The Whale Wins - Seattle

As a home cook, I'm admittedly star-struck and admiring of any successful chef who rises to the top and is self-taught, but the possibility of cooking amazing food without formal training seemed mythical to me after suffering a particularly humiliating attempt with a difficult recipe. The moment I realized I wanted to learn to cook better because I wanted to eat better, the thought of culinary school crossed my mind ...

"But I'm too old and I just finished paying off my insanely inflated college loans obtained 20+ years ago," I'd tell myself, flipping lazily through cookbooks in search of more simplistic recipes. What's Renee Erickson got that I ain't got, I wondered (probably aloud and probably to myself as I wouldn't want to poll the public for that answer ...).

Apparently, she has a lot: she's got a James Beard nomination under her belt and she's the owner of several Seattle-based restaurants, among them The Walrus and the Carpenter - her iconic oyster bar, and her newest location, The Whale Wins, which was on my list of "not-to-miss" places during my recent trip to the Pacific Northwest.

It all started for Renee with the realization she loved cooking for people. She grabbed anyone willing to help her (immediate family memebers included) and got about the business of doing just that. Most importantly, she didn't try to make herself into something she's not. The cuisine at her restaurants inflects the food she likes to cook.

Vegetables from local gardens, meat from nearby farms and seafood from Seattle's coastline make their way into Renee's wood-fired ovens at The Whale Wins and then happily onto welcoming diner's plates. I wanted to be one of those diners.

And so I went, dragging my sister and brother-in-law along so we could all get different cocktails and a variety of small dishes to share. I was most excited to try her roasted carrots with fennel, harrisa and yogurt - a dish she includes in her cookbook and one I'd enjoyed at home but was anxious to sample from a wood-fired oven. We were pleased and satiated with all the dishes that were placed in front of us; Matiz sardines on toast with curried tomato paste and shaved fennel, roasted manila clams with potato, mustard greens, onion, celery and tomato paquillo sauce, half a roasted chicken on toast with tonnato, bread and butter rhubarb and herbs,  and a roasted crab bathed in a spicy chile sauce.

The roasted carrots I'd made at home were simply missing that kiss of smoke that comes only from open-fired cooking, but otherwise, I felt confident that I could have presented the dish myself - perhaps I should get that cookbook off the shelf and work on mastering the rest of Renee's European-inspired cuisine. I'll put the idea of culinary school back on the shelf for now.