Chef Stuart Lane
Café Juanita | Seattle
Stuart Lane began his cooking career shortly after a revelation that came while watching an episode of Great Chefs of the World on PBS. His first step: to enroll at Bellingham Technical College in Northwest Washington and get a job at a local Italian restaurant.
Two years later he graduated with a culinary arts degree, but decided he needed more focused training—preferably in Italy. He moved to Seattle and saved up for his trip by working simultaneously at Flying Fish under Chris Keff and Steve Smrstik, and Cafe Campagne under Daisley Gordon.
In 2004, he went to Costigliole d'Asti to attend the Italian Culinary Institute in a castle in Piemonte. He later staged at the Hotel Monte del Re in Dozza, Italy outside of Bologna in the heart of Emilia-Romagna. During his time abroad, he made tortellini by the thousands and was immersed in the Italian food culture. Upon returning to the US, he immediately went to Cafe Juanita in Kirkland, Washington looking for work. He told Chef Holly Smith he would check back every week until she hired him—and his persistence paid off. He began working there as a prep cook and moved to pastaoli (pasta guru) in a few months. Today Holly credits him with bringing her pasta program to the next level. Stuart was eventually promoted to sous chef with Jason Stratton, and to chef de cuisine shortly after.
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Heather Sperling: What was your first job in the culinary industry?
Stuart Lane: I worked at a bagel shop right out of college. I wasn’t really cooking anything, just making sandwiches. Then I started working at a little Italian restaurant up in Bellingham, and that was my first job on the line. I graduated from Western Washington with a degree in creative writing. The summer after I got a job at The Bagelry—where I met my wife, actually—but other than that I was just watching Great Chefs of the World every day, and being amazed by them on that show. I was buying cookbooks and really getting into it, and I haven’t stopped since. A year and a half later I went to culinary school at Bellingham Technical College.
HS: Would you recommend culinary school?
SL: It’s tricky. Everyone who works with me right now did not go to school. But I did, and I’ve worked with a lot of other grads. I would suggest it if you’re into school. Some people like school, some people don’t. I think you can learn the basics in a great restaurant. But if you enjoy school, it’s a good place to make mistakes and learn the basics without getting your head chopped off every time you do so! And the good schools can really give you a leg up.
HS: What drew you to Italian cuisine and kept you drawn to it?
SL: I love the simplicity of it. I love the ethic of what they do; how the ingredient is the star of the show. I love all the regional specialties and how one place will do it differently. It’s not a codified system.
HS: Tell me about your time in Italy.
SL: I was in this little town outside of Asti, and we went to school in this castle. It was all in Italian, but we had a translator, and took Italian. There were 5,000 people in the town, and 500 winemakers. It’s right in Barbera country. Just eating around the town, seeing the produce, going to Asti for the weekend market…it was just fantastic. My wife came over and we rented a little apartment. I would learn in school, then go home and make what I had learned for her.
When you go to the market there, they are so picky about everything they get. Everyone is going through everything—you really talk to them, which is something that we don’t do as much here in America. There’s really a relationship with the grocers and the butchers. It’s very hands-on.
HS: Has that impacted the way you deal with your producers today?
SL: It’s hard to be this way when you have any volume. Right now I go to local producers. We have beets from Nash Farms, for example, and I’ll tell them “I love your beets, can I please buy them?” But I can’t get great local onions right now. And many local places have a finite amount, so you can only put so much on your menu, or you’ll exhaust their stock.
I think Seattle is great. I live in Ballard, and I’m really proud of our farmers’ market. They have a lot of great local produce; walking around that farmers market is great. That market wasn’t always so big, and it wasn’t always year-round. But it’s exploding, because there’s a market for it.
HS: How did you end up at Café Juanita?
SL: I had eaten here when I was in culinary school and I thought it was fantastic. I told Holly “I really want to work here; I will keep bothering you until you hire me.” Holly basically created a position for me. I was the prep-do-everything guy. And I worked my way up! In a few months it will be four years.
HS: Holly credits you with bringing her pasta program to the next level. How did you start with pasta?
SL: I remember being in Emilia-Romagna—that’s where I did my stage during school. I was in a hotel outside of a town outside of a tiny city, and I made tons and tons of pasta! I think the sauté chef had left, and the pasta person was going to take over sauté, so I volunteered. My first day on the pasta station at Café Juanita I asked to change a few things....
HS: What did you change?
SL: It’s technical, but…raviolini is one of the big things here, and they had been making a ridge down the vertical line of the pasta, and it created an air gap and made the pasta thicker on that ridge, so it cooked unevenly. They had been moving from the middle of the pasta sheet up, and then middle-down instead of going the same way every time, which pushes the air out in one direction.
I’ve heard people say that having a mistake on pasta by hand is ok, because it shows you made it by hand. But my take on that is that it should be perfect, so it shows how much you care!
I think we’re still getting better in this department. I went down to Quince in San Francisco and had four or five dishes that were all pasta. Their pasta part of the menu is larger and more composed than ours. We do ours simple—often in sage butter. Again, it’s making the ingredient part of the show. After Quince, I felt like we should have even more pasta on our menu!
HS: What is the difference between Northern and Southern Italian pasta?
SL: Southern Italy is mostly dried pasta; the recipes are usually just flour and water, and it’s a harder flour as well. The flour in Emilia-Romagna is softer, and they usually use whole eggs and flour. In Piemonte they use egg yolks. In the south, it’s flour and water, and extruded.
HS: Is there a technique that you’re especially excited about right now?
SL: Right now we’re cooking our poussin pressed, so it cooks more evenly. We take a heavy cast iron pan and line it with aluminum, and put that on it as it cooks. We put olive oil in the pan when it’s hot, add the chicken breast-side down, add butter to the pan, and press it. Then we flip it and throw it in the oven.
HS: What is one of your favorite underutilized, underappreciated ingredients?
SL: Vinegar. I think that vinegar is a great ingredient—it makes everything better! Acidity is so important to so many dishes. So often I’ll eat something and it needs salt and acidity to brighten it. Now with all the different vinegars out there, you can really tailor it. We use fig vinegar, and a cherry vinegar that we reduce with sugar to make gastrique. That goes on lamb with a Jerusalem artichoke bagna cauda. It’s a great combo of sweet, acidic, earthy, and it cuts the fattiness.
HS: How many people are in your kitchen?
SL: Eleven total.
HS: What question do you ask a potential line cook to get a sense of whether they’d be a good fit in your kitchen?
SL: What’s the last thing you cooked at home? If they don’t cook at home, I question how into it they are. And then it brings up an opportunity to talk about food.
HS: What’s your most indispensible kitchen tool?
SL: My sous chef, Kylie Smith! Other than her, a spoon. You can do everything with it! You baste, flip, stir, and taste everything with it.
HS: If you could go anywhere in the world for culinary travel, where would it be?
SL: Of course I love Italy, so Sicily…I’d also say China. I would love going to Hong Kong. I love dim sum and Chinese food, and it’s something that I don’t cook very much. Totally different flavors and techniques.
HS: What’s the best place for dim sum in Seattle?
SL: I’m still searching for the be-all, end-all place. I liked House of Hong, but I’ve heard mixed reviews. I had nor mai gai there once, and it was really good—it’s rice steamed in a lotus leaf with Chinese sausage.
HS: What’s next for you?
SL: For the restaurant, we’re going to try to do family-style dinners on Mondays. Right now we’re closed on Mondays, but we want to create a set menu for a small group of people and do show-stopping things that you can’t normally do at a restaurant. Like fish baked in salt, and making polenta and pouring it down the middle of a board for 10 people. It’s a Northern thing from Lombardia—you pour out the polenta, and they spoon out what they want, and there are condementi (condiments) all around.
For me specifically, in five years I want to have my own restaurant. Forty seats, Italian, I’m sure we’d be doing pasta…I’m moving towards that.
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