You’ll often hear chefs credit their cooking to personal heritage. These are the culinary ambassadors, proving their allegiance through food. The Seattle-based chef John Sundstrom, however, is not one of them.
Growing up in Utah, he was raised on baked potatoes, doughnuts and the chance shrimp cocktail when his family dined out. “Mormon families are not particularly known for reaching great heights when it comes to food and presentation”, Sundstrom jokes in his new cookbook, Lark: Cooking Against the Grain. Despite a late introduction to the finer points of global gastronomy, Sundstrom opened his first restaurant, Lark, in Seattle in 2003 to both acclaim and success. Foraging through many cultures around the world for inspiration — France, Italy, Japan — his cooking is not a commitment to dogmatic culinary traditions, but a love letter written in the local fare and seasons of the Pacific Northwest. The winner of the James Beard Foundation‘s “Best Chef Northwest” award in 2007, Sundstrom now heads two additional restaurants, Bitter Raw and Slab Sandwiches + Pie. We sat down with the man to talk about his culinary past and the inspirations that keep him cooking.
Q. What’s one cooking tip you can offer to home cooks?
A. Don’t cook on high, take your time, control the heat.
Q. Name one thing no one knows about you.
A. I will buy a Beard Papa Cream Puff at any opportunity.
Q. What are you reading right now?
A. Half a King by Joe Abercrombie.
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. Open a restaurant and have a newborn at the same time.
Q: Who or what influences you?
A: Everything. Great chefs and restaurants around the world, a summer hike, dinner at home. For example, just this month I read about a chef in Iceland who pickles shallots, then dehydrates them before crushing into a powder. It was a new spin, and sounded delicious. So I tried it, and it made it onto a new fried oyster appetizer.
Every day in the kitchen I try to deepen my craft, share it with others and know when to say a dish is complete.
Q. Before opening Lark, you spent four years as a sushi apprentice. How does that experience tie into the food you’re cooking today?
A. The Japanese have immense respect for craftsmanship, whether it be connected to food, or other things. They also understand restraint. Every day in the kitchen I try to deepen my craft, share it with others and know when to say a dish is complete.
Q. Where did the idea come about for an amaro bar that serves seafood and charcuterie?
A. Bitter Raw started with wanting to run a very small and focused cold kitchen that explored some aspects of my early Japanese cuisine training and travel. After seeing the quality of food created in a few square feet in Tokyo, I’ve been fascinated with dealing gracefully within constraints. Cured meats are one step away from being raw and doing one-third of the menu from a slicer also makes sense. I’ve been a fan of the bitter spectrum of food and spirits, from artichokes and radicchio to Campari, Cynar and amaro. And they pair extremely well with seafood and charcuterie.
Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A. Some just-caught Dungeness crab with brown butter and lemon. And champagne with my family and friends at our favorite Orcas Island hangout.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. As a generous person.
Q. What’s next?
A. After opening Slab, planning a vacation. I’m set onto getting to Spain very soon. It’s been on my travel list for years as both a culinary and historical place to visit. And the charcuteria… so much to try! I just finished my first batch of sobrasada, a spreadable chorizo, and I need to compare it to the original.