Fans of Skillet come in two forms: Long-time patrons remember the early days of seeking out the once elusive Airstream trailer while waiting in cold, rainy morning lines down SODO alleys and behind warehouses to get pork belly and cornmeal waffles. Newer converts gladly imbibe Bacon Jam Bloody Marys on Sunday mornings with a side order of grilled cheese with a fried chicken thigh on top.
If you are a frequent diner, you may have noticed that change has been afoot at Skillet in the recent past since chef Nick Novello has taken over the reins on the menu. Sure, you can still find heaping mountains of steaming hot poutine and classics like the fried chicken sandwich. But Novello is focusing on locally-sourced ingredients that are clearly more ‘New American'.
A sampling of new items on the menu include roasted Cauliflower Risotto with Beet Mascarpone and Butternut Squash, seared Ling Cod with Jowl Lardon, and Pork Belly Rillettes with Lime Cilantro Gelee. It's a mix of classics and new at Skillet, and Novello is driving the changes one step at a time. Eater sat down with the chef to talk about his story, motivation, and cooking style.
Where are you originally from?
I grew up in Orange County, CA. My dad was the Director of Operations at the Crab Pot and Fisherman's. As a kid I hung out with him a lot at the restaurants. I was drawn to what it meant to be a chef in the kitchen and wanted to do it ever since I was a kid. I remember watching them like they were rock stars. My uncle, George Sara, was also the executive chef for the Hilton and I remember looking at him like he was Batman!
What a great way to learn the business. So where did you get your start in food?
When I was 18, I moved to Port Skagway, Alaska, and opened a place called Restaurante Portabello. I went up to source my own team, found the right people and had a great time. I remember asking my dad if I needed a jacket before I left and he told me to take my pullover since it was summertime. And there I went from warmth and the beach to the polar opposite. From a massive density of people with money to this wide open frontier of working class folks.
Now that is a radical change. How did you manage in the Alaskan weather?
Well, for starters I learned a lot about quality seafood and what it meant to work hard. It led me to fall in love with the fish we have up here. In Alaska, I'd put a tote on dock behind the restaurant and write in chalk what I needed. When I came back in the morning I had that amount of fish in the bin. I stayed for ten months until it got cold and wintery and one of the partners wanted to buy us out. I asked folks around town what they did in the winter and they told me that they pretty much hibernate. I couldn't do that, so I had to get out.
So you escaped the Alaskan winter. Where did you end up?
I bought a $500 car -- even though I had a ticket to fly home in my back pocket the whole time. I had just turned 19 and 9/11 had just happened -- to be honest it freaked me out. I realized that I wanted to live my life to the point I could build upon the craft I love so much to be able to say I fulfilled my purpose. So I drove south for 10 or 11 months. I cooked for food, gas, places to stay -- and I became an expert on poutine in the process. I learned how alive this part of the world is. I duct taped the steering column of my car together so I could steer and said, "If I can make it there I will stay." And so I made it to Seattle. Next thing I know, I went for a couple job interviews and I got every single one of them.
Skillet Diner is more than biscuits and gravy and fried chicken sandwiches.
Where did you start cooking in Seattle?
My first job was at Olive Garden in Federal Way. They couldn't find anyone who could keep up with a 12-burner sauté station and I could. I did that for a while and then moved to Seattle and cooked for Shawn Kemp for a bit after that.
What about cooking motivates you?
Cooking for me is my perfect job. I get to do two things: 1. It's something I absolutely love and an essential outlet for who I am as a person. 2. I make people happy through food. It's a sickness I got through my dad (laughing) and it allows me to take care of my family. This work is extremely meaningful to me. My goal has always been for you to be able to walk in here on your shittiest or best day -- and have everything become better for you even if it's just for a brief moment in time.
When did you come to Skillet and what makes it special for you, compared to other places you've cooked?
I came to Skillet about a year and a half ago and am now the chef driving the menu across all of our locations. What I really enjoy about Skillet is that I'm not bound to this 360-mile radius kind of thing. I don't need to know big meat and big food in Seattle. I love for everything to be local but if I can find good product from places like Niman Ranch -- which has some of the best raised beef that I've had -- then I'll bring it in. I love to feature that for my diners. I want to use the best there is.
What's different about Skillet is that this is a place I can bring my family to, or have anybody come here to meet me for a meal. Even if I'm not here I know that they'll have a great time.
What changes do you plan to make, or have already made, to the menu?
Skillet Diner is more than biscuits and gravy and fried chicken sandwiches. It's an explosive, well-sourced Pacific Northwest style and menu. People are catching on but I want to change the game here a bit and draw new people in.
What culinary points do you want to emphasize with the menu and food here?
Accessibility is the name of the game here. Local 360 (where I came from) and Skillet are really close. I went to Toulouse Petit to take on the challenge of running a really big show. It was a huge challenge from a volume and diversity perspective. Here I have time to focus on how best to use out next seasonal crop and determine what will please our diners the most.
Josh Henderson is the well-known founder of Skillet. What's his role here going forward?
Josh is still part owner and his vision still involved but not on a day-to-day basis. We have quarterly brainstorming meetings and discuss the business in general.
Are there any expansion plans on the horizon?
I came here to be the Chef of Skillet -- not just Skillet Capitol Hill. The application of this type of business anywhere is needed. I would hope that we could be in places like West Seattle, Bellevue, or anywhere on the I-90 corridor on my way in to work.
For the diner who's never been to Skillet, or maybe the one who hasn't for a while -- why should they come in?
I brought who I am as a chef to the table here at Skillet. I want you to come back once a week. I jam-packed all my base and regional knowledge of American food, and from my four grandmothers (yes, I have four) into this menu.
To me, people find comfort in all different things. You may find it in biscuits and gravy, and some others might find it in a really nice salad. I want Skillet to appeal to your everyday style -- it's an American bistro place. Blink your eye and all of the sudden I can pick up the French menu -- like Le Pichet or Hannah's Kitchen. Sure, I've got some comfort food that'll put you to sleep. But I also have some that won't. The dinner menu definitely won't.