

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, there’s a message behind it. It changes the price point. I think there can be very artful food that costs $10 for a portion or whatever else. It doesn’t have to Instagram well to be art.

Dillon Honcoop:
You were trained as a scientist. You got your degree in biology.

Niels Brisbane:
I did, yeah.

Dillon Honcoop:
At UC Davis.

Niels Brisbane:
At UC Davis, yup.

Dillon Honcoop:
Then were you going to get a job doing biology stuff or-

Niels Brisbane:
No.

Dillon Honcoop:
You mentioned also then going to culinary art school, which was the next step. What was between there, and what launched [crosstalk 00:13:00]?

Niels Brisbane:
Getting married was in between there. That was my three months off in between the two.

Dillon Honcoop:
Nice.

Niels Brisbane:
I went for a more traditional science school or a more traditional biology track but under the biology degree, UC Davis gave a good amount of latitude as far as what classes you wanted to take. While I was there, I’d been cooking more and more and was just really loving it, really falling in love with the science of cooking and the science of taste and perception. You quickly get into psychology and just the fingers that cooking has all of it in all of these different pies of study.

Niels Brisbane:
Towards the end, I really started creating more of a course towards food science. UC Davis has a phenomenal brewing school and a phenomenal viticulture and analogy school as well as a really highly regarded food science school. I got to take a lot of those classes. I got to study under one of the top brewing scientists in the world, got to go to France and study wine in Burgundy for a couple of months as well as just taking some really phenomenal food science classes and diving deep into that and really getting an understanding of not only why we cook as a society but how it’s done and how those subtle manipulations of what’s a mired reaction versus caramelization and why are they different. Why does that matter? How do you do things differently with them?

Niels Brisbane:
Towards the end, the last two years, I didn’t want to add on a fifth year and actually switch to a food science degree. I knew as soon as I started cooking, no one would actually care that I have a degree. I just basically took as much food science courses as I could, which they both food science. They had a lot of overlap. I left with a biology degree but had heavy emphasis on food as well in that degree.

Dillon Honcoop:
Only three months later, you decided to go on to culinary arts.

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah. When I graduated in June, I had already applied and was starting cooking school that next fall. I had the summer off, got married.

Dillon Honcoop:
Where was that?

Niels Brisbane:
That was here in Seattle. Yeah, Seattle Culinary Academy. We had moved back. My wife had just finished her Master’s down in Sacramento. We knew we wanted to move back to Washington. I chose a school here. It turned out to be a really incredible, incredible experience. It’s a community college program. It’s a beautiful school. They’ve done a really good job with the aesthetic of it. The staff at the time was just really phenomenal. They went above and beyond their job descriptions to make that experience fantastic for their students.

Niels Brisbane:
They really focused on sourcing, on what the Pacific Northwest has to offer, which is pretty incredible what the Pacific Northwest has to offer and really plugging you in with lots of farm visits, lots of manufacturer visits, actually, okay, these are the purveyors you can get this from. Call Hank and he’ll get it to you, those really helpful pieces of information.

Niels Brisbane:
It wasn’t just classical French cooking. They did a really good job of being like, yeah, that’s the classics and this is where we’ve taken it and this is where you’ll actually be cooking at this level. Really, it was the plugging into the sourcing that was the most invaluable piece of information and then the way that they just thought about sustainability.

Niels Brisbane:
It’s like, well, if we’re fishing for all this stuff, there should really be a policy of everything you catch, you have to sell or something so that you’re not just fishing. You catch five … I catch for every one regular fish you want or whatever the numbers are. How do we think about utilizing that? How do you think about food when it’s not just putting a piece of protein in the center of the plate? What if it’s a tiny fish? Americans don’t love to eat tiny fish, so how do we prepare that in a way that’s different and delicious? Again, it has to make it over that deliciousness bar. If it’s sustainable and well thought out and artistic or anything else, it has to make it above that. If it’s not delicious, people are just going to think you’re a fraud.

Dillon Honcoop:
How different was that culinary arts program because it was in Seattle, and was that part of the reason why you wanted to come back up here to Washington?

Niels Brisbane:
It was important. I wanted to be back in the Pacific Northwest. It depends why you want to cook, ultimately. If you’re cooking to show people how good you are at cooking, then you should be able to do that anywhere. Part of what would be so impressive is that I can go anywhere in the world and I can take any ingredient and I can make it delicious. It’s about me. That’s fine. There’s certainly nothing wrong with cooking like that, but that wasn’t my goal for getting into cooking.

Niels Brisbane:
I knew that from the start, that cooking was a way to … I have to get over the hurdle of being able to cook well and get people to enjoy my food in order for me to then source in a way and move product in a way that creates a more sustainable system. For me, it came back to improving Washington’s food systems. Cooking is a great way to do that, and how do I do that? It was like, well, okay, I’ll learn how to cook and that’ll be the first step.

Niels Brisbane:
Not having it in Seattle would have been very counter to that. For me, if you’re not plugged into the region here, then you’re making the cooking about solely just your improving, which, again, is not a bad thing, but kill two birds with one stone.

Dillon Honcoop:
There’s also a reason though why different cuisines are not only culturally based with the human element but also regionally based. It’s a geographical influence, and that’s where cuisine is different here than … I guess here’s my question: what is the Pacific Northwest cuisine? Really, it’s a young culture out here aside from the First Nations people, the Native Americans that were here. What is that? [crosstalk 00:20:37] different than French food. You talked about Japanese food earlier. They have so much history behind those places.

Niels Brisbane:
Japanese is a huge part of this culture. I don’t think you can claim that the Pacific Northwest has an identity without the Japanese culture having a huge seat at the table. Same with the Filipino cultures. The Korean cultures have a really big presence here. Basically, anyone around the Pacific rim, especially if they had anything to do with the fishing industries, they all gravitated towards this place. It’s Norwegians and Japanese and all these fishing communities from around the world. The all converged here. They all had a very heavy hand in shaping this place into what it’s become.

Niels Brisbane:
I don’t think that the Pacific Northwest has a cohesive cuisine at all. In general, there’s not a ton of strong cuisines even throughout the US in general. I would say that even early on in my cooking, that was one of the questions I wanted to play a hand in defining is what is the cuisine here. I don’t think it’ll ever be as defined as the Italian cuisine or French cuisine or any of those because we no longer live in an isolationist world. You can’t fully develop it in a way without it being morphed and shaped. I also don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that’s part of our cuisine as well.

Dillon Honcoop:
How much is it influenced by the food that we grow here?

Niels Brisbane:
I don’t think it’s influenced enough by it. I think it should be very defined by that. You go deep down the rabbit hole and people are like what’s from “Washington”? Cabbage isn’t from Washington originally. There was no cabbage being grown here 1,000 years ago. It’s not native to Washington.

Dillon Honcoop:
You can grow just about anything here.

Niels Brisbane:
Exactly. You can grow just about anything here. To me, the long-term would be anything that you can grow “sustainably” in the area, sustainably being it doesn’t destroy the soils and you’re able to have multi-tiered business models that are able to operate multi-generationally. There’s a consumer base that’s willing to buy into that product for multi-generational. Again, that to me is sustainable is basically is it a business that will work long-term and businesses that just deplete the area …

Niels Brisbane:
There’s a reason the logging industry took a nosedive eventually. It’s because it wasn’t a sustainable model because they weren’t able to turn it over fast enough. Eventually, it was cheaper to go to Brazil or go to these other places. Now logging is very sustainable. They had to find that tipping point of can we do this. Can we plant as fast as we can tear down? Once you can do that, then you’ve got a good business model.

Niels Brisbane:
Figuring that out for the Pacific Northwest, to me, yeah, if it can be grown here, it can be part of Washington cuisine. Whether it should be grown here is always the question whether it’s a good utilization of the land or whether it can be a good return. Should we be growing something that is …

Niels Brisbane:
Dr. Jones is working on … He’s like shouldn’t be growing commodity wheat on this side of the mountains because the soil’s too fertile basically. If you’re going to grow grain, it should be a specialty grain, a premium grain of some sort. Otherwise, there’s single farms on the east side that are bigger than the entire Skagit Valley.

Dillon Honcoop:
Explain. You said Dr. Jones. Who is that? This is WSU Bread Lab?

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah. This is Dr. Stephen Jones. He is the head of the WSU Bread Lab which is a plant breeding lab that’s doing traditional cross pollination to come up with new wheat, barley, rye, buckwheat varieties. They work on a little bit of everything and then actually finding markets. He does the plant breeding but then he also plays a hand in finding the markets for those. If the markets don’t exist, then advocating for those products and trying to create markets. He’s been fairly influential. He’s been written up in everything from The New York Times to all sorts of things.

Niels Brisbane:
I worked for him for a year helping establish the culinary director position. He’s done incredible things for the bread world. It was how do we get this into the food world more. You can just eat wheat. There’s more ways to eat wheat than just in bread. You can make delicious porridges or there’s lots of risottos or whatever else.

Dillon Honcoop:
You were involved with that but now you’re moving on to your own venture. I know you haven’t launched that yet. Maybe in a little bit we’ll bug you to see how much we can get out of you, a little sneak preview maybe of what you’re up to.

Dillon Honcoop:
Before that though, I want to go back. We should talk about you went through culinary art school. The next stepping stone was Canlis Restaurant?

Niels Brisbane:
Correct.

Dillon Honcoop:
In Seattle here?

Niels Brisbane:
Yup, yup. I actually even started at Canlis while I was still in school. I did an internship for them part-time in the restaurant world. It was 40 hours a week. After school, I would go to the restaurant and work until closing, midnight or so. On Saturdays, I would do double shifts, essentially. Saturdays and Mondays I would do that. I think one or two other days a week I would go after school and was working for free for them, which they always loved.

Dillon Honcoop:
For people who don’t know, describe what Canlis is.

Niels Brisbane:
Canlis is … I don’t know, I think it might actually be their 70th birthday this year. I can’t quite remember, but late ’60s, early ’70. 1950, they were a restaurant founded by Peter Canlis. It is well-established. They’ve always done that fine dining, higher price point meals. They’ve been very well respected for a long time. There’s the sheer longevity piece of it but then they’ve also done a decent job of always staying modern as well. Really, as food has taken this turn from back in the ’80s and ’90s, fine dining was flying something from across the world. Now fine dining is I picked it from the garden that you walked by as you came in. It’s been a total shift. They’ve done a really good job of modernizing with that.

Dillon Honcoop:
They champion that, eating local.

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, they have.

Dillon Honcoop:
In fine dining in particular.

Niels Brisbane:
Right, yeah. Originally, they had multiple locations. One of them was in … I think it was in Honolulu. Regardless, it was in the Hawaiian Islands. They would actually fly Washington salmon to the Honolulu location, and then they would fly Mahi Mahi back. Eating locally but also sourcing in these unique ways, that was a big part of what they were doing.

Niels Brisbane:
Especially the last couple of chefs, Jason Franey and then now Brady Williams, they were focused on more sourcing locally. Especially when Brady came along, that was a really big change in focus. It was like, how do we source more locally and really champion what’s going on here.

Niels Brisbane:
I had been working under Jason Franey, the previous chef, for a few months. He left to a restaurant down in California. We were without a chef for a little interim there. They ended up hiring me on as a cook. I started cooking there. A little bit later, Brady Williams was hired and started with us. I started as a cook underneath him. Relatively quickly, I’d come in and was working on a lot of my own projects, coming in a couple of hours before my shifts and working on dishes that excited me and just trying to keep finessing those skills and exercise that creative piece before, which you just have to do before a 12-hour shift of just executing food straight, it’s very routine. It’s nice to have a little creative outlet before that.

Niels Brisbane:
I’d been working on that. He’s very, very creative and very artistic. I have more of the scientific approach to things. He and I just had a very symbiotic relationship early on. He would often, as I started working on projects, was like, “Chef, Chef, will you try this?” He’d be like, “Okay, yeah, this is cool, but I would add this ingredient.” It would be like, “I never would have thought of that,” because that’s so obscure.

Dillon Honcoop:
What kind of stuff?

Niels Brisbane:
Oh man.

Dillon Honcoop:
I’d just love to have an example so I can start to get hungry here.

Niels Brisbane:
I’d be working on a dish with … I don’t know, you can never remember all the dishes now. Maybe you’re doing duck. You’ve got some classic sauces or a classic pairing of some sort of sweet cherry chutney or something like that. You’ve got some sort of greens on there. He’d try it and he’ll be like, “You know what this needs, mole,” which is a traditional oaxacan from a southern Mexican style sauce that has ground pumpkin seeds and chocolate and all these heavy spices. You wouldn’t traditionally think to pair duck with mole and cherries. I maybe had worked on this dish and gotten it to a point. He would come in and basically say, “It needs this and it needs that. Maybe you should add some sorrel leaf oil,” or something like that.

Niels Brisbane:
Then I could go back and work on all of that and make those changes and find not only a way to make mole but maybe spice it up a little bit, do something a little different, put some flair on it and then bring it back. There would always be this dialog of, “Add this. Take this away.” We just had a good relationship. I was always documenting, always making sure that everything was very linear and just step by step by step by step.

Dillon Honcoop:
The scientist.

Niels Brisbane:
The scientist. He could just come in, and in a good way, wipe the table blank and throw in new things. We just had a good relationship. He quickly promoted me to sous-chef. I ended up running the menu development piece. It was the two of us.

Niels Brisbane:
Chefs don’t have the luxury of always being in the kitchen day in and day out. They’re essentially CEOs is what people don’t realize. We call them chefs but they act more like a CEO. They’ve got to write schedules and do financials and all these other pieces. I’m sure farmers are very familiar with it too. They’re like, “You just get to spend time with cows all the time.” They’re like, “I could be a CPA.” They have all these other skillsets. The chef always has to delegate a lot of these tasks to everyone else. I had the joy of doing the menu development and then the fermentation and focusing a lot more on how fermentation can affect flavor and how it can make things delicious. That was a really fantastic rabbit hole to dive down.

Dillon Honcoop:
This fascinates me. I always wonder, what goes on behind the scenes? How do they come up with these new menu items, and what does someone who’s really creative in the culinary arts do in a kitchen like that? Granted, it’s fine dining, so there’s going to be probably more risks taken and newer things tried than your average restaurant. Still, you’ve got to make sure that the menu items are available. That’s the meat and potatoes of your feeding the customers day in and day out. When do you actually get to play around? That’s interesting, you say you were actually coming in early initially to do that.

Niels Brisbane:
Yeah, yeah, for sure.

Dillon Honcoop:
Until you proved … You have to be pretty darn good at this to get to where you got.

Niels Brisbane:
It’s one of those things that when you’re doing it, it doesn’t seem like a new idea. You’ll do 100 iterations of something. There’s just a tiny little step that doesn’t seem like a genius idea in between those 100 iterations. Then from going from zero to 100, someone coming in from the outside, they only see that as one giant leap. They don’t see that as 100 tiny steps.

Niels Brisbane:
People, they do, they come in and they’re like, “That’s genius.” It doesn’t feel genius. It feels like a lot of work. I think that’s true in any industry. It’s all these tiny little steps and then all of a sudden people come from the outside and they’re like, “How did you ever think of that?” You’re like, “Two years is how I thought of that of actively thinking about this problem and having 99 bad versions of this or incomplete versions at the very least.”

Niels Brisbane:
That’s where, I think, again, the scientific approach because in science, you’re not really looking for success. You’re looking for failure always and how do I disprove my hypothesis. You’re constantly working against yourself in a way. That’s my creative “process” is really just about tearing down what I did yesterday and making it a little bit better on some level and then having good oversight from a chef that knows when it’s ready. Also, just keeping the staff motivated.

Niels Brisbane:
The difference, really, from a fine dining place that puts effort into something like that, it eats through a lot of time. Everyone who owns a business, knows that time is money. Just being able to have the support to say … They, of course, have to invest in that. They can’t just keep the same menu year in and year out. It is out of necessity that they have to put that money in on some level, but allowing us to actually take the time. You still have to run a restaurant while doing all of this. That’s the difficult part.

Dillon Honcoop:
An answer to those people who are like, “This meal cost me 100 bucks. I could go down to the store and buy this all for 15.” Well, you’re paying for all of that development.

Niels Brisbane:
All of that development.

Dillon Honcoop:
And the art and the atmosphere and all those other things that go into that equation is huge.

Niels Brisbane:
Absolutely. Absolutely, which does make it … That is why on some level, to me, the pinnacle of food development is being able to mass produce that creativity on some level and being able to say, okay, I can create something that’s well-sourced and delicious and all these other things, and I can produce a million of them and it’ll cost you five bucks. That, to me, is like oh my gosh, that’s incredible. I’m so glad I had the time to just purely be creative and have the customer pay for it and then being willing and excited about sharing that experience of this is truly cutting edge. Now, to me the next step is, okay, how do we produce a million of them? That’s how you can create that big impact.

Dillon Honcoop:
What did it feel like though being in that creative world? You’re coming through culinary art school in Seattle, going to Canlis. It has to be pretty high on the list of where people want to go, things they want to do and being recognized then. I know you’ve won awards for your involvement there. What did that feel like to start to get into that, really get into that world?

Niels Brisbane:
It’s exciting. It’s fun. It’s consuming is probably the best way to put it. Consuming is both really exciting because it’s all you think about all the time. It’s also draining on all the other areas of your life when you’re consumed by this single piece. It’s very fun. There’s a reason it’s high burnout because it consumes everything for all the good and all the bad in that. It’s very exciting. It’s a lot of work, honestly. It is difficult.

Niels Brisbane:
We were talking before we hit record about the necessity to constrain creativity and what that does. I think that’s so important. Having to run a restaurant while being creative is one of those constraints. It’s like, “Oh, what does this dish need? Does it need more cinnamon in this mole or more pumpkin seed?” A cook comes up to you and they’re like, “Chef, halibut didn’t show up. What are we going to do?” You’re torn out of that world of it doesn’t matter which of those because you need to find a source of halibut right now. Someone needs to drive across town and pick up halibut and get their car all smelly because we need it tonight because it’s on the menu and people are expecting it.

Niels Brisbane:
There’s always just, on one hand, it’s really fun to have those really creative moments. You get one of those or two of those really great creative moments a month and then you just get the normal month’s amount of problems of just life. That’s what life is, right?

Dillon Honcoop:
Yeah.

Niels Brisbane:
It’s definitely fun. It was a good team there. The sous-chef team was fantastic. I think there was four of us, five of us. It varied from time to time, but each with our area that we ran. I got to play point on some of the menu development and fermentation and stuff like that, but it’s a team effort, absolutely. It’s fun to be part of that team where everyone is obsessed and consumed with it.

Dillon Honcoop:
Not something that everyone gets to do.

Niels Brisbane:
No, no.

Dillon Honcoop:
That’s very cool.

Niels Brisbane:
It’s very much like being part of a winning sports team or something like that where it’s contagious and it’s fun even though it’s long.

Announcer:
This is the Real Food, Real People Podcast.

Dillon Honcoop:
When Niels and I talked, we had so much to cover that I’ve decided to share the second half of our conversation with you next week. That will be the second part as we get more into farming and Niels’ vision for what can happen with our food system here in the Pacific Northwest, how that relates to amazing food, and what he plans to do next. As you could tell talking with him, he just has so much passion for this issue and wants to keep working, keep pushing the envelope of new things to change the way we think about food here in our region. Please make sure to pick up the second half of the conversation next week.

Dillon Honcoop:
As always, we’d love to hear from you: dillon@realfoodrealpeople.org is my email address. Please follow us as well on Instagram, on Facebook, as well as Twitter. Just check out Real Food, Real People on those platforms. Would love to have you share our content, subscribe on Apple podcast, Spotify and a bunch of other platforms we’re on now, or even just drop us a line. Give us your feedback on this show.

Announcer:
The Real Food, Real People Podcast is sponsored in part by Safe Family Farming, giving a voice to Washington’s farm families. Find them online at safefamilyfarming.org.`