Story by Kendall Jones // Photograph by Cleary O’Farrell
When I stepped out of my car onto the soggy earth I immediately realized that I should have worn my rubber boots. It is not every day that I have a legitimate excuse to pull on my XtraTufs. Visiting a working farm the day after a full night’s rain is as good an excuse as any. I wandered down the gravel trail past the apple orchard and found Brian Scheehser, executive chef at Trellis in Kirkland, Washington, near an arbor covered with hops. He shook my hand and then handed me something purple.
“It’s called anise hyssop,” he said. “It has an intense bitter quality. It’s not used very often for cooking, more for medicinal uses.” I rubbed the purple blossoms between the palms of my hands, roughing up the dense, furry petals, and then lifted my hands to my nose. The aroma was almost like licorice, but more vibrant and intoxicating.
Scheehser seemed very relaxed on his farm, which he has been building for the past 13 years. The concept of farm to table, or field to feast, is well-known these days, but Scheehser has been practicing it for years. Many restaurants forge relationships with local farms to secure access to the freshest produce possible. Scheehser not only secures relationships with local producers, but continues to operate his own 10-acre farm that’s just 15 minutes from the restaurant.
“This is epazote,” he said, handing me a green and yellow twig. I seized the opportunity to sound knowledgeable and mentioned that one of our local nanobreweries—Epic Ales in Seattle—actually made a Mexican-themed beer with epazote. The herb is said to remedy intestinal gas and other digestive distresses. “Interesting choice for a beer,” Scheehser said.
“One of the great things about having a farm like this is that we get to grow all this stuff.” Brian started pointing around the garden, “Italian purple basil, chocolate mint, pineapple sage, calendula, Jerusalem artichokes… some of this stuff is expensive. Some of it is hard to find. We can make dishes using things we grow here that would otherwise be too expensive for the menu.”
The garden is not full of only specialty produce, though. Scheehser also grows zucchini, onions, carrots, lettuce, and other staples. Depending on the season, the farm provides up to 30 percent of the produce served at Trellis. “For our winter stores, we harvested over 3,000 winter squash in addition to what we purchased from other small farmers. We had 1,500 tomato plants in the field this year.”
We wandered around the farm like two men without a care in the world. I tried to picture Scheehser in a hectic restaurant kitchen, yelling like Gordon Ramsay at sous chefs on the other side of the pass. It didn’t fit. Strolling between rows of eggplant and squash reminded me that the entire world slows and hushes with clean dirt under your fingernails and freshly tilled earth
beneath your feet.
As we strolled through rows of vegetables, Scheehser told me about growing up in the Connecticut River Valley of Massachusetts and attending the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. He began his professional culinary career in Chicago where he served as an apprentice to Chef Lucien Verge at L’Escargot. He made his way to Seattle and worked at the Sorrento Hotel and eventually became the executive chef at The Hunt Club—the Sorrento’s venerated restaurant. Five years ago, Scheehser became the executive chef at Trellis. When his day job moved from downtown Seattle to the nearby suburbs, very near his farm in the Sammamish River Valley, he began to ramp up production.
An hour and a half later it was time to leave the farm. Without me realizing it, Scheehser had been foraging for my pantry. The day’s harvest included fresh peppers, Japanese eggplant, shell beans, spaghetti squash, yellow and red onions, zucchini, heirloom tomatoes, and a handful of freshly picked apples. As we loaded my car, I thanked him profusely. I could tell he was pleased and hardly thought thanks were necessary.
Two days later I met with Scheehser again, this time at Trellis. I was sitting at the bar marveling at the beer selection. He dipped a small butter knife into a glass of golden syrup and offered it to me. The intense flavors in the hop-infused cider were floral, acidic, bitter, and sweet. The apples and the hops tasted like they were still alive. I imagined how it would taste when drizzled over a piece of perfectly cooked salmon.
Once I recovered from the mind-blowing taste of the syrup, I asked Scheehser about the beer selection. For an elegant, upscale restaurant in a boutique hotel, the draft beer selection was superb, featuring Lost Abbey Serpent Stout, Duvel Single, Scuttlebutt Amber Ale, Port Mongo Double IPA, among others. None of the eight taps were lost to mundane beer. This is no accident—Scheehser encourages his bar manager to keep the restaurant’s eight taps rotating and interesting.
“I like giving our customers the opportunity to taste different and interesting things. My brother is a homebrewer and we’ve had a lot of beer together. He helped me learn to appreciate different styles and different beers. Our bar menu is all about food that goes with beer. One of our most popular items last year was fried smelt. People went crazy for them and they are perfect with beer.”
Scheehser admits that he loves hoppy beers. When asked for a favorite food and beer pairing, he said, “A New York strip, dry rubbed with a robust herb mix and blackened, served with a Hopworks Ace of Spades.”
Trellis occasionally hosts beer dinners, pairing the beers of a particular brewery with Scheehser’s culinary creations. It was at one such dinner last spring that I tasted the fried smelt served in a paper cone like Belgian pomme frites, paired with the Organic Lager from Hopworks Urban Brewery in Portland, Oregon. The smelt were battered and fried whole. Visually, they could almost be mistaken for steak-cut French fries. The diminutive morsels of fried fishy goodness pairs nicely with just about any beer, but I have trouble imagining how they might pair with a martini or a Merlot. Scheehser acknowledges that the bar menu changes seasonally but he continuously focuses on foods that go well with beer.
Scheehser and I made our way into the kitchen, where he seemed as relaxed as he did on the farm. He seared a piece of salmon with the same ease as picking a sprig of epazote, offering advice over his shoulder to one of the prep cooks as he managed the flames flaring around the fish. At the same time, in another pan, Scheehser demonstrated how to make the hop-infused cider reduction.
Back in the bar, the hot dish hit the table. Paired with a glass of Duvel Single, the exquisite salmon, garnished with watercress and apples, glistened with the apple-hop syrup; it was a temptation I could not resist. Having followed this meal from farm to table, I was immensely satisfied.
As I had done two days earlier at the farm, I thanked Scheehser profusely. Once again, I could tell that he was pleased and hardly thought thanks were necessary.
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