Chef Jason Wilson
Crush | Seattle
Jason Wilson fell for food in Hawaii. In his time between surfing and working as a barback and busboy, he and his friends would buy whole fish right from the docks, break them down at home, and gorge on sashimi. His love for food blossomed and took him, at age 22, to the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. After graduating in 1995, he spent time in some of the most influential kitchens in San Francisco, working with Albert Tordjman of the Flying Saucer, Michael Mina of Aqua, and Jeremiah Tower of Stars.
Jason’s journey continued with years working at Stars Singapore, and traveling and cooking extensively throughout Southeast Asia. Apprenticeships in Paris and Tain l’Hermitage in France exposed him to pastry technique. He eventually settled in Seattle, where he met life and business partner Nicole Wilson, with whom he opened Crush in 2005.
His ingredient-driven modern American cuisine has garnered local and national accolades, including a 2006 “Best New Chef” award from Food & Wine. Jason’s vivacious personality has led to a number of television appearances and international food events. Crush is one of Seattle’s finest upscale restaurants, yet it manages to combine ambitious cuisine with a laid-back atmosphere—helped in part by the cozy house (refurbished by Jason and Nicole) that holds it.
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Heather Sperling: How did you begin cooking?
Jason Wilson: I began out of necessity. I was probably 18 years old, living in Hawaii between high school and college. I was surfing and living on Maui and wanted to kick back for a while. I'd surf in the harbor and would see the charter boats that went out and caught fish. I was working as a busboy and barback, and eventually got to know the fishermen. They'd come to the back door and offer us fish. It was really incredible. I remember three of us buying the whole fish, taking it home, cutting it up raw, and breaking down this entire tuna. For me it was this awakening; these experiences that started shaping me as a person revolved around this wonderful food. I finished college and studied business and econ and accounting, because I knew I needed it to run a kitchen. And then at 22 I went to CCA.
HS: Where have you worked?
JW: I've cooked throughout San Francisco. My second sous chef job and first chef de cuisine position was at Stars in Singapore. I was chef de cuisine and then executive chef of Stars. After Stars I did catering and consulting and was a personal chef for seven to eight families. My wife, Nicole, sought out a space in 2003 for our catering. We have a 2,800-square foot warehouse close to the lake where we do dinner parties and special events under Crush Private Dining. We started over there and then found this space.
HS: Who do you consider mentors?
JW: I have a lot of chefs that I look up to. My earliest was the chef of the Flying Saucer in San Francisco, Albert Tordjman. There was a level of intensity, discipline, and dedication that he displayed. The craft and technique was so important. We'd utilize 4 to 5 different techniques on each dish—he stayed so true to French cuisine. My F&W Best New Chefs class of 2006 had Jonathan Benno—I think Thomas [Keller] has revolutionized restaurants.
HS: What are some of your favorite ingredients to work with?
JW: In the winter I love working with root vegetables in all incarnations. I like oily fish—sardines, mackerel, anchovies. I love using octopus. I'm big into using spices; a lot of that came from Albert, who did French-Moroccan cuisine. I love working with an apothecary to find the right licorice root, the right bay leaves, eucalyptus, etc. Salt as well: we have a couple out of Alaska who does our salts.
HS: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
JW: Sweet, salty, and spicy. The flavor combinations have to mimic the texture combinations. It's important to have sweet, spicy, aromatic, and acidic flavors there all together. Balance!
HS: What are your favorite culinary resources?
JW:The internet is the main source. My friend Bill Morris (of The Rainier Club) has a blog (Cuisinier’s kitchen). I like Ideas in Food, Playing with Fire and Water. I'll go to people's websites, and I use Flickr a lot too. I'll search Flickr for "French Laundry" or "Gilt" and you get all these pictures. I go to people's websites and see what they're doing.
HS: What is the philosophy behind Crush?
JW: This is essentially a scratch restaurant. Bread, butter, everything—it's done in-house. It's balancing: in the lobster dish you have a lovely flavor of earth and truffle, and the ocean flavor of the lobster. The pasta is made fresh, the coral sauce is sweet and nutty, the garden sorrel has astringency—it's all about creating balance. We rarely use heat, like chili.
HS: Why is the restaurant named Crush?
JW: When my wife Nicole and I first connected, Nicole told a mutual friend that she had a crush on me… a year and a half later we were married, soon after September 11th. We couldn't do our planned honeymoon, so instead we were married during crush on a private estate. We took a trip to Montana, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, and back in Washington. We stopped on the side of the road one day to dance to our song, on the radio, and she said: "if we ever open a restaurant, we should call it ‘crush’."
HS: If you could cook for anyone, who would it be? Who would you like to cook for you?
JW: I'd like to cook for my father. My father passed away when I was 15. I'd like Joel Robuchon and Pierre Herme to cook for me—I've always had a great affection for Herme's pastry.
HS: What trends are you seeing in the Seattle dining scene?
JW: There's a trend in emphasizing that you use certain farms and products. There's an emphasis on showing off that you cook with a green conscious. The communal table thing is showing up a lot.
HS: Where will we find you in five years?
JW: Crush is a baby; I look to people like Thomas Keller and the great French chefs that garner three Michelin Stars. In five years, if we're going to do a second location and take this and transform it…who knows. I'm entertaining things constantly; it's just a matter of finding the right person to team up with. There are so many stories about this restaurant—if I was to write a book, I don't know if I've created a style of cuisine, but rather a place. In five years I'd like to be known as the place to go eat in Seattle.
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