Interview with Chef Colin Patterson of Sutra - Seattle

March, 2009

JJ Proville: What initially got you into cooking?
Colin Patterson: My dad nudged me towards it. I used to play around with food when I was younger and my dad suggested to check out being a chef because it gives you freedom and ability to travel. So, I went for it and I really liked it.

JJP: You got into yoga and went to culinary school in Portland the same year. Were those events related to each other?
CP: It was a turning point in my life. I needed something to quiet my mind because I felt like a restless 22-year old. I needed to ground myself. There was a lot of transition going on at the time. Then I found a great yoga teacher in Portland and realized that was what I needed.

JJP: Did you work in any restaurants before culinary school?
CP: I’ve worked in the service industry since I was 15 years old. I worked for Arby’s, which was due to my dad no longer paying for my skiing. I was a busser, a host, waiter, and bartender. I pretty much had no cooking experience before I went to culinary school.

JJP: Would you recommend culinary school to aspiring cooks?
CP: It was good for me because it gave me a scientific understanding of why you do some things a certain way. It gave me a scientific understanding, but I didn’t get a whole lot of flavor understanding because French cooking didn’t inspire me a whole lot. The chefs there gave me a strong foundation, which is cool now because though my restaurant serves vegan cuisine, I still understand where certain things are needed. We don’t use eggs or cream, but I know where I can substitute coconut fat for cow fat. I’ve been able to interchange things and understand where I can find a vegetarian substitute.

Antoinette Bruno: What question gives you the most insight to a cook when you’re interviewing him/her for a position in your kitchen? What sort of answer are you looking for?
Colin Patterson: What do you most love about cooking? I'm looking for something that shows that they have a passion for food.

JJP: Who have you worked with that’s influenced you a lot?
CP: The reality is I never worked under too many chefs. I’m pretty much self-made in terms of my style. I got flung into a lead chef position right out of culinary school and from then on my culinary career was kind of driven like that. But I never worked underneath a great chef or for well-known restaurants. I pretty much figured it out because I had to. And I would say that the biggest influence on my cooking is based upon my yogic philosophy and lifestyle. It’s looking at the whole body and mind and understanding the energetic qualities and things like that.

AB: What is your philosophy on food and dining?
CP: Food is energy for our bodies and I feel that is forgotten a lot. My main goal for food is to make the body feel good through food that is true, light, looks great, and is fuel for the body. I took the last three years off from cooking. I saw a lot of waste in product, time, and energy. I wanted to keep things fresh and connected. If you make something a thousand times you start to lose the connection. A lot of times the best thing on the menu is the special because you give the dish more attention because it's new. So at Sutra we want to be fresh, and more focused. We have only four dishes, which are connected to the environment and the community.

JJP: What did you do during the three years you took off from cooking?
CP: I taught yoga in Seattle the whole time.

JJP: What brought you back to restaurant life? How did Sutra come about?
CP: My partner and I bought our house from our landlord who owned a space near us that was a failing restaurant. She liked us as people and proposed the space. At first I didn’t want to, but I always had this idea of how a restaurant works in a more conscious or more sustainable way. I was tired of all the waste that happens in restaurants. I didn’t feel good about the dysfunctional lifestyle and wasted energy that goes with it. I started talking with my partner and some friends and thought about how we could do it in a way that was sustainable. What really got me excited was the garden. We had a big plot and started thinking about growing herbs and composting.

AB: Why are you a vegetarian restaurant?
CP: For me it's a conscious choice. It's more sustainable for the planet and it feels good for me.

JJP: How often does the menu change?
CP: We do one vegetarian menu that’s a four course prix-fixe and it changes every week. We do two seatings a night.

AB: What trends do you see emerging?
CP: Conscious, organic, local, sustainable cooking. It's really needed and it's happening.

JJP: Have you taken steps to become a green restaurant?
CP: We compost everything and create such little garbage that I create more of it at my house. We’ve been composting for six months and we’ve created a gigantic pile of dirt that’s going right back into the garden. That’s the model that’s been driving the whole thing. It’s been really appreciated by the public. We also use organic produce, and we connect with local farmers and foragers. We built the restaurant ourselves and used non-toxic paint, salvaged old building materials, and got the best green toilet you can get. We bought a lot of materials from a place in Seattle called ReStore where they take old building materials and resell it. The posts underneath the bar are made from driftwood and we built the whole bar from a piece of recycled wood.

AB: What ingredient that you like do you feel is underappreciated or underutilized?
CP: Coconut milk, coconut butter. For me, being a vegetarian, I use them instead of milk or butter as a clean, fatty medium. You can use it in most applications the same way. I use it to make ice cream. I also love shiso and marjoram, which I don't think are used as much as they could be.

AB: What are your favorite flavor combinations?
CP: I love sweet and salty. Also, Earl grey chocolate truffles with black lava flake salt.

AB: What is your most indispensable kitchen tool?
CP: A chinois. You can make sauces, blend things together. I also love the Vita-Prep blender – I couldn't live without it.

AB: Where would you like to go for culinary travel?
CP: Europe. Back in the day I spent a year in Europe, but I wasn't a foodie then. I need to go back just for the food and the ingredients.

AB: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?
CP: Taste everything. Do what you like, not what you think other people will like.

AB: What is American Cuisine to you?
CP: Fusion of different cultures. Openness of not being tied to tradition or technique. We don't have any boundaries.

AB: What does success mean for you? Where will you be in five years?
CP: To have our yoga studio and the restaurant in one spot. In five years, maybe I’ll move to Hawaii for the warmth and the connection to nature.