Finding southern cooking in Seattle can be a challenge. Sure, there are some places like The Kingfish Cafe and Sazerac that have been dishing up southern-style food for some time. As Seattle is a hyper-local food culture; we can get stuck in traditional Northwestern genres that, while good, lack something in the way of good old-fashioned heat and flavor.
In the past year, Matt Lewis' Restaurant Roux in Fremont has made a cannonball-sized splash on the Seattle food scene and chef Michael Robertshaw has brought the heat with his expertly prepared Cajun/Creole menu. And it's a hit, as evidenced by the packed dinner services and lines out the door for weekend brunch.
The guy is a big fan of meat. And we're not talking about the occasional pork chop. Sure, lots of chefs have tattoos nowadays, but how many have one of all the French cuts from a side of beef on their forearms? Eater spoke with Robertshaw about the use of meat in Creole cooking, his obsession with beef, and what we should be eating besides cheeseburgers and steaks.
Ok, so what's the difference between Cajun and Creole food?
Honestly, and for the sake of not irritating too many people—Creole food is more refined and thought of as higher-end. Cajun food is more back woods—like cast iron pots of etoufee and gumbo cooking up in the backyard. I still love Cajun food. John Besh and some of the main players in New Orleans have really helped to elevate Creole food. It's all French-driven, fresh cooking with refined vegetables and meat.
Were you trained in this style of cooking or did you pick it up on your own?
Actually, I was trained in the French style of cooking. I grew up in Maine and come from an Italian and Greek family. I worked in French, Greek and Italian restaurants and just fell in love with the refinement of the French aspects of cutting, using fresh vegetables, proper butchery, and making charcuterie.
Talk about the use of meat in Creole and Cajun cooking, since there doesn't seem to be as much of a focus on it as the main ingredient.
Meat really isn't the focus in this style of cooking. People used what was on the land and what they could farm. Down there, when they were coming up through the depression, there were a lot of railroad workers and longshoremen and others who were working 14 hours a day. This is where Po Boys and gumbo and the like came from. There were so many immigrants and so many different styles of cuisine that made up this sub-culture.
When we opened Restaurant Roux, we did a ton of research and looked at the common practice of eating meat in Creole food. And as you might imagine, we found a diverse array of meat in recipes including rabbit and wild boar. We wanted to bring back that aspect of cooking and serve it to a Seattle crowd that's used to a more refined style of food.
What types of meat are typically used in Cajun and Creole cooking?
Lots of interesting stuff—gator, squirrel, turtle. I've heard many stories about people eating barbecued raccoon. Certainly not in downtown New Orleans but backwoods folks are still fighting that fight. I wouldn't be opposed to trying it, but it doesn't sound very good.
It's certainly a different culture in America—very diverse from many aspects.
It's like its own continent—and they created all of this comfort food. Gumbo is the ultimate comfort food. They make stuff like rabbit and dumplings and are still eating squirrel down there—and they are delicious. Not like our dumpster diving squirrels in the city. Folks are just trying to elevate that home style of food and thinking ‘how do I feed a family of eight by stretching things out?'
There's also a huge French influence in utilization of all of the product. If you look at British vs. American vs. French charts of cuts of beef, you'll see that the French chart has about 12 more cuts. It's because they use everything. This has played a lot into how Creole cooking came about.
How did the availability of ingredients factor into your menu at Roux?
It was a very interesting process to figure out the menu here. One of my favorite proteins is rabbit—which is so underutilized and very evident in Southern and New Orleans cuisine. We can't get a lot of the fish they use there but we do fly up gator, crawfish, gulf prawns and the like. It helps us to broaden the variety of what we serve.
What chefs have inspired you?
Throughout my career? Wow, I guess for the basics it would be Thomas Keller for sure. As far as working in Maine—Rob Evans at Hugo's was inspirational. Also Sam Hayward and John Besh. The first time I ate at August many years ago it opened my eyes to what Creole food was all about. There was no gumbo or etoufee—it was all farm-grown foods that showcased the ingredients.
Everyone should be able to break down a chicken.
Tell us about your relationship with meat.
I just grew up in a family where we were very meat-heavy. My mom made spaghetti and meatballs for Christmas dinner every year. Oddly enough, I was a vegetarian for about four years in my late teens. Then I had a hamburger and it was so good. After that, sourcing came into play and learning about where my food came from. I learned about how to butcher hogs, beef, and lamb. The first time I got to play with whole animals it was inspirational.
How often do you go out to eat and where do you go?
As often as possible but not as much as I'd like—one or two times a week sometimes. I love to see new stuff and learn about what's going on. I love going to Chinatown—Kau Kau is one of my favorite places. Give me a half-pound of side pork, a half-pound of BBQ pork with plum sauce and rice from Kau Kau and I'm good. I don't know what they put in that plum sauce but if they told me they put heroin in it I'd probably just shrug my shoulders and eat it anyway.
Also Green Leaf Vietnamese, Bitterroot in Ballard, and LloydMartin. I worked with Sammy (Crannell) and Dan for many years and I can always go there and get some awesome dish. His utilization of product is some of the best I've seen and what he's done in that kitchen is nothing short of a miracle. The guy makes stocks in the oven, sous vides things, and works with limited space but still comes up with the most perfect piece of foie or duck you've ever had.
Beef, Lamb, Pork, Chicken, Goat, or Other?
I'd say probably beef. For me, beef is still king—the complexity of the animal both for cooking and eating. Which is why I have a giant cow tattoo on my arm with French cuts. Pork is really good but it's such a fatty animal and it kind of takes on the same characteristics no matter what you do with it. Beef stands alone better than most. You can do everything with it.
Best non-traditional cut of beef to work with?
I'd have to say beef cheeks. They are so good, though not easy to find in this town. There's so many great sub-cuts. People go for the ‘Hollywood cuts' but there's so much better flavor in other parts of the animal. I think Seif and Rachel (Revel, Joule, Trove) opened people's eyes to the fact that you can slice and grill short ribs.
I've always wanted to teach a class to show people how to break animals down properly. Learning this can help change the culture about how we buy things in grocery store. It's so easy to do and to cut down on waste. Everyone should be able to break down a chicken.
What off-beat meats should people look for?
Rabbit is my absolute favorite. You can get it at Uwajimaya and there are so many things you can do with it. The saddles are like tenderloin. The front and back legs braise down real well for pasta dishes. Plus, they are super lean, grow fast, and are in abundance. We do some great things with rabbit here, as does Holly Smith at Cafe Juanita. She does a fantastic braised rabbit and she may be the one that put it on the map for me.
What meat should people learn to cook if they only know the standards?
Braising is something that many people are intimidated by but should learn. And making confit in the same rights—how to properly demi-cure things, cook in fat, and preserve.These techniques were invented so sailors could eat food on the high seas. Do it right and you can keep stuff for a very long time.
Who's the best butcher in town?
I'd have to say Rain Shadow—Russ Flint does a fantastic job. I also love Don and Joe's in the market. Even though they're buying boxed meats and cutting them up it just reminds me of all the old-school butcher shops back home.
And I miss Miles James and Dot's—it was absolutely my favorite place to go. I miss being able to get some pate, confit, sausage, and a steak to bring home for dinner. I lived in this neighborhood for a year-and-a-half before this place opened and I went there all the time.
What's your go-to for charcuterie in Seattle?
Go to Hitchcock Deli in Georgetown—Brendan McGill is a good friend of mine and he does a fantastic job. His ability to support so many people in what he does is just inspiring. And he's just a good guy and we call upon each other for everything.
Best after-hours activity for food service?
I think we all know the answer to that one. Drinking bourbon and eating copious amounts of food. It's so nice to find places that stay open late enough to serve us. That's why Green Leaf is such a great place to go as they are open until 2 a.m. in Belltown.
What's your go-to karaoke song?
I'm a ‘Careless Whisper' man. I know, right?! I've sung that song so many times. And everyone that has done karaoke with me will say the same thing when it comes on— "Hey chef, it's our song!"