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Behind the Line: In salmon he trusts
Chambers brings back Northwest staple, reinvigorates menu with sustainable selections
By Lauren Kramer
May 04, 2012
A seafood restaurant in the Pacific Northwest that doesn’t feature salmon is an anomaly. So in June 2011, when Zach Chambers came on board as executive chef at Anchovies & Olives in Seattle, salmon was a top priority. Up until then, the Italian-inspired seafood and pasta restaurant, one of four restaurants owned by Chef Ethan Stowell, had featured a menu sans salmon and with small portion sizes and little local seafood fare.
Salmon-less in Seattle wasn’t an option for Chambers, 31, who came to the restaurant with a degree from the Culinary Institute of America in New York, as well as experience working in the kitchen at The American Academy in Rome, New York’s Gramercy Tavern and Seattle’s Spinasse and Olivar.
Determined to give the Anchovies & Olives menu a Pacific Northwest slant, he now features 13 seafood species, 70 percent from the Northwest. There’s geoducks, four varieties of oysters and Dungeness crab, as well as seafood from further afield, such as octopus for the grilled octopus salad, Pacific sardines, branzino, tilefish, daurade and Atlantic cod sourced by Corfini Gourmet, the company’s Seattle distributor.
Chambers buys from Corfini using the company’s sustainability color rating, which is based on information derived from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Sea Watch program. He’s grateful to have this resource and the knowledge that Corfini cares to educate buyers on sustainability. “I’m very conscious of what I’m buying,” he says.
“For example, hamachi was the mainstay of our crudo menu for a long time. But I always felt it was badly raised, so I swapped it out for geoduck, escolar and a rotation of scallops, Spanish mackerel or Kona kampachi. Hamachi occasionally makes an appearance but it’s no longer the regular menu item it once was,” says Chambers.
Sixty percent of the restaurant’s seafood consists of farmed fish, “which wasn’t a deliberate decision — it’s just the nature of the business right now,” says Chambers. “Sometimes the only way to satisfy the customer and the bottom line is by looking at the [farmed] options.” The branzino and daurade (sea bream) are farmed in the Mediterranean while the king salmon is farmed in British Columbia.
“The cost of the salmon is low enough that I can offer a larger plate to my customers without taking a hit on my bottom line,” he says. “Would I prefer wild caught salmon? Absolutely. But the constraints of cost, menu pricing, availability and other variables make the farmed fish the better choice.”
King salmon with herbed fregola sarda, butternut squash and Meyer lemon relish has quickly become one of the most popular items on the menu at the 45-seat restaurant, along with scallops and the grilled octopus salad.
Since his arrival, the restaurant’s biggest challenge has been increasing customer numbers. To that end, the décor, lighting and music have all been improved, creating an upbeat, lively atmosphere.
The food offerings during happy hour have expanded to include small snack items, pastas and Bigoli with anchovy, garlic and chili. It’s created a draw for new diners, he says, adding customer counts have risen by 20 to 25 percent since he made those changes. And guests are enjoying the new menu, which, instead of the small and large plate offerings it previously featured, now has course sections.
Stowell says the increase in sales is a result of a combination of factors, including increased portion sizes, an increased number of offerings and lower menu prices. “Also, I think the economy has become a little more stable and that makes customers more comfortable going out for dinner,” he says. “I also think our company is getting better at running restaurants. As with everything, the more you do it, the more you learn from your experiences.”Contributing Editor Lauren Kramer lives in British Columbia