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CHEF // Open to Interpretation

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Chef David Mork dares to be defined

Story by Emily Hutto // Photograph by Annalou Vincent

David Mork places a platter of barbecue shrimp next to my pint glass and folds his arms as he takes a seat across the table from me. He grins proudly while I take my first bite of sweet fish swimming in a blend of smoky Worcestershire sauce and green onion.

“That sauce is about one-third beer,” says Mork, owner and chef of Lapellah restaurant, located in Vancouver, Washington. “In fact it’s [made with] the beer you’re drinking—Everybody’s Brewing Daily Bread Ale.”

His sauce also includes lemon, butter, and house-made hot sauce, but I’m having trouble focusing on anything except my next dunk of crusty baguette into said sauce, which is so good that I’m actually considering drinking it straight. Mork diverts my attention, though, when he says that this house-made Worcestershire has been aged in old oak barrels for two weeks before hitting my plate.

“Oak softens the acidity and edges on a lot of things,” he says. “For the hot sauce it makes it so you can taste the subtle flavor nuances.”

Mork started barrel aging hot sauce by recommendation of his staff, many of whom are involved in compiling Lapellah’s seasonal-meets-rustic menu. “Everybody adds their own bits and pieces and my job is to grab those and make it a collective whole,” says Mork. He’s been orchestrating the bits and pieces since he opened Lapellah two and a half years ago. But before embarking on Lapellah, Mork worked closely with locally-known Vancouver chef Brad Root to manage Roots and 360º Pizzeria, two Northwest-inspired, locally sourced restaurants with seasonal menus.

Mork’s mindfulness regarding food originated long before his days at Roots and 360º. He grew up on a fifth-generation cattle ranch in Montana; by age five he was already out hunting, and by age 10 he was making his own jerky. He also did a lot of gardening and cooking with his mom. Going out to eat was a rarity, as all of his meals could generally be compiled with ingredients from his backyard. “Whether I knew it or not, I started building my ideology as a kid,” he says. “I got to see how important local is.”

Years later, buying local is more than just a priority for Mork—it’s an imperative. He works almost exclusively with farmer April Jones to stock Lapellah’s pantry. Just this morning he spent two hours walking through her fields near Ridgefield, Washington to plan an upcoming Harvest Dinner, for which the menu is based solely on what Jones has available this week. Jones’ certified-organic farm produces one-and-a-half acres of mixed vegetables, is home to Tamworth heritage hogs, and grows a variety of apple, fig, cherry, pear, and plum trees.

I’ve devoured my shrimp platter, and as I unabashedly lick the remaining sauce off my fingers, I ask Mork what else I can find on his menu. He says it depends on the day and today there are smoked mozzarella-stuffed polenta fritters with sweet tomato jam, a meat, cheese, and pickle plate with fennel mustard, a cobb salad with asparagus, and Washington mussels.

For the staff at Lapellah, summer yields not only a variety of produce, but also ideal opportunities for pickling veggies like turnips, onions, okra, asparagus, green beans, and anything else they can get their hands on from Jones’ farm. They can tomatoes and preserve brandied cherries to spice up dishes during the winter when local produce is scarce. Mork likes to pair leg of lamb with brandied cherry compound butter, kale, and roasted squash. “If certain produce and certain proteins were [harvested during] the same season it would be really amazing,” he says, “but the only way to make that occur responsibly is to preserve.”

No matter the season, every dish at Lapellah is loaded with bold flavors, thanks in part to the wood burning grill that you can see and smell when entering the restaurant. Mork’s vision of Lapellah is less refined and more countrified, and the wood fire is a perfect complement. “When we opened I was really into fire,” says Mork. “It adds flavor and ambiance. And I like the cooks to be more involved in what they’re doing. With a wood fire the possibilities are endless.” The dishes at Lapellah are full of flavor and well-executed, yet casual enough to make you feel as if you might be at a backyard gathering.

While most restaurants define their style as “Italian” or “Northwest,” Mork wanted Lapellah’s style to be open to interpretation. Though the menu was originally Cajun-inspired, Mork doesn’t want to be pigeonholed. “I don’t believe that a restaurant has to be one type of cuisine. I wanted to be able to create things on a whim, and have a space that is malleable.”

His approach to the bar is the same. The beer and wine he chooses are based on what’s in season, what’s local, and what he likes best with the current food menu. On tap during my visit was
Na Zdraví Czech-style pilsner from Southern Oregon Brewing in Medford, Oregon, Firestone Walker Union Jack IPA from Paso Robles, California, and S1NIST0R black ale from 10 Barrel Brewing in Bend, Oregon, to name a few. Mork also has a limited, but carefully curated bottled beer list. An extensive wine selection is organized by state, and the cocktail menu includes specialties with spicy apricot nectar and lemonade with spiced ginger beer. But don’t expect the same thing on the drink menu twice because, as Mork puts it, “Lapellah is a constant evolution.”

I’ve struck a chord with Mork, who continues to explain why Lapellah’s amorphous nature is what makes it so appealing. “I think restaurants have life spans,” he says. “They become fashionable and unfashionable. You don’t have one style your whole life—your tastes change, your style changes, If you leave [a restaurant] open to interpretation, then people will come. And if you have good food and service then people will come. Your clientele might change along the way, but that’s okay. The [main] idea is to be around for a while.”

Lapellah is booming during our Thursday lunch. Well past the lunch hour, tables are filled with customers. Mork crosses one denim-covered leg and I notice that the bottoms of his jeans are slightly tattered. He’s far from disheveled; he’s actually clean cut, but he still makes his customers look overdressed.

I glance above me at the light structure made out of forks and spoons and then around at the tall wooden panels that separate the room. I breathe in the smoky scent of meat sizzling over the fire and take my last swig of beer. Though this restaurant seems extravagant, it’s actually refreshingly simple. Mork relies on local products and natural processes like wood aging and fire but prefers to let the ingredients do the talking. All you have to do is listen.

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