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Home Grown: A celebration of local culinary enterprise


The Herbfarm, culinary drama in Woodinville

At most restaurants you'd be asked to choose: pasta or fish, chicken or beef. Not at The Herbfarm. No choices, first of all. One seating, four nights a week, nine courses, six wines. On a recent evening, the first course was spot prawns, the second a rich pasta with savory onions. The Columbia River king salmon was seasoned with lemon thyme from the garden; the chicken was no ordinary broiler but one of the Poulet Bleu birds from Lummi Island you've been hearing about. The T-Bone of lamb was beautifully grilled. Still to come: an intermezzo of noble fir ice, a cheese course, and a dessert of strawberries and wild elder blossom, followed by coffee, tea, and tiny dessert treats from the pastry kitchen. No wonder dinner takes almost five hours.

Ron Zimmerman, Chef Chris Weber, Carrie Van Dyck

The cellar holds over 25,000 bottles, the most extensive collection of Oregon and Washington wines anywhere, period. Yes, there's a formal wine list, but each dish is accompanied by a nigh-perfect glass that you might never discover on your own (a 2013 Walter Scott chardonnay from the Amity Hills of the Willamette Valley to accompany the salmon); over a year's worth of dinners, Zimmerman opens some 8,000 bottles. Was there a pinot noir among the dozen wines served? No. Did I miss it? Nope.

There's nothing even remotely like The Herbfarm in Seattle: the very highest level of gastronomy and service, and an unmatched commitment to local sourcing.

It began a generation ago, when Bill and Lola Zimmerman bought a farm in Fall City. Lola would sell her surplus chives and other herb plants to passers-by, and soon had a thriving business. When Bill retired from Boeing, he built a shed so people would have a place to picnic. Their son, Ron, was an outdoorsy type who co-founded Early Winters and wrote their catalogs. In 1986, he and his wife, Carrie Van Dyck, turned the shed and part of the farm house into a restaurant. It was Seattle's first farm-to-table restaurant, Ron in the kitchen and Carrie as hostess, and for years there was never an empty seat. Disaster struck in early 1997, when a fire destroyed the premises. The Herbfarm moved into temporary quarters until, four years later, it reopened in Woodinville.

The model for this concept was the Auberge of the Flowering Hearth, a self-sufficient country inn romanticized by the food writer Roy Andries de Groot. For much of the year, the Herbfarm's own kitchen gardens and a nearby, five-acre farm supply the restaurant with produce. As culinary director, Ron writes 20 or so themed menus a year ("June's Silver Song," "Nine Songs of Summer") featuring wild mushrooms, handmade cheeses, artisanal caviars, heritage fruits.

The Herbfarm's first "outside" chef was Jerry Traunfeld, an alum of Jeremiah Tower's Stars in San Francisco who was working at the Alexis Hotel in Seattle when he was recruited in 1990. After he left in 2007, Keith Luce took over for a couple of years; the current incumbent, moving up from sous chef, is Chris Weber, who, at 29, is now the youngest chef at a Four-Diamond property in the country.

There's a theatrical element to the Herbfarm dinners that some guests don't understand. The rationale is that you can feed your face in hundreds of places; you can eat good food and drink fine wines in more places than ever, and maybe even spend the $200 to $250 it's going to cost, wine included. But the Herbfarm is as much a temple as a table, where you are not just a pampered guest but also a participant in what can sometimes seem like a sacred ritual to honor the earth itself. The social construct of "dinner" unfolds like a vaguely decadent religious ceremony, officiants bearing trays and goblets for your delight, yet, mixed with the dazzling pleasures and bright tastes, there's an (unspoken but solemn) reminder that we enjoy this bounty only because our planet is so generous.

Roy Breiman and Mark Bodinet, gastronomy in the SeaTac wetlands

Mark Bodinet (left) grew up on the south side of Chicago and attended culinary school in Arizona. But if Chicago was too bleak, Phoenix was too hot. He jumped at the chance to work on Martha's Vineyard, where his boss was a lanky dude named Roy Breiman (right). The French Laundry, Meadowood, and Per Se followed. Breiman, for his part, landed a spot at the Salish Lodge, then moved to the French Laundry as well.

Meantime, Washington Mutual's conference center, in the woods just east of SeaTac, came on the market. Chase, the bank that had rescued WaMu, wanted no part of its woo-woo culture. No problem, though, for Coastal Hotels, a company owned by Howard Wright, the man who built the Space Needle. For Coastal, the 170-room, 18-acre site, renamed Cedarbrook, was an ideal alternative to airport motels and city-center skyscrapers, a perfect spot for discreet regional conferences. Natural wetlands and lush cedars surround the property, which boasts its own herb and vegetable gardens.

So here it was that Bodinet, more hands-on, became installed as executive chef at the restaurant, Copperleaf, while Breiman, more cerebral, became culinary director. In many establishments, one person plays both parts, a casting necessity, perhaps, but rarely successful. At any rate, Bodinet is excited to "show people what we can do, starting with the urban chef's garden."

Cedarbrook has a lot in common with resort hotels (a spa, plenty of catering, 24-hour room service), so there's a banquet chef and a platoon of line cooks. The "dining room" itself seats only 50 and virtually disappears into a patio-level extension of the lobby; there are another three dozen seats in the bar, and, when the weather is right, a few outdoor tables overlooking the meticulously tended grounds.

The Copperleaf tasting menu provides a good look at the restaurant's commitment to local farms. (Breiman's the bird-dog, flushing out farmers, produce, sources of fish and game.) He was one of the first to tout the virtues of Riley Starks's Poulet Bleu from Lummi Island, featured in the March 2014 edition of Seattle DINING!. The restaurant's Facebook page follows the path of edible roots as well as edible animals on their way to the kitchen. The tabletop salt and pepper shakers are a snail and a frog. The wine list includes treasures from Walla Walla with names like Leonetti and DeLille. But lest you think this is all for stuffy bankers, there's a "Young Adults" menu with homemade pasta and chocolate chip cookie ice cream sandwiches. If I had layover at SeaTac, I'd hike half a mile through the woods (to work up an appetite) and sit myself at the bar for an artisanal cheese plate with a glass of local ale. Or maybe I'll just get there early for my next flight...

July 2015


Ronald Holden is a Seattle-based journalist who specializes in food wine and travel. He has worked for KING TV, Seattle Weekly, and Chateau Ste. Michelle. His blog is www. Cornichon.org, and he has published a book "Home Grown Seattle: 101 True Tales of Local Food and Drink."


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