When Renee Erickson bought Boat Street Cafe in 1998 she admits she "didn't have a clue" how to run a business. Sixteen years later, the chef has introduced Seattle to a handful of projects (The Walrus and the Carpenter, The Whale Wins, Barnacle) that embody organic, seasonal, and local. Long before those words got trendy and lost their punch, Erickson was quietly preparing hyper-fresh food that is equal parts comforting and ambitious.
Her first cookbook A Boat, A Whale, and A Walrus could only have been produced in the Northwest--the recipes and narratives circle around a core of family, producers, and staff that Erickson says are the reason her four restaurants have succeeded.
For a look inside the book, head to Eater National. Eater Seattle checked in with Erickson about the process of making the book, how her aesthetic sensibilities inform her cooking, and the energy women bring to the kitchen.
Had you been planning a cookbook for a long time?
Never with any sort of great intent. People would be like "you should write a book" but I was never sure what it needed to be about. It was something I thought about and wanted to do but it just wasn't the right time.
I'm friends with Jim Henkens, the photographer, and he was the one who was like, "we should do a book." He had done a book with Willi Galloway and he kind of pestered me a little bit. In January or February last year we started talking about what it would look like.
What was the process of working Jim and co-author Jess Thomson like?
Amazing. The three of us worked as a team constantly. Jess and Jim and I would be cooking, talking, doing the photos, writing. It was really amazing, it was a little insane--we stated in May of 2013 and finished in November, so we basically shot the book in order more or less. We did all of the spring and summer and some of the late fall stuff, and then the winter stuff in November and December.
You've written a cookbook, but there's also a narrative element and traces of memoir. How should readers approach the book?
A lot of people ask "how do you run four restaurants" or "how do you do this?" and I think the thing that felt the most true to what made me successful and my businesses are all the people that supported me over the years, and that was the part that felt the most interesting to me as something to talk about. There's a million restaurant cookbooks and a lot of them are incredible, but I didn't feel like [food] was the right thing to lead with. I've been doing this a long time so I have a lot of long relationships that have really formed my aesthetic and direction. I mean it's impossible to do what I do without having this huge team of people behind me, so it felt like more of an important story than just here's what we do at Walrus.
There's a million restaurant cookbooks and a lot of them are incredible, but I didn't feel like [food] was the right thing to lead with.
The book is beautiful it's also hearty and sturdy. How did you manage to make it both durable and displayable?
Jeremy [Price] my partner and myself do all of the interiors, I have an art degree. So the aesthetic of it was really important to me and something that I had a lot of opinions about. That part of it felt natural, like when we plate food or something: I don't really go into it having a design in mind, but as I'm doing it I know if it's wrong or if it's right.
That felt really comfortable in the book as well, where it's like I knew I didn't want a photo of food on the cover and I knew I wanted Jeffry Mitchell to do the design and be whimsical and charming, and also feel like the restaurants feel. So for good or for bad, I definitely had a lot of opinions about the aesthetic. That part felt easy. It was challenging in some aspects because you're working with a designer and you have opinions so we kind of clashed a bit, but in the end I think we all sort of ended up loving it, so it was that hard work I'm not really used to.
I have my own businesses and get to do what I want, so to an extent Jeremy and I collaborate with the visuals but we're really well matched because we each have our area that we're good at and allow each other to have that roll. It was an interesting thing to have somebody be like, "well, we don't think that's a good idea." It was just the process of writing a book that I'd never done before.
In the book you call your kitchens "energetic but quiet." How does that inform your food?
I'm certainly not a professionally trained cook, so how we cook is sort of like...really thinking about things seasonally that we want to eat, not what we think people want to eat. We definitely have reactions to things where we say that sounds great or that sounds terrible.
And not to beat the female chef thing, but I do think there's a different energy that comes from a woman in a kitchen versus a man and so that is certainly prevalent.
You split the book into seasons because that's how you cook. Have you always taken a seasonal approach to food?
More and more for sure. I know when I first got Boat Street I didn't have a clue what I was doing. So I was 25 and really just really had no idea what I was doing. I loved the restaurant and I loved cooking but I wasn't good at it. I really didn't have a sense of identity at that point...I would have never imagined where I would have ended up, I just thought I was doing something that was fun and creative.
The book is a survey of your entire career. What's it like to flip through and see it in one package?
When we finished it and it went away and we finished all the edits...I didn't think about it for awhile. When I got the first galley I kind of panicked a little thinking "everyone's going to read this." When you're writing it you're not thinking about how it's going to be in the world and a bazillion strangers hopefully are going to buy it and read it. That was really a weird sensation, to be like, "Oh my God, people are going to know all of this stuff." It became more personal than I...it was one of those things that I had an idea of what I wanted to talk about, but the part about me, what ties it all together, was what I hadn't really thought about because it's just my life...it is really personal and felt uncomfortable to a certain extent. Not in a bad way, but just sort of like, "Ok, well this is odd."
Are there a few cookbooks in particular you thought about when you were writing your own?
Sure. Mostly design-wise I thought about books. Because when we wrote the list of recipes it was weird how easily it came together. It changed a little bit, but the core recipes we came to pretty quickly. But Polpo is a book I really love aesthetically as far as size and how it feels in your hand--natural and not shiny. The Canal House books I really like as far as the personality that comes through, especially the red one they put out last year. All of the Nigel Slater books...his books are so gorgeous...and seasonally driven.
What does the rest of the year look like?
The book is what I'm working on. All of October I'll be traveling with (the book)--I'm going down the West Coast and then to New York and to Maine. I'm excited. And then I'll be doing a lot of stuff here around the holidays.