Hotel Chef Award: Adam Stevenson
Earth & Ocean | Seattle
Adam Stevenson is an utterly modern hotel chef—meaning he’s a top-rate culinary talent who is bringing creative fare to a stylish setting that just happens to be in a hotel. Earth & Ocean in the W Seattle has a long history of talent behind its stove (Jonathan Sundstrom, Maria Hines) but Stevenson has put his own twist on things with his expansive charcuterie program and his old world-meets-new-world flavor combinations.
The Old World seeds were sown early: Stevenson started in the kitchen of a local Albuquerque restaurant in high school, working side by side with the owner’s Italian mother. After high school, he moved to Portland, Oregon to attend the Western Culinary Institute, and soon after landed in Seattle as a prep cook at Tulio Ristorante under Chef Walter Pisano. He worked his way through every station and up to the title of executive sous before joining the W Seattle in 2001.
Stevenson has worked under a number of chefs, and in a number of positions, during his eight years at the W. He knows the hotel and its clientele in and out; all the better for crafting a menu that both pleases guests and keeps the restaurant on the radar as one of the city’s best.
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Heather Sperling: What was your first food job?
Adam Stevenson: I was a dishwasher at age 14 in my friend's father's restaurant. It was horrible! It was at the Montevista Fire Station in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was a busy, upscale restaurant; I was the weekend dishwasher with a friend from my soccer team. We'd be there until 2am cleaning up—the cooks were brutal!
HS: Where did you go from there?
AS: I had another dishwasher job that led to a prep cook position. As I was getting closer to my senior year in high school, I worked at an Italian restaurant called Mario's Ristorante. I ended up working in the kitchen with the owner's mother. That was my first real cooking job.
HS: Did you attend culinary school?
AS: I went to Western Culinary Institute in Oregon and graduated in 1990. I would recommend [culinary school], but nowadays the programs are really long. It's a two to four year program. Mine was a year, including an internship.
HS: What are some of your favorite flavor combinations?
AS: Celery and fennel—I don't think they're appreciated, and there are lots of combinations you can run with. Celery and truffle is an incredible flavor combination. Celery and peanuts, or any kind of nut. Fennel is very versatile and it finds its way into several of my dishes, whether its fennel pollen, bulb, or seeds. Celery and truffle, juniper and black pepper is a great pairing, especially with game.
HS: If you could go anywhere for culinary travel, where would you go?
AS: I'd start in London and then spend a lot of time in Italy, specifically Northern Italy, Alto Adige. I'd find my way down to Sardinia as well. They are cooking so simply and from the earth, and yet they get creative in so many ways. They do so much with their resources, and there's so much history to what they're doing.
HS: What defines your culinary philosophy and approach?
AS: I've always felt like my food starts with preparation and the right resources—the right farmers and right ingredients. I'm working from the ground up; the work goes into the flavor profile. For example, I do cured meats, and those cured meats find their way into lots of different dishes. I [focus on] European, Old World, old styles of cooking using classic techniques, like salamis, crepinettes, etc. Really paying attention to stocks and broths—the things that I call "the backbone ingredients." To me, it's a practice of building those flavors and learning from that experience day in and day out.
HS: How did you get into charcuterie?
AS: I always wanted to make sausage. My mom was always making kielbasa as I grew up, and we would buy sausage from the local meat market. Sausage is a comfort food in my mind. In culinary school I learned how to make fresh sausage, and it grew from there. When Salumi (Armandino Batali's place) opened, that kicked up some dust, and I realized that [charcuterie] is something that can be made in small batches, in America, in-house. I stumbled upon different techniques, a few mentors, and some resources, and got more and more information about how to make a salami and cured meats.
HS: What were some of your best resources?
AS: Paul Bertoli's book, Olivetto, is the best salami and charcuterie book out there as far as the precautionary scientific angle. I have The Professional Charcuterie series by a group of German chefs—they've got hundreds of different kinds of charcuterie in different forms. Crazy artistic products, too. Armandino Batali taught me the first steps for making prosciutto, and I made my first one at his facility, and then started doing it here.
HS: How do you offer it on the menu?
AS: There’s a charcuterie and cheese plate on the room service menu. And we have every style that we have available printed on the menu in three price-point choices: one sample for $7, three for $13, or five for $17. We always have six to nine varieties available at any time. There's always salami, pate, a cured meat or two, a rillette, and sometimes a smoked item.
JJ Proville: Describe the extent of your F&B operation at W Seattle. Do you do catering, banquets, and room service?
AS: I oversee the W Bar, Earth & Ocean, in-room dining, banquets, and catering. All of those outlets are under my direction.
JJP: Which of those outlets requires the most of your energy?
AS: W Bar and Earth & Ocean require most of my attention. I do have a banquet chef. He and I collaborate on the menus and the direction of the team.
JJP: Do most of the Earth & Ocean guests come from the hotel?
AS: About 60% come from the hotel.
JJP: How about for the W Bar?
AS: The W Bar does really well with the locals. It’s pretty busy every night. We have a couple of weekly events, one called Sip on Wednesday nights and one called Sin that we do on Saturdays. We get a pretty good draw on that. Both of them are happy hour driven menus with food and beverage.
JJP: Is your charcuterie is featured on the menu at the W Bar?
AS: Yes it is.
HS: What’s next for you?
AS: I'm really committed to another two years here [at Earth & Ocean] —I've got some things to do! Five years from now, I'll possibly have my own place, probably in Seattle. I'd love to spend some time in London and the English countryside, and definitely Italy.
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