Ballard's Brimmer & Heeltap is a quintessential neighborhood restaurant: a place where everybody knows your name, a hub for socializing with its loyal fan base. Since opening in the former Le Gourmand space in 2013, chef Mike Whisenhunt and business partner Jen Doak have carved a spot for the restaurant through the exceptional use of local, seasonal ingredients and whole animal butchery.
The restaurant also sports a private dining studio that can seat up to 25 as well as one of the sweetest hidden patios (complete with fire pit) in the city. Bonus: Brimmer & Heeltap will soon launch brunch service, hopefully in the next month or so.
Eater stepped into Whisenhunt's world to learn about his background and passion for the evolution of his business. Here's what he had to say:
Where did you get your start in the food business?
I grew up here in Ballard and was washing dishes at Hiram's at the Locks when I was 16. In the 80s there was this real cowboy type of thing happening in kitchens, which is different than now. People were doing drugs, chefs were drunk (or worse), and people were still smoking in the kitchens.
But there was this intensity and all these unique people that worked there. It felt like you could meet all kinds of people in restaurants and I fell in love with that part of it — interacting with really cool people.
The following summer I did an internship at a financial institution and I realized it wasn't for me. I didn't care how much I might make, I felt like a zombie and it was horrible. I wanted to have fun and energy.
I went back to work at a place called Pescatore owned by Consolidated Restaurants. Ken Sharp was the chef (AQUA, El Gaucho) and he taught me about cooking mentality and how to carry yourself in the kitchen.
That job I actually got fired from — Ken left with some personal issues and they were left with two sous who were just angry at life. The new chef came in and cleaned house. All the while, the sous were telling me that I needed to think about another career that food wasn't for me. Who were they to tell me that?
Nothing like a little bit of a challenge to motivate you?
It was an "aha" moment for me, and I decided to go to Western Culinary Institute in Portland, which was later bought by Le Cordon Bleu. From there, I fell more in love with food. It gave me a basis of understanding for what food was.
How did you end up back in Seattle?
I came back and did an internship at the Four Seasons with Kerry Sears. Then I worked at Salty's and at some point I made my way to Stars Bar & Dining with Jason Wilson.
I ended up going to The Barking Frog in Woodinville with Tom Black and was sous there for two years. By that point I knew that I had to get out of hotels. Sure, there were great benefits, flexible schedules and whatnot, but it wasn't what I wanted to do. I wanted to open my own place one day and I wouldn't be able to do that in hotels.
At that point, Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi (Revel/Trove/Joule) had just moved to the city. I met them and worked with them at the original Joule in Wallingford and also helped them open Revel in Fremont and was there for almost three years. It was really inspiring for me to work with Rachel and Seif — their work ethic and flavor profiles are excellent.
There are dishes I'm deeply in love with but I need to challenge myself and I don't want to get stale. I want the food to evolve with me.
How did you come about opening Brimmer & Heeltap?
When I was working at The Barking Frog I met my business partner Jen through Tom. She reconnected with me when I was at Revel and knew I wanted to move upward. I was really motivated by all the things happening in the city. It was great to work with her as she knew the business and how to navigate things like getting bank loans.
We're a neighborhood restaurant and community is important. 80% of our customers walk here and we have relationships with them. They are our friends. We've had weddings here, funerals, and everything in between. Break-ups, make-ups, it all happens in a restaurant. It's amazing and satisfying to be a part of that.
What's the food philosophy here?
Bold, playful, and relevant. Those are the core components of our business. It plays right into food, service, and everything that we do.
We're always trying to identify new flavors and develop new combinations of things. But I have a pretty firm rule that I probably won't ever bring anything back. I might bring a component of a dish back but I want to evolve and grow. There are dishes I'm deeply in love with but I need to challenge myself and I don't want to get stale. I want the food to evolve with me.
Where do you get your beef?
We strictly work with Heritage Meats out of Rochester, Washington here. I've tried over and over again to use small farmers and every time they have let me down. Something was always happening: the USDA couldn't be there on time, a guy slept in, whatever. Then you wake up and call Tracy (the owner at Heritage) and he's like, "I got you."
We use Burk Ridge Farms beef up from Whatcom County. The flavor in this cow is just unreal, people are flipping out over it. I don't even know how to explain the amazing flavor coming out of it. It's Angus beef that is grass-fed all the way. It's close to Wagyu: super marbled.
All of their cows are brought to over 30 months, which means — and I didn't know this until recently — that the USDA won't let them send the spinal column in any way, shape, or form due to the age. So, no oxtails.
What are some of the more creative things you do with the "odd bits"?
We tend to wet brine tougher cuts like round and shank to add moisture and flavor. I think sous vide is probably one of the best ways to do it. Wet brined brisket, cold smoke, and sous vide, it's amazing. One of the best briskets I've ever had. And I'm a brisket guy. You don't get the bark — that's my only gripe.