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Jeff Koehler’s culinary journey has Gonzaga roots

Jeff Koehler, a 1991 Gonzaga graduate who lives in Barcelona.
Jeff Koehler, a 1991 Gonzaga graduate who lives in Barcelona.

Jeff Koehler grew up on the water north of Seattle. But he went to college here in Spokane.

The travel writer and cookbook author majored in English, minored in philosophy and spent happy hour at the Ridpath Hotel.

Since then, he’s moved to Spain and written four cookbooks, including “La Paella,” “Rice Pasta Couscous: The Heart of the Mediterranean Kitchen” and “Morocco: A Culinary Journey with Recipes.” (His fourth is reviewed in today’s Food section.)

His work has also graced the pages of Saveur, Food & Wine and Gourmet, among other publications.

Now, the 44-year-old 1991 Gonzaga University graduate makes Barcelona his home, where he’s already working on his next book project, an exploration of fine tea.

Here’s a Q&A with Koehler, reminiscing on his years in the Inland Northwest and discussing his latest projects.

Where did you eat out in Spokane when you lived here? What restaurants and bars did you visit regularly? Friday afternoons my senior year were free, and I would meet friends at 4 Seasons Coffee – which was where Atticus is now – and then poke around Inland Book Store until happy hour at the Ridpath Hotel, where we would have dinner for the price of a beer or two. That was a routine. I fondly remember late Sunday breakfasts of fried eggs, hash browns, and a tall Thermos of strong coffee at the Star near campus, Caesar salads at Lindaman’s, and pizza at Europa. And some exquisite meals at Patsy Clark’s in Browne’s Addition.

How has your Gonzaga education influenced your work and life? I think what I took away most from Gonzaga was that part of its liberal arts mission on being able to communicate. I forget which of my teachers said it my freshman year, but it stuck: “If you can communicate, you can do anything.”

Who was/were your favorite professors at GU, and what courses did they teach? Dr. (Tony) Wadden opened my eyes to literature, Dr. (Fran) Polek to the pleasures of modern American writing, and Dr. (Michael) Herzog the storytelling of Chaucer. But it was a class with Father (Michael) Siconolfi my senior year that drove me, four years after leaving Gonzaga, to do graduate work in theatre in London.

Are you doing a book tour? If so, is Spokane on the itinerary? Or, what’s the closest you’ll get to Spokane on the tour for this book? I am not doing an “official” tour for this book, but perhaps in spring and summer there will be some stateside events. I will most likely be in Seattle and am hoping to come over to Spokane.

How often do you get back to the Pacific Northwest ? Usually every summer. The rest of my family lives there and my wife and two kids and I love to go to my parents’ place, an old beach house on an isolated cove an hour or so north of Seattle.

What do you hope readers take from the book? What are your hopes for home cooks who buy the book? That Spanish cooking is accessible. That it’s more “ahhh” than an impressed “oooh.” That it’s welcoming and full of wonderful, comforting dishes, ones just right for cold winter days as much as hot summer ones.

What do you think readers will find most interesting about Spanish cooking? Spanish cooking is about bringing out the natural flavors in ingredients rather burying them under layers of spice. What’s the point of buying a good, fresh fish or gorgeous pork loin if you can’t taste it? If it becomes simply texture in an overpowering sauce? The goal is to draw out and heighten the taste of that fish or pork and bring them to forefront of the palate.

When you were working on this book, what surprised you most about the recipes or traditions you discovered or learned about? That the traditional Spanish kitchen is the country kitchen. And the seasonality of it. Dishes have distinctive seasons – for a reason. I really learned to cook after I moved to Barcelona in 1996, and part of my apprenticeship came in following the natural rhythms of my local markets.

Which recipes from the book do you use most when you’re cooking at home ? Fundamentally this is a book of dinners from our home. I would say half are quite frequent. But the favorites of my girls – the ones they ask me to most often make – are soupy rices, egg tortillas, a cream of wild mushroom soup (or anything with wild mushrooms), a potato stew with chorizo called patatas a la riojana, pork loin in a salt crust with blue cheese sauce …

Top three favorite Spanish dishes of all time: Soupy rice with lobster. Suckling lamb. Grilled razor clams.

What travel/food writers do you admire? Whose work do you enjoy most? For travel, V.S. Naipaul, Peter Matthiessen and Ryszard Kapuscinski – legends and classics, sure, but these are the ones I go back to again and again. For food, Naomi Duguid’s cookbooks – part travelogues, part recipe books, part photo books, part highly thoughtful cultural discourses – have brought me the most pleasure, and been the most influential.

What are you working on now? Describe your next book project: I am finishing up a book about the world’s greatest tea that will be published early next year. I spent a significant amount of 2013 in the Indian Himalayas around Darjeeling. After four cookbooks in seven years, I wanted to do a long-form nonfiction book. I will be making an announcement about it on my website ( this week.

What else should Spokane/Inland Northwest readers know about you? Although I have lived in Spain for nearly two decades, I am continually discovering new things about this endlessly fascinating place. The best way that I have found to share that has been through its food. To write about food here is to write about culture. They are intimately linked.

And, finally, for those who might be planning to travel to Spain soon, list restaurant and entrée recommendations for the following cities:

Barcelona – Can Majó for paella

Madrid – the old sherry bar La Venencia (to drink rather than eat)

Sevilla – Enrique Becerra for albóndigas de cordero a la yerbabuena (lamb meatballs with fresh mint)

San Sebastian – La Cuchara de San Telmo for Basque pintxos (tapas), especially the foie gras with apple compote

Valencia – Raúl Alexandre’s Ca’ Sento for a type of fish stew called suquet