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Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson serves up the best info and tips on Northwest food, cooking, dining and restaurants.

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March 26, 2009 8:28 PM

"Chef Search": the Hunt Club Edition (and my dream team)

Posted by Nancy Leson

The bugles sounded the call this week: the landmark Sorrento Hotel is hunting for a new executive chef. And move over Craigslist! -- hotel management is seizing the opportunity to turn the search into competitive sport. The baby heirloom-carrot on the end of the stick? Top toque-status at the Hunt Club, the 52-seat restaurant and bar adjacent the elegant boutique hotel's inviting Fireside Room. So, who calls the winner? Management -- along with a panel of "culinary luminaries" (I was invited to partake), plus diners attending benefit dinners showcasing the work of the chef-finalists.

"I'll judge that contest!" said former Hunt Club chef-exec Brian Scheehser, who stopped by for a chat yesterday while I was dining at Kirkland restaurant, Trellis, in the Heathman Hotel. Now we're talking: There's a chef-search panelist I'd like to sit next to!

I explained to Scheehser that the Hunt Club's contest is open to any chef with previous experience managing a full-service restaurant (find all the details here). They're looking for a chef who has "a philosophy that success in the kitchen is driven by education and creativity" -- to quote the press-release. After 13 years at the Hunt Club, what do you wanna bet Scheehser could pick a solid winner. These days he's hitting it out of the park at the Heathman, overseeing a menu starring organic produce, much of it grown in his 5-acre kitchen garden:



Brian Scheehser's field of dreams



Oven-dried tomatoes and pickled "tom olives" on acorn-fed, Iowa-raised prosciutto: loved it!



Wild boar on a brioche bun with "mom's" barbecue sauce, killer slaw and housemade potato chips: Lordy.



Lemon-sage flan that (how can it be?) tasted even better than it looks


Perhaps the Sorrento's winning chef will want to get on the farm-to-table bandwagon. If so, Scheesher's got one foot on his tractor and another in the hotel's subterranean root-cellar (kept at an air-conditioned 40-degrees) where he's storing what's left of last year's bountiful bounty (onions, potatoes, cans of fresh-crushed tomatoes) and preparing to culture his own barrel-fermented vinegar:



We serve no (leftover) wine before it's time



So, how come my homegrown onions don't look like this?


And Yo, Sorrento! How about providing a seat on that panel for Eric Lenard -- who held the chef-exec slot at the Hunt Club before Scheehser. Today, after helping the UW win national awards for their cutting-edge food service program, he's traveling the nation as a veritable ivy-league culinary consultant, showing colleges and universities how to replicate the kind of food-service operation he helped build at UW:



Chefs Jim Watkins (left) and Eric Lenard, at the UW in 2003



Lenard, dressed for success today


Lenard recalled for me his days as a Rising Star chef in Northern California. Back in the early '90s he was just the kind of promotable Young Turk the Sorrento was looking for when he took over at the Hunt Club, following in the high-profile footsteps of Christine Keff and her predecessor, Barbara Figueroa. (Remember B. Figueroa, the lovely short-lived restaurant on Western Ave? Well then, you've been around as long as I have!)

"When I first came to the Sorrento," before the Hunt Club underwent renovations, "the floors in the tiny kitchen were giving way underfoot," Lenard says. "There were terribly narrow aisles and the only place for the pots were way up top," precariously positioned, even for the 6'3" chef. He remembers sitting with his sous-chef, contemplating ways in which they could reconfigure the equipment to make better use of the space at hand -- never realizing that someday he'd be paid to do just that as a for a national consulting firm. "When I came in, the Hunt Club needed some bad mitigation. We found a way to make it safer, but God it was scary. I'm sure Chris Keff would say the same thing."



Chris Keff proudly wears her Hunt Club whites


Unfortunately, Keff is out of the country and unavailable for comment, but I say she'd make a stellar addition to my dream-team chef-search panel Think about it: She's won local and national acclaim for her cutting-edge work at her Belltown restaurant, Flying Fish. But she can also speak eloquently to the downside of creativity (see: Fandango, opened before the Latin craze took Seattle by storm). And surely she could riff on the trials and tribulations of riding the wave of a roller-coaster economy and maintaining celebrity chefdom while keeping the hounds at bay:



Chris Keff, doing the voodoo that she did so well at the late Fandango


And given the uncommon approach for finding the next star of the Hunt Club's restaurant show, I am certain each of the restaurant's former chefs would bring something important to the table during this very public vetting of their as-yet-unknown successor.

"Clearly they don't trust their own judgment, if they're going to leave it to a panel," Lenard insists. "If they really wanted to do something cool and make their mark on the city, they'd blow out their Presidential Suite and put a restaurant up there -- rocking out with that incredible view."

Scheesher suggests a high-profile Top Chef-style talent search, like the one the Sorrento's trumpeting, "is an odd way to find somebody for that position" -- a position he once held dear. And were he sitting on the panel he'd make certain that whomever was chosen understood the history of the hotel.

"In the 13 years I was there, the stories I would hear!" he says. Such as? "I remember [owner] Mike Malone's sister Molly sitting in the Fireside Room, telling me that when she was in school, Mike would take her to the Sorrento, show her the hotel and say, `Somebody needs to bring this place back to its glory one day.'" And that, says Scheehser, is exactly what Malone did when he bought and refurbished the hotel.

PR-maven Tamara Wilson remembers those early days -- and the Hunt Club's 1980 debut:



Tam, who's seen and heard it all since her Hunt Club days


"The restaurant opened before the hotel was finished completion," she recalls. Back then she was Tammy Critch, a Hunt Club lunch waitress who regularly waited on Malone -- who always sat at table 33. At the Sorrento, young Tammy forged a friendship with the sous-chef, 22-year-old Brooklyn native Walter Pisano -- known today for his superb work at Tulio Ristorante. Given that history, I hereby nominate them both for membership on the chef-search committee.



Walter Pisano, at Tulio Ristorante -- named to honor his father


I asked Wilson what she'd expect from a new chef, were she to find herself debating the merits of one over another during a Hunt Club panel-discussion. "If you're going to keep the name the `Hunt Club,' there really should be one signature item you can't find anywhere else," she suggested. For instance? "It's the Hunt Club! Where's the pheasant under glass -- like the one they used to serve at Rosellini's Other Place? Back in the early 80s it was $36-$37 a plate, and you'd have a bottle of Chateau Montelena chardonnay to go with it. That was the height of sophistication then," she says with a laugh.

Pisano took a minute away from his duties at the Hotel Vintage Park to reminisce about his time at the Sorrento. "It was my first experience cooking in Seattle. There was me and the head chef, Matt Harmon, just cooking up a storm. We had a lot of fun." He recalls running down to Uwajimaya to buy fish for sushi. "Matt was so excited about it. I was from New York -- I didn't know anything about sushi. But the one dish I remember making was sweetbreads, served in a crepe with bourbon-raisin sauce."

I asked Pisano what words of wisdom he might have for a Hunt Club chef-wannabe. "Understand the concept," he said, "and then express yourself through that concept." Then he added, "Do they even have a concept over there?"

Now 50, Pisano is a master of his craft: cooking Italian food, the food he grew up eating. He oversees a hotel kitchen filled with young cooks who watch a lot of "Top Chef," "Iron Chef" and "Chopped" -- kitchen-centric entertainment that doesn't hold his interest. "I've got all these kids coming in and saying, `Did you see this? Did you see that?' -- it's like they're watching the playoffs or something!" Recently, Pisano interviewed a former "Top Chef" contender out of San Francisco. His crew was beside themselves, and begged him to hire her. "I told them, `Can we make sure she can cook first?'"

I'd proudly share a seat on the panel with Pisano -- or any of the Hunt Club's other eminently successful alumni -- some of whom I came close to working with. You see, 20 years ago I moved to Seattle from Anchorage in search of a restaurant job, and I was offered one at the Hunt Club. "We need an assistant manager," I was told. I had the qualifications -- no contest. But I turned them down. The job description included working breakfast. And I don't do breakfast. Besides: the pay was half what I was making waiting tables in Alaska.

So, Eaters, what do you think of the Sorrento's idea? Want to participate? You can reserve a seat at four benefit dinners at the Hunt Club, April 21 through 24 ($95) and cast your vote as the four semi-finalists show you their stuff. Call for reservations (206-343-6156) or reserve through www.opentable.com. Two finalists will face-off for job at a benefit dinner at Seattle Culinary Academy on April 28 (suggested donation: $250, tickets available by contacting www.thehunt@hotelsorrento.com).

Chefs? You in? If so, you've got till April 3rd to submit your resume and bio to thehunt@hotelsorrento.com for consideration. And no, as far as I know, none of my "dream team" are among the deciding voices, but a girl can dream, can't she?

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