« July 2013 Table of Contents
Networking: Renée Erickson
Chef/owner — The Walrus and The Carpenter, The Narwhal, Boat Street Café and The Whale Wins, Seattle
By James Wright
July 01, 2013
Renée Erickson quickly shrugs off any notion that what she’s developing in Seattle is an “empire,” even though Food & Wine magazine described her cluster of restaurants thusly last year. But she’s clearly building something the city supports, and is doing so largely on the strength of shellfish. Erickson bought Boat Street Café at the tender age of 25 and has since expanded her roster with The Whale Wins and the ultra-hip spot The Walrus and The Carpenter, which opened three summers ago. The little room with the big selection of Pacific Northwest oysters has some of the toughest tables to reserve in the city. And she’s far from done: When we spoke in mid-May, her food truck The Narwhal — “an oyster, kind of, market stall-like thing,” she says convincingly — was due to roll in a couple of weeks. “It’s 99 percent ready,” she adds. Not only that, but plans for Barnacle, a small bar next to the Walrus to keep folks on the always-long waiting list entertained, are also under way.
Erickson, 40, hasn’t taken anyone’s version of a traditional path to restaurateur extraordinaire. Armed with a degree in painting and printmaking from the University of Washington, in her early 20s she seemed much more interested in traveling throughout Europe than being nailed down to anything requiring her attention for up to 80 hours a week. Like many entrepreneurs, however, she maximized her opportunities, relying on friends and family to stay grounded when the challenges mounted. It’s clear, though, that the sky is the limit for this creative Seattle native.
How did you transition from art to food?
In college I spent a semester abroad in Rome. I had been working part time in a restaurant doing random stuff; never had any intent to be a chef. I really just fell in love with how Europeans live, as far as what matters to them with food, how they shop, the daily things. I started at Boat Street as a server, but didn’t like that. I offered to work in the back and slowly worked my way into running the restaurant. I really loved it and fell in love with restaurants, but I was 24; I wasn’t making plans to be a restaurateur. I went back to Europe and spent time thinking about food. Before, and after I returned, I was given the opportunity to buy the restaurant. The owner, Susan Kaplan, kept bugging me to buy it, and I kept saying “no.” I finally came to a place where everyone who knew me well told me I was crazy not to buy it.
What’s the best compliment you get?
That the food is really approachable, or simple, in a way. I’m not a trained chef; there aren’t a lot of tricks up my sleeve. I want people to think they’re not in a restaurant. We do that pretty well with our aesthetic.
Are you comfortable being the new darling of the Seattle dining scene?
I feel a little bit, well, silly is not the word, but I’ve been doing it for 15 years. I feel like I’m a gazillion times better now than I was just five years ago. I’m smarter and making better decisions. It’s a weird feeling too to have — you do the same stuff every day forever and then it blows up.
You have developed close relationships with your vendors. Why is that important?
Over time I think the climate around food has changed. There’s much more awareness of where things come from and wanting to meet the people that grow it. My focus is there now. Selfishly, it’s fun, because I end up having great friends and great places to take the staff to, to see what happens. It’s the best part of my job and I like it probably more than being in the restaurant. We go to oyster farms all the time. It makes it all worthwhile to see what people do and how hard it is and why it costs so much and why it’s worth it. It’s better for me to buy from a farmer than a broker.