Mark Fuller of Spring Hill

Mark Fuller of Spring Hill
March, 2009

Spring Hill

Seattle, Seattle


West Seattle was a culinary wasteland before Mark Fuller came along. Now he’s luring foodies from Seattle, Bellevue, and beyond with his Northwest seafood-focused cuisine at Spring Hill. Fuller learned from a local master: he spend the majority of his career with Tom Douglas, working his way up the ladder from line cook to executive chef of Douglas’s flagship restaurant, The Dahlia Lounge.

Fuller is a Seattle native. Prior to attending the Culinary Institute of America, he worked with notable Hawaii chef Jean-Marie Jocelyn; post-school, he was the chef at Lucy’s Table in Portland, Oregon before joining Douglas’s team.

Fuller always knew he wanted his own place, so after seven years with Douglas he left to open the 74-seat Spring Hill in an old florist shop a mile from his house in West Seattle. Spring Hill serves his interpretation of Northwest Cuisine, and seafood is definitely the star. The focal point of the oversized, single-page menu is the central section devoted to seafood dishes, ranging from local oysters on the half-shell to razor clam sausage and Northwest shrimp and grits. Fuller says that 95% of his ingredients are from the Pacific Northwest, and with the casual-chic Spring Hill he’s brought excellent, distinctly Northwest cuisine to a new part of the city.

Interview with Chef Mark Fuller of Spring Hill - Seattle

Heather Sperling: What was your first job in the culinary industry?
Mark Fuller:
Bussing tables at a restaurant called Duke's here in town in 1986. It was a deli; I started making sandwiches after a year. It wasn't because I loved cooking; it was because I needed a job. I went into management at that company, and I realized that I couldn't go anywhere else and have the same kind of job. I realized I didn't know what I was doing, why I did it, so I went to culinary school. I moved to Hawaii first while I was waiting to get into school, and I worked at A Pacific Café with Jean-Marie Jocelyn and that's the first time I really saw food.

HS: You spent seven years with Tom Douglas. What did you learn from him?
MF: I started off with him as a line cook at Etta's. They don't hire management from outside. You need to show a level of commitment; move up from within. So I took a step back to move up. I worked hard and it was a great experience—one of my best experiences in my career. First and foremost, he's a great boss. He really brings people up and makes them better in more ways than cooking. I really looked up to him in that regard, and aspired to be more like him in that aspect. And he knows a ton about food. He and Eric Tanaka as well—that's his corporate chef. I think I became a better cook—cooking more a la minute, cooking more fresh, balancing flavors, layering flavors.

HS: Did you always want to own your own place?
MF: Yes, opening my own restaurant has always been a goal of mine. After I finished school I was the chef at Lucy's Table in Portland; I opened a couple of restaurants, but that was the most fun. I felt Tom Douglas was where I'd get experience running a restaurant, and after that, this was the next step.

HS: What is the concept?
MF: I'm from Seattle; I've cooked here most of my career, and I wanted to represent the Northwest. The restaurant is based on what we have to offer, and it's what I think Northwest cuisine is and can be. It's hard to define in words…I think when you ask anybody what Northwest cuisine is, nothing comes to mind in the way that Southern food has its dishes, and Philly has a cheesesteak. Here [in the Northwest], there's smoked salmon and shellfish, so here [at the restaurant] we have a shellfish section that's the center section of our menu. Oysters, clams, geoduck, and more.

HS: How has the concept evolved?
MF: We have changed our approach a little since we have opened. We decided that we would like to offer our customers more. It is hard to serve a menu that is 95% local, especially in the winter, in the Pacific Northwest. The majority (80% or so, give or take) of our menu is focused on regional food stuffs. People want what the Pacific Northwest has to offer and then some. So do we. We absolutely intend to carry out our dedication to what our region offers.

HS: Who are the clientele?
MF: The clientele is mostly neighborhood, but it's becoming a bit of a destination restaurant. We get clientele from Bellevue and downtown Seattle, and it's really not that far to get to West Seattle from downtown. We're really the only chef-driven restaurant over here.

HS: How else do you focus on sustainability?
MF: We have a garden in the back—it’s small, just 1/8 of an acre. It's in the back yard of my house, a mile away. We have six beds; right now we just have a cover crop, beets, and carrots—things to harvest in the spring. Next year we hope to have lettuces and whatnot. We use Ever Pure filtration and carbonation system. We also compost with a company called Cedar Grove. In the design of Spring Hill we installed a water purifying system. We have been purifying our drinking water and offer it sparkling or still. We have never imported or sold a single bottle of water.

HS: What’s your favorite interview question when you are hiring a member of your staff?
MF: What cookbook or food periodicals are you currently reading?

HS: What are your favorite restaurants off the beaten path in Seattle?
Taqueria La Fondita #2 for sopes and lengua tacos, and Szechuan Noodle Bowl for vegetable dumplings and scallion pancakes.

HS: If you could go anywhere for culinary travel, where would you go and why?
MF: To China, to learn more about hand-pulled noodles.

HS: What is one of your favorite underutilized, underappreciated ingredients?
Celery—I use celery in a lot of different aspects beyond mirepoix. I use it fresh in our mignonettes, and we use it as a garnish in heavy dishes. We garnish short ribs with celery, capers, anchovy, and acid. We braise it... It's great.

HS: What trends are you seeing in the Seattle dining scene?
Everyone is going a little more casual—that's been happening for a while. I see other chefs really trying to focus on sourcing ingredients from much closer to home. And simpler food. That's one thing we strive to do—to not get in the way of the ingredient, so you really know what you're eating. I don't think fine dining is going to come back around for 8 to 10 years. It might not even be that long—it will come back around.

HS: What’s next for you?
We're thinking about doing noodles. I'm Japanese and Dutch. We're working on hand-pulling our own noodles. Brunch starts next weekend, and [a dish with noodles] is on the menu. We're going to start small here, ramen-style.