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Chef Wayne Johnson Brings the Beat Back to Renton

He's serving food for the soul at Shuga Jazz Bistro.

Wayne Johnson
Wayne Johnson
Atina Tan

Welcome back to The Carnivore's Dilemma, a column from Jason Price that features picks for offbeat places to eat meat from Seattle chefs that venture well beyond steak and burgers.

Not long ago Seattle was known as a place where you could see some of the top international jazz acts. Legends such as Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, Ray Charles and later, Quincy Jones, helped bring jazz into the mainstream in Seattle during the 30s while peaking in the late 40s and early 50s. Over two dozen clubs could be found in the International District on Jackson St. alone. But as musical tastes evolved so did the local scene and what was once a great part of Seattle's cultural dynamic has now been reduced to a few small venues about town.

Over 60 years later we are seeing a bit of a resurgence of the jazz genre and the food that goes along with it. Chef Wayne Johnson is serving up food for the soul at Shuga Jazz Bistro way down south in Renton. To go along with Johnson's upscale renditions of southern-inspired classics, diners are treated to live jazz every night from Thursday through Sunday. Eater caught up with Chef Wayne to talk about how much things have changed over his long and storied career as well as his love of meat.

Tell me about your background and why you do what you do.

Well, I became a chef because I enjoyed the whole science of food. I went to college for business and accounting but in high school I had worked at the Holiday Inn bussing, doing dishes, and some light prep. I had thought that I could always go to work in a kitchen.

After that, I went to a place called Conan's Cave, this little Italian place in town run by three guys from New York doing scratch lasagna, pizzas and the like. I was just amazed at how many different sauces we were making out of tomatoes: pizza sauce, lasagna sauce, marinara, etc. There wasn't just one sauce for everything. From there, I became really interested in the number of ways you can prepare food with a single item.

So what was your first job in the ‘big' food world?

I ended up joining Marriott in Vail, Colorado after I had been skiing with one of the recruiters. She called me a number of times and finally made me an offer to put me through food school and into management. I went to my boss at the time and told him about the opportunity and he said, "Hey, I could never pay you that much and give you the education they can." So, I left and went up there and ended up spending the next 15 years with Marriott.

What a great opportunity from a random ski trip.  Where did you go from there?

I went from food prod manager, to banquet chef to becoming the Executive Chef in Bay Area at 2 different properties. I had worked with a lot of different chefs that I could pull a lot of skill and knowledge from but the hotel was getting into too many recipes that were ‘out of the can'. Even the demis weren't being made on premises anymore.

I understand the business side of it but all they were just looking at the labor numbers and profitability. It's a good business move from a numbers standpoint but for people like myself that wanted to stay in it to be creative. Well, I had to move on.

Then I went to work at the Park 55 Hotel in San Francisco and they let me do scratch stuff which was fun and intriguing. It was a union shop though which made it difficult because there were limitations on the number of hours people could do something, train, etc.

I did that for two and a half years and then went to the Culinary Institute in Napa at Greystone and studied food from Spain and the Mediterranean. I learned how to not put flavor on top of foods but into them. You still taste the meat, but it's got a little bit more ‘Ummm' when you bite into it.

(photo by Atina Tan)

How did you come to Seattle?

I came up to Seattle in 1999 and was recruited by Pau lshii who was the GM at Mayflower Park Hotel. He specifically wanted me for Andaluca because of my background in Spanish flavors. I was there for 12 years and then I moved on to Ray's Boathouse for another two years.

At that point, I thought I was going to retire and just kick back. I went to the Bahamas for a minority chef conference. It was a lot more work than I thought it would be and forty-some chefs from around the world came to cook at the College of the Bahamas. It was brilliant how we were able to reach the people there.

What brought you out of retirement?

Ron McGowan called and tried to talk me into opening this place (Shuga's). He didn't realize I was retired and he said he'd deal with the entertainment and I could do the food. I wasn't interested in doing lunch, brunch and all that. I just didn't want to deal and I wanted my morning back. After being out for a few months on my own time I was really enjoying hitting golf balls.

The challenge now is getting folks in on the front end during the week. You have to come in on a weekend night and feel the love and energy in this room. It's addicting. The talent coming in here combined with the fooda Southern inspired menu with some Creole and Cajun influences matched with the music. I'll tell you, if you closed your eyes you'd think you were in San Francisco or New Orleans.

Talk about Southern food and soul food. What are the similarities and differences?

Where you can separate them out, in my mind anyway, is that Southern food, when I hear the term it reminds me of foods developed in the South whether through slave times or what have you. When I hear soul food it takes me to a place of familyfood you'd eat with your mom, at your aunt's house. It touches you in your soul.

Not a lot separates the flavors of the two though. Most people think of soul food as being from Tennessee, Kentucky and that area while Southern food spans Texas, Louisiana, and Mississippiwhere you get more of a separation of flavors regionally. When I think of Southern food on that level I think of the French influences as well as Cajun and Creole flavors. When I think of soul food I think of pig's feet, ham hocks, pig's ear, greens, and the like.

What are some common Southern and soul food preparations of meat?

I would say some of the things we just talked about. There's a great deal of catfish because of the region. It's more local than anything else. Fried chickenthose places are anywhere and everywhere. It's amazing that in Louisville you can drive down the road you are going to see five different chicken houses and they all survive.

You also see a lot more pork than beef. Back in the day, the pig was the animal we had to work with. No one wanted anything to do with pork until we started making something of iteverything from head to tail was going on. A lot of times they'd take the pork chops or whatever and then pass on the rest of the animal to the workers to make something of it. So, you through it into a pot of beans and you've got this intense pork flavor going on.

(photo by Atina Tan)

Was beef not used much because of cost?

Beef was an expensive protein at that point in time. If you were in a slave family or something like thatman, if you saw beef you were cooking it for someone else. Folks of color were a lot better cooks than people want to give credit for. That's why pork is so big in my mindleftover, scrap, cheap meat used to make something that could feed the whole family.

Even catfish, when you think about it, it's not a prime fish. It's a bottom feeder and you can get a hold of that and fry it, bake it or whatever. When I go home I get my catfish sandwich between two slices of white bread and some hot sauce, bone and all.

What are your plans for evolving the menu at Shuga's?

It'd be fun to take things like octopus and squid and put some Southern influence into them. I'm going to be taking this journey through the South soon and talking to some chefs down there will help me create some new things to serve to people.

We're really blessed out here with the product we have to work with and I like that as we go forward into this.  we're able to serve Southern-inspired food here while still being playful. If we do fried chicken wings, we better know how to do it or my people are going to walk out of here thinking I don't know what I'm doing. The Lula Mae's Fried Chicken is my mom's recipe.

We're also using Bob's Red Mill gluten-free flours in our kitchen. To have 75-80% of the menu be gluten-free is a big deal. We've taken this Southern, gluten-heavy style of food and turned it into something gluten-free which is important to many of our diners these days.

What are you doing with meat that nobody else is in this town?

The oxtail that we're doing is our star off-cut meat right now. it's a three-day process. We marinate them with thyme, red pepper flakes, hot sauce, smashed garlic and green onion for two days. If it wasn't so expenses to vacuum pack everything I'd do it more. But we wrap it real tight with plastic and turn it every six hours or so to move the flavor around.

Best non-traditional cut of meat to work with?

I really love to cook with short ribs or oxtails. It's the kind of food I'd lean towards being soul food. When you eat it, you just feel the love. I love comfort food period. I love grilling, don't get me wrong. But this time of year I like these braises.

Which farmers do you buy meat from?

Right now we get most from Meet the Live Butcher up in White Center. Tom Salle is like the third-generation owner. Those are the kind of folks I like working with. They have passion for their product and they are taking this precious little thing to hand off to us to cook. If you have an angry butcher you'll have some angry meat - here's no way to get around it.

What's your go-to karaoke song?

It'd probably have to be "That's the Way of the World" by Earth, Wind and Fire.  Classic.

Shuga Jazz Bistro

317 Main Ave S, Renton, WA 98057 (425) 274-3074