At home and in the kitchen with Seattle chefs
Restaurateurs dish on their food experiences growing up, and how they incorporate their kids in the kitchen now
Chef Brendan McGill and his two sons show off the bounty of the family’s Bainbridge Island garden.
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
Many of my best childhood memories involve food and family: My siblings and I ate out of the garden, learned to follow recipes as soon as we could read, and dove into a 4-H cooking club.
By the time I was 7 or 8, my mom would leave for work with a cookbook open to the entrée my two older sisters and I should make for dinner. Forming raw meat into Betty Crocker’s Hawaiian meatballs while bickering over the details is a cherished memory.
With my own 5-year-old, I’ve followed the same playbook: Lots of hands-on fun with room for low-level mishaps. Most of the time we cook together, but recently, I told her she could bake whatever she wanted while I finished some work. She made an edible cake from scratch and a forever memory. I made my deadline and got dessert.
We asked some of Seattle’s top chefs about their early experiences with cooking, and how they incorporate their own kids in the kitchen.
Brendan McGill of Hitchcock, Hitchcock Deli, Bruciato, and Café Hitchcock
James Beard Award nominee Brendan McGill didn’t learn how to cook from his parents in Fairbanks, Alaska. But fishing the Copper River and harvesting giant pumpkins from the garden did give him the kind of “essential food experiences that people really romanticize these days,” he says.
“I had this authentic agricultural understanding without being in a family where anyone was ‘gourmet cooking,’” he says. He started working in a kitchen as a teen, then moved to Washington to work in restaurants.
Now, he and his wife, Heidi, live with their two boys, ages 2 and 6, on a farm on Bainbridge Island, and run restaurants on the island and in Seattle.
He says though the restaurant industry is known for its hard-partying chefs who burn the candle at both ends, it doesn’t actually have to be that way. “The kids come to the restaurant constantly. I really strive to achieve what I call family-work-lifestyle. I make a lot of decisions based on how it will affect those three things.”
He and his wife also keep a garden with their boys. “There are so many lessons there: Planting something, stewarding it and being patient, then collecting the fruit. They can see it happen all in a few months,” he says.
He adds that food opens doors to conversations about other big topics with his kids. Recently, his oldest son expressed interest in how animals feel, which lead to discussing a vegan diet. “I said, that’s valid — if you feel like you don’t want to eat it, that’s cool. That led to talking about Buddhism,” he says.
PHOTO: JOSHUA HUSTON
Ericka Burke is already getting her son started on knife skills.
Ericka Burke of Volunteer Park Cafe
Ericka Burke didn’t grow up eating fancy food — she remembers her dad’s tacos and spaghetti, and the recipes her mom would follow to the letter. The only cooking she remembers doing before she went to college was boxed macaroni and cheese or bagels.
“But we always had dinner together. That was our social time,” she says. In college, she and her friends began hosting dinner parties, which led to more exposure to cooking. Eventually she realized her passion for food and began working in restaurants.
In her own Capitol Hill household today, dinners with her 7-year-old son are not just social time — they’re sacred time. She puts away the technology and focuses on spending time together.
She keeps a garden with her son and teaches him how to prepare food. She’s taught him to use a knife and “he feels comfortable peeling a carrot,” she says. “I’m not completely negligent. I’m just kind of right there,” she laughs.
Like McGill’s kids, Burke’s son spends a lot of time at the Volunteer Park Cafe. Sometimes, he’ll walk up behind her while she’s taking a customer’s order and wrap his arms around her. “We’re a family restaurant!” she says.
John Sundstrom of Lark, Slab and Southpaw
John Sundstrom grew up going with his grandma to annual summer canning parties and helping her bake and make candy. But it wasn’t until 7th-grade home-economics class that he learned what would become his first signature dish: scalloped potatoes.
“That became my middle-school specialty. It was fun to make something and share it with the whole family.” (Sundstrom’s secret ingredient? Bacon.)
For a James Beard Award-winning chef, Sundstrom keeps things simple at home in the Central District. That means connecting over pizza and barbecue with his 13-year-old son. “As a toddler, he’d eat seafood and raw oysters. Then he went through five to six years of fairly bland food — the usual.” Sundstrom and his wife (and co-business partner), JM Enos, didn’t fight it, and now their son is emerging as a teen with his own tastes. “He definitely knows quality difference. He’s very aware of how a really good local peach tastes versus a grocery store peach,” he says.
He says parents can be skittish about taking kids to eat at nice restaurants, but it’s not warranted. “While they’re in a carrier, go out as much as you can. There are four to five things that could go wrong and you can handle those,” he says. For older kids, “our secret was always the smallest little Lego kits that are, like, $8. Pull it out a half-hour in, give them an area to set it up and then you can say, ‘Hey, try the sushi,’ rather than shushing your kid every five minutes, or scowling at them for asking when the food will arrive.”
Fitting it all in
All three busy chefs say they don’t always get to spend dinner at home with their families. Sometimes, dinner is at the restaurant during a slow moment. But they each say they make it a point to connect with their kids at the meals they do share, and convey their love of food in small, authentic ways, rather than focusing on perfection or grand experiences.