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SPONTANEOUS MEALS : Chef 's Surprise : Meal Strategies: What happens when a professional chef is let loose in a home kitchen--with no prior knowledge of what's in the pantry or refrigerator? Good cooking.

July 07, 1994|SCHUYLER INGLE | Ingle, co-author of "Northwest Bounty: The Extraordinary Foods and Wonderful Cooking of the Pacific Northwest" (Simon & Schuster), lives in Seattle

SEATTLE — Summer with all its edible implications swims into the Pacific Northwest on the backs of salmon. Wild mushrooms arrive, garden peas, various Asian greens, strawberries, fava beans, asparagus, sweet onions, fresh herbs--the list goes on and on, the cornucopia spills over. It's a time for the spirited shopper to blast through the local supermarket, to hit the various weekend farmers markets, to grab a string bag and hoof it through the Pike Place Market.

It's a time, in other words, to shop for what looks terrific and carry that spontaneous enthusiasm for food back into the kitchen. The obverse of this is to shop for what's called for, as in the list of ingredients carefully transcribed from recipes, and to ignore all the other possibilities. What a bore.

So it came to pass, just the other day, that I found myself perusing the vegetables at Frank's Produce in the Pike Place Market. I bought basil and the first red-skin new potatoes of the season. My garden basil is weeks away, but Frank's apparently has some kind of greenhouse south of the city. The wild mushrooms at Sosio's caught my eye, both the morels and the big, meaty Oregon boletes.


There was nothing left to do but make a quick visit to the mightiest of the Seattle fish mongers, Harry Yoshimura at Mutual Fish.

Copper River king salmon, magnificent sea beasts as big and fleshy as Chinese temple dogs, had been running for a short time in Alaska. Harry assured me they were still in their prime (the season is only a few weeks long). He asked Junior, his assistant, to cut fillets through the shoulder of a salmon as big as a hulking ham. The two resulting fillets delivered up by Junior and his knife were easily four inches wide, twice as long, and two inches thick. A weighty load.

I reached home by 9:30 that morning with the makings of a meal and enough time to clean my kitchen. It's sort of a guy kitchen and tends to lean into the messy more often than not. Chef Scott Carsberg arrived at 10. He likes a clean kitchen and has somehow mastered the art of cooking and cleaning at one and the same time. He leaves no indication, other than a meal, that he has even been in the kitchen. Lunch for six would be served at noon.

The whole purpose of the exercise was to stand shoulder to shoulder with one of Seattle's premier chefs and watch cooking happen. Too often I stop taking inspiration from cookbooks and completely rely on them instead--at best a dull and slavish mindset. Here was the potential to travel to the heart of cooking. And even though a recipe or two might come out of the process, only Carsberg's creative juices would carry him through. He had fresh ingredients of the finest quality to mess with in any way he might like, as well as complete access to my pantry, freezer and refrigerator. And garden, I should add. When I told Carsberg what was growing down in the P-Patch he sent me off for sweet snow peas.

There are a lot of good cooks in Seattle restaurants. Carsberg stands out among them all as the one chef with the courage, the skill and the conviction to construct his plates with a simple palette, permitting the food to speak for itself and reveal its own inner elegance. He eschews hair-brained flavor and ingredient combinations that flop in and out of fashion with each passing menu. He doesn't handle his food a lot. Instead, he finds detail in a spare landscape and creates beautiful-looking dishes with a depth of flavor that completely envelops the lucky diner.

He is not the product of cooking schools but an instinctual cook who as a kid worked in frayed blue-collar Seattle restaurants, moved into high-end hotel kitchens by the time he was 16, then pushed on to work under Yannick Cam in Washington, D.C. before turning 20. Cam gave Carsberg's creative passion both discipline and direction.

But it was the opportunity to work for Andrea Helrigl at the Villa Mozart in Merano, Italy, that put Carsberg over the top. Not only did he have the challenge of a Michelin rating to maintain with his fellow chefs, he also had the finest ingredients imaginable to work with. The experience wasn't lost on him.

It is Seattle's great good fortune that most Pacific Northwest boys eventually come home. By the time Carsberg hit 30 he had opened Lampreia in downtown Seattle with his wife and partner Hyun-Joo Paek. The restaurant is charming, the food sublime, and the national food press is catching up. But more to the point: While I had the chance, I had the chef in my own kitchen and lunch guests soon to arrive.

He could have baked the salmon. And I was more than happy to fire up the charcoal outside to grill those luscious fillets. But Carsberg felt like poaching the fish. At most it would be warm by the time it was served. It seemed like that kind of day to him.

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