Welcome to The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of your favorite impossible-to-get tables.
Carrie Van Dyck and her husband Ron Zimmerman founded The Herbfarm in 1986. Before farm to table was ever a concept, The Herbfarm has been practicing its tenets. Among its many distinctions, the restaurant is the only Pacific Northwest venue to receive AAA's 5-Diamond Award and was listed as one of America's top ten restaurants by Zagat. Carrie has been the hostess at The Herbfarm throughout. She also oversees reservations and the restaurant's staff.
Tell us a little bit about your background.
I am originally from New York. I grew up just outside of “The City,” halfway between Manhattan and Connecticut. I went to school in Boston and garnered a double degree in Psychology and Technical Theatre. Amazingly, both degrees have been incredibly useful in daily restaurant work.
It's 8pm on a Saturday. How long's the wait for a party with no reservations--does the restaurant take walk-ins?
Well, there would be no wait because The Herbfarm has one nightly seating for our 4-hour 9-course dinner with 6 wines. On Saturday night we seat our guests at 7PM. Prior to dinner, we invite guests to join our garden tour where we share the history of The Herbfarm and introduce people to some of the herbs that will be served that evening. The inner sanctum of the wine cellar is also open for touring prior to dinner. So, by 8pm, everyone has enjoyed the presentation by the chef and sommelier of the night’s menu and they are on their 2nd or 3rd courses and wines.
Any recent celebrity sightings?
My favorite celebrity sighting was Bill Cosby because he showed up in his usual outfit of sweats and tennis shoes and then he “helped” me give the garden tour! We ended up in competition as to who could be funnier. Cosby won of course, but he taught me a few tricks in the process.
Tell us about some of your favorite regulars
One New Year’s Eve at The Herbfarm a couple vowed to join us for each of our 22 dinner themes every year! It’s been several years and they have not missed a single one. Another couple decided that they want to be invited to our “Last Supper,” when Ron and I retire someday. So they’ve joined us almost monthly since then. We have a few families who have dined with us over the years and we’ve watched the kids grow up, become old enough to drink the matched wines (we also serve herbal, non-alcoholic beverages matched to the menu for those who don’t/can’t consume alcohol) , and, in some cases, return for dinner with their kids! I love watching the younger children sit through several hours of dining and enjoy every course!
What are some of the challenges you face regularly?
Retaining great staff is always a priority, as unexpected things in life often get in the way. The recession caused a two-year blip in business, but our staff and best vendors all pulled together. Now that the recession is pretty much over in this state, business is up again.
What are your personal favorite menu themes(I know they change often)?
I know, it may sound like a platitude to say that they are all like children and that I love them equally, but that’s the case. Since the themes roll with the seasons, each seems grounded and appropriate when its time comes.
I suppose if I had to pick one, the 100-Mile Dinner is always exciting, as it stretches the limits of what can be done with local foods. The premise is that every ingredient be sourced no more than 100-miles from our dining room. That means every ingredient. It is as if the rest of the world vanishes and we have to see what the foods of a 100-mile cuisine here in the Seattle area taste like without any outside influence.
So we make our own salt, create sugar from our sugar beets, ferment our own vinegars, grind flour and so forth. This dinner theme has led us to research how people created basic foods 200 years ago. We now know how to make our own rennet for cheese making. And we have “rediscovered” what was used before baking powder was invented in the 19th century.
What about when you're not at work? Where do you like to eat and drink?
My favorite place to eat is at home because my husband, Ron Zimmerman, was the first chef at The Herbfarm. His self-taught cooking garnered us 4 stars with our first review. I like to stay active. I’ve been swimming since I was pretty little. I’ve discovered other aspects of physical activity that keep me busy while Ron is cooking and also helps me keep up my end of the deal by having an appetite to eat his creations.
So, what's your most important gatekeeper tool?
Our excellent staff on the phones as well as in the dining room is our best “gatekeeper” tool. We have passionate staff who each really care about guest satisfaction. Everyone is involved constantly with ideas and feedback to make our dining experience better and better every day.
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