It was barely spring when several area chefs and food writers gathered around the table at Quillisascut Farm School.
The weekend retreat in Rice, Wash., organized by Latah Bistro chef David Blaine, was equal parts discussion and shared meals.
The chefs wanted to talk about how diners in the Inland Northwest think about their food, find ways to encourage them to celebrate the connection between what is happening in restaurants, kitchens and on area farms, and even, nudge more than a few people to be more adventurous with their eats.
It wasn’t the first time they’d had the talk. A year earlier, the chefs gathered without writers to mull some of the same questions. They left with plans to invite eaters to join the discussion, by gathering in regular shared dinners and providing a virtual bulletin board to keep people talking between meals.
The Eatspokane.org potlucks were well attended, but somewhere along the way faded to an ongoing silence.
This time, something was different.
Though they didn’t say it, two of the chefs at the table already had plans. Blaine and chef Adam Hegsted, who oversees dining at the Coeur d’Alene Casino, were both working on underground movable feasts.
Santé Restaurant and Charcuterie owner and chef Jeremy Hansen, who participated the year before but couldn’t be at this spring’s retreat, also was up to something.
And there were others at work on ideas that would infuse the area with new food experiences beyond restaurant dining that some might have thought impossible for a midsized city that’s had a long love affair with chain restaurant food and a tendency to leave food trends to cities like Seattle and Portland.
The new dining opportunities eschew convenience, fast food and expectation for intention, intrigue and anticipation. After four months, there are four new ways to dine, including everything from a simple grass-fed beef burger on a homemade bun to 15 courses of pure culinary hedonism.
“I think we just needed to stop talking about it, and just do something about it,” says Hegsted. “I was thinking about Portland because it has a lot of these sorts of underground dinners … people eating at a communal table. I just decided to try our version of it.”
He loves the community that is created at the table by the end of the evening.
“You all have something in common already just because you’re all at the same place,” he says. “It helps to get the conversation going.”
Hegsted says he was just finalizing plans for his movable feasts, The Wandering Table, when an e-mail from Blaine’s Pop-Up Restaurant landed in his inbox.
The chefs tried to keep their efforts a secret at first. Blaine says he created a new e-mail account for the Pop-Up, but forgot to remove his name from one of the Google e-mail menus. Hegsted gave some clues about his background that gave away his identity before the first event.
Rather than a shared dinner, Pop-Up diners get a last-minute e-mail about how to find the traveling food stand and the menu. The first Pop-Up was about a mile and a half down the Fish Lake biking and walking trail and served only local beef burgers on buns made from regional Shepherd’s Grain wheat.
Blaine says he’s just trying to keep up with the area’s changing palate, not create a new culture.
“It would be false to say that I was actually trying to change anything. I think that the culture has changed and what hasn’t happened is that businesses haven’t changed to keep up with it,” he says.
He says he was talking recently with a longtime restaurant owner who has kept meticulous records for more than 15 years. Looking back at the records gave them an idea of what to expect from year to year, considering circumstances such as weather, events and holidays.
Blaine says that about three years ago, everything stopped making sense.
“Look at what is happening. It is happening in other parts of the country, but even here,” he says.
“The culture has changed, an influx of different people has changed it, changing lifestyles have changed it, the economy has changed it in the last year some. I’m not trying to change the culture, I’m just trying to figure out how to quit looking like wagon wheel makers in the age of the automobile.”
He initially was working on getting a food cart. He said he worked up a business plan and met with a business mentor group, but in the end tightened lending standards made it impossible for him to get a loan.
After one particularly bad meeting on a sunny January day, Blaine said he drove by the Fish Lake trailhead and watched as walkers and bikers headed out.
“Why did this get so complicated? It’s grown unnecessarily,” he remembers wondering. “All I wanted to do was just set up a table there and sell some food.”
So, that’s what he decided to do. He put self-imposed restrictions on Pop-Up to prevent it from getting out of control. He spent only $100 starting it and uses donations he raises at the meal to fund the next event.
On the other end of the scale, Hansen’s feat – selling out a 15-course, $300-a-seat, eight-hour meal – is perhaps the biggest indicator of the changing face of Spokane dining.
The dinner, dubbed simply 15, is just the first in a series of indulgences he’s dreaming up. He’s planning another for Halloween called “Wonderland” where the food will be in disguise (“It will look like something, but it isn’t really that. It will be something else,” he says).
He’s also considering another dinner for the new year – a masquerade ball, perhaps.
“One of our philosophies is not to just have the food be a precursor to an event, but we want the food to be the event itself,” Hansen says.
“I think we all know what we need to do, it’s just making that leap and taking the risk of doing it. There are people out there who appreciate it and will join it.”
The latest group to join the scene is Ghetto Gourmand, a traveling dinner party. Invitations for the inaugural VIP event were delivered hidden inside a book. The location and a password for entry were sent just the day before the dinner.
Organizer Amy Nathan is new to Spokane. She and her husband moved back to the area to be closer to family. She’d attended similar underground parties in Chicago and thought it would be the perfect way to meet people.
“I didn’t really know that many people and I wanted to use it as a way to be introduced to our new city and introduce Spokane to new types of food as well,” she says.
Nathan met business partner Teri Dykeman at local hair salon Studio Z when she shared her idea for the dinners with the owner. Dykeman helped hook up chef Daniel Gonzalez for the dinners.
Gonzalez was also pulled back to Spokane to be closer to family after working in Seattle restaurants including 1200 Bistro, Restaurant Zoe and Quinn’s. He spent the last three years cooking for the CEOs of Vulcan Inc., including founder Paul Allen.
Of course, this kind of dining doesn’t appeal to everyone. The locations and sometimes the menu are a mystery until the last minute. Those with limited palates might not find something they like to eat.
Some of the events defy the health district’s regulations and operate without permits. Others skirt the current codes with the hope that there will be a better way to regulate such events soon. (There’s more on that in the accompanying story.)
But for those who are intrigued, here are more particulars on each opportunity:
Who: Chef David Blaine, Latah Bistro
What: A food stand that pops up in random places around town. Blaine’s “random acts of food” have included a grass-fed beef burger on homemade Shepherd’s Grain buns topped with romesco sauce and a side salad. He also made omelets to order, featuring a choice of ingredients including locally grown asparagus, wild local porcini mushrooms, baby arugula from Blaine’s garden, Quillisascut curado aged goat cheese, Amaltheia chevre or Ballard Family Dairy Idaho Cheddar.
Where: Pop-Up has appeared along the Fish Lake biking and walking trail, at the Doma Coffee roastery in Post Falls and the Spokane Polo grounds in Airway Heights. The location of the event is sent to diners in an e-mail less than 24 hours before the event.
How much: Blaine asks diners for a $5 donation to help fund the next event.
Find out: Get on the e-mail list to find out where the next event will be held. Find information at popupspokane.tumblr.com or facebook.com/Pop Up Spokane.
The Wandering Table
Who: Chef Adam Hegsted, Coeur d’Alene Casino
What: A multicourse dinner for 12 to 15 people. The menu is posted in advance on The Wandering Table website, but anticipation was heightened by a recent story in The Pacific Northwest Inlander weekly newspaper, so the September dinner was sold out before Hegsted finalized his plans. Hegsted features local ingredients in intriguing series of courses, many of them one bite. The April 18 dinner consisted of 10 courses including an incredible black garlic strudel with blue cheese, toasted almond and candied orange, and three dessert courses including a peanut butter and jelly truffle and chocolate-peanut butter torte with roasted banana and peanut brittle.
Where: The Art Spirit Gallery in downtown Coeur d’Alene hosted the first event, Hegsted also served a dinner at Quillisascut Farm School in Rice, Wash., and Riverfront Farm in Spokane’s West Central neighborhood.
How much: Hegsted asks diners for a $50 donation, and tips for the servers for the dinner. He uses the money to pay for the next dinner and add a kitchen gadget to his collection for future inspiration.
Find out: Information about upcoming dinners and reservations can be made online at thewanderingtable.com. The Aug. 15 and Sept. 12 dinners are sold out
Who: Chef Jeremy Hansen, Santé Restaurant and Charcuterie
What: The dinners feature 15 courses of food that Hansen dreams up to fit a theme. The first dinner lasted eight hours, but Hansen says everyone stayed for the whole experience (even on a school night). He’s planned some changes that will make things move along a bit more quickly, perhaps four or five hours instead.
Where: The White Room, on Pacific Avenue in downtown Spokane, an event facility that belongs to The Purple Turtle, a Spokane marketing firm. They are partners in producing the event.
How much: Tickets to the initial dinner were $300 per person, or $500 per person for the chef’s table. Ticket prices for upcoming events have not been announced.
Find out: www.SanteSpokane.com or www.Experience15.com.
Who: Organizers Amy Nathan and Teri Dykeman, along with Chef Daniel Gonzalez and other guest chefs
What: A dinner party held at a secret location that is given only to those with a reservation at the last minute. A password is required to enter and diners are encouraged to dress up according to the dinner’s theme. Gonzalez prepared a six-course menu with each course featuring cognac to complement the 1920s-era theme. Courses included chicken liver terrine with cognac cherry compote, whole-grain mustard and crostini and crispy cognac glazed Berkshire pork belly with a warm endive, apricot goo and pistachio salad, served with cognac gastrique.
Where: The first event, held at the Muzzy Mansion, on Spokane’s near North Side. Upcoming event include an “Eat, Pray, Love” dinner July 24 which will be held at Grassroots Wellness Spa. The evening will include dinner on the patio and a yoga/meditation class.
How much: $80 for the July 24 dinner and $100 for the Steamy Summer Nights dinner planned for Aug. 14.
Find out: www.ghettogourmand .com or facebook.com/Ghetto Gourmand or call (509) 315-8069.