Interview with Chef Maria Hines of Tilth - Seattle

March, 2009

Heather Sperling: How did you get into food and cooking?
Maria Hines: I hated school. I wanted to do something that was creative. You can always work as a cook—there are always jobs out there. I was 17 when I first started working in a restaurant. I went to Mesa College, a community college in San Diego connected with ACF. I staged at a one-Michelin star restaurant in France, and was the executive sous chef at 15 Ria in Washington, DC. I went to NYC and spent a few months at Eleven Madison Park, then got a call from someone at the W Seattle; they said Jonathan [Sundstrom] was leaving, so I went. I was at Earth & Ocean as chef for two and a half years, then opened up here.

HS: Who do you look up to in the industry?
MH: I worked for Danny Meyer for about five minutes at Eleven Madison Park under Kerry Heffernan. As a restaurateur, he does good, socially responsible business. I think that's an important way to run your business. He does a lot of community outreach and had done a lot for the industry. He's good to his staff…all things I aspire to do. Alice Waters: she was right there in the forefront as far as sustainability is concerned, and getting it out there. Her school lunch program is really amazing, and the whole local/seasonal [thing]—she's put a lot of work into that effort.

HS: How did Tilth come about?
MH: Tilth opened in September 2006. I'm the owner and I have six silent investors. [The restaurant is] ninety-five percent certified organic through Oregon Tilth. Oregon Tilth is a non-profit organic certification group—they’re one of the toughest organizations to get certified through. I'm only the second restaurant in the US that's certified organic through Oregon Tilth (Nora's in DC being the first). Everything except the wild products are organic. Foraged ingredients, wild seafood, and some wild game, of course, aren't certified. We buy as local as possible and I do business with as many local businesses as I can to try to keep the money in the state and support other small businesses.

HS: Is sustainability as important to you as organics?
MH: Yes, sustainable is definitely as important. I opened this restaurant in three weeks. As soon as I got the keys, I opened up in three weeks with the help of four people. We hand-sanded all of these chairs, we put bamboo hardwood plywood on all the tables; all the paint is done by a local, green painter, we made the curtains…. We didn't have any money, and also from a sustainability standpoint, you save a lot of energy and reduce your carbon footprint by doing it yourself. Our paper towels and toilet paper are recycled; our tampons in the bathroom are organic. We recycle, compost—it’s how I live, and I always knew that if I was going to open a restaurant it would be the same way.
We just put in a new patio. It's a wood from South America, it's monitored by the FSC (Forestry Sustainable Council), and you can actually track the wood back to the specific tree, and the money goes right back to the village. The menu paper is recycled… I just try to do as much as I can. I've worked in some corporations and hotels, and you just get to a point where you're making a decision to follow what you believe in.

HS: What do you like best about Seattle?
MH: I love it here because of the social consciousness and people are really conscious from an environmental standpoint. And you can watch the food grow around you. I think Seattle is on the forefront of sustainability. We have incredible access to farms right outside the city. We have a large number of farmers markets in a majority of the neighborhoods, so it’s very accessible. It makes it easy.

HS: What are some of your favorite ingredients?
MH: I'm a big fan of celery root in the winter. I think it has a nice, subtle brightness to it. If I put it on a dish, I like to use three different applications: a coulis, a fresh salad, and caramelized celery root, so you can get the different aspects from a flavor and textural standpoint.

HS: Is there a technique that you have created or adapted in an interesting way?
MH: We cook our vegetables en sous vide. We prep them and then cook them en sous vide with their own juice to really intensify the flavor.

HS: How often does the menu change?
MH: I change the menu once a month so I can stay in-tune with the seasons, and I base it off what the local farmers have got coming up out of the ground. I place orders with them once a week. My forager brings wild mushrooms, wild lettuces, sea beans, huckleberries.

HS: Do you offer tasting menus?
MH: We put together a vegan tasting menu once a month. We are all organic so a lot of people think we are vegetarian too, but we love our meat! We have a lot of vegans coming in, though, so it's nice to offer the menu. We do a tasting menu on Mondays called “Homage to Local Producers.” It's a prix fix four-course for $45. We pick one producer and feature their product. I do wine pairings to go with it for $20. The regular menu has large plates and small plates, so we encourage people to taste a lot.

HS: If you weren’t a chef, what would you be doing?
MH: Photography. I don't do so much these days. That was one of my picks—either that or cooking, and cooking seemed more stable.

HS: Where will we find you in five years?
MH: I'll still be here! That's the plan. This is definitely what I want to be doing. I'm going to say I don't want to open another restaurant, but who knows what's going to happen. It's a lot of work and I'm scared to lose control of the kitchen, but you don't make money in restaurants like this…so who knows. I'm open.