What do you do once you win a James Beard Award? Is it kick-back-and-enjoy-the-ride time, or an opportunity to take even bigger risks? To find out, we caught up with Johnathan Sundstrom, whose work at Lark, an earthy Seattle neighborhood restaurant, won him 2007’s Best Chef: Northwest in May. At Lark, he cooks dishes atypical for the region (salmon, in other words, often takes a back seat), like roasted baby carrots with Italian sunflower honey, and duck egg omelet with Serrano ham and piquillo peppers. Sundstrom’s branching out further with Licorous, a late-night cocktail and small bites lounge he opened last year as a way to handle the overflow of Lark.
Between running two restaurants (luckily, they’re next door to each other) and preparing for an event for 800 people, Sundstrom managed to talk a little shop with CHOW. He dished on how winning the James Beard Award changes things, what he cooks when he wants to impress a mentor chef, and his newest invention: ham powder.
There are six different categories on Lark’s menu: cheese, vegetable/grains, charcuterie, fish, meat, and desserts. What’s the easiest one for you to tweak?
Cheese is really easy because we’re trying to work with a lot of different people. Like this week, we have this bittersweet Evangeline, a really great little goat cheese from Louisiana. We were only able to get 15 of them, so those’ll be gone by the time we change our menu next Thursday.
But is there one category that’s easiest for you to change because of your natural affinity for it?
Not necessarily. My sous-chef and some of the cooks in the kitchen who are very talented, we’ll sit down and talk about things every night. We usually have a little meeting at the end of the night, just to say, “How did everything go?”
What was the meeting like last night?
We talked about a group of 14 coming in tonight. They’re good friends from the Oystercatcher [restaurant] on Whidbey Island, and [include] Susan Vanderbeek, the godmother of a lot of chefs in Seattle. She was, if not the opening chef, then nearly the opening chef of [Café] Campagne, and lots of talented people came out of the kitchen after working for her.
So what are you planning for her?
Well, we know it’s a special occasion because she will be retiring within six months or a year, so we [thought], “We need to do something really great.” We have just enough scallops in-house left over from our special last night, so we’ll do seared scallops with corn, peas, and a little lobster emulsion sauce. We have just enough orders of our abalone dish to give to that party. We’re putting together a rabbit loin, bacon-wrapped, probably with lobster mushrooms. Have you ever had those? They’re really great—bright coral-colored mushrooms, and they just started. When you get to the very beginning of a season, everyone’s superexcited to use the newest thing.
What’s the newest thing on the menu?
We actually changed several dishes entirely last week.
Oh, let’s see. It’s funny, with two restaurants and a three-year-old, last week seems so long ago to me. And I’m also getting ready for the International Pinot Noir Celebration in McMinnville, Oregon, just south of Portland. We’ve been invited to go there and cook for 800 people. I have 350 squab coming in on Tuesday, cases of mushrooms, cases of corn, so I’ve got a lot in my head right now.
How did you come up with that course?
It’s a very discerning crowd; they love to travel, they love great wine and great food, so we wanted to do something that would be special and impressive. We chose squab because most of the dinner is paired with Pinot Noir, and I just felt that that would be a good match. And because it’s summer, we’re doing a corn and sweet onion relish on the side, and a little teeny corn cake, [along with] a morel confit. I found a [morel mushroom] forager who drives for three hours and hikes in four hours and packs out 70 pounds. So they’re very fresh, and someone worked hard for them.
Now that you’ve won the James Beard Awards, what has changed for you?
A lot of times people will say, “We read about you, and we’re coming because you’re doing great things.” So of course we don’t want to disappoint. I would say that yeah, we feel more than ever that we gotta be on our game, really pushing hard to do a good job. We’re already seeing a little bump in our summer business, and we’re getting even more calls and invitations to go places and do things.
Is there any cross-pollination that occurs between your restaurants—say, with an idea that starts at Licorous and winds up at Lark?
Yeah, definitely. We decided that Licorous would be a little more playful and international in style. I almost think of it as a place to test things out—maybe we’ll try a new technique or do something that’s a little edgier, and if it works and we like it, then maybe when it’s run its course at Licorous we can do it at Lark.
We were doing a ham powder. After you’ve sliced the whole leg of Serrano or prosciutto, you always have some pieces that are hard to use up. Sometimes we can dice it and put it in a stuffing or make a stock out of it, but you can also dehydrate it and then grind it up and use it as is or mix it with salt. We were doing something with that at Licorous last summer, and now we’ve adopted it at both restaurants as this great little condiment.
It’s great with just barely warm asparagus, and we were [using it with] poached eggs, or a soft-boiled egg. A little sprinkling of the Serrano ham powder gives it this meaty richness—not like a slice of Serrano, just this meaty hint. My sous-chef there, Aleks Dimitrijevic, he’s worked in some really great places, and definitely some edgier places [like Mugaritz in Spain], so we’re learning some good techniques from him.
Are you interested in anyone else’s cooking right now? Or have any new favorite cookbooks?
I always have a strong interest in Japanese food; that was one of my first jobs. There’s a book that’s been out for a few years, the Shunju cookbook. It’s a restaurant in Tokyo, but the book itself is great—it has incredible photos—and there’s a picture of this feast that the restaurant does in the spring right before the bamboo shoots pop up. They actually get their whole restaurant crew to go out and harvest them in the forest, because you need to pick them and eat them that day. So what they started to do is bring the restaurant to the forest. They set up a table for 20 and have this whole menu based on bamboo shoots that they pick and serve within a few hours. To me, that’s just such a great ideal to work toward someday—to be able to be that connected to your food source is amazing.