Everywhere he went, he asked the server the same thing: What would the chef recommend?
And that’s what he would order, putting his trust in the suggestions, some of which came as surprises – if only because he didn’t know exactly what would be coming out of the kitchen.
Thai beef with lime-chili-vinaigrette at Central Food. Braised beef with parsnip gnocchi at Ruins. A virgin Parkside Fizz with orgeat, citrus, mint and club soda at Durkin’s Liquor Bar.
Chad White didn’t make reservations.
The chef, who made a name for himself in San Diego and is appearing on the current season of Bravo’s “Top Chef,” had just moved back to Spokane and was checking out restaurants that have opened in his absence.
He had visited his hometown just five times in the past 15 years, taking note of the burgeoning number of locally owned bars and restaurants during each visit. But he wanted to get a better lay of the land.
Now that he’s back, White is planning to open one or two restaurants here this year. He’s also hoping to help shine a national spotlight on Spokane’s growing food scene and give back to the community from which he came.
“Chefs are community builders,” White said. “It’s not just about food. Food is about sharing.”
In mid-December, a week and half before Christmas and another week and a half after moving back, White went on a whirlwind tasting spree, stopping at three establishments one afternoon.
“I just want to see what Spokane has to offer, who the players are, what they are doing, how diverse they are,” he said.
Much has changed in the local food scene since White left. But be sure to resist the urge to compare Spokane to Seattle or Portland in his presence.
“Why would we try to be like somebody else?” White said. “Why not be like Spokane?”
He had already been to Madeleine’s Café and Patisserie, Casper Fry and Fleur de Sel Artisan Creperie, where he particularly enjoyed the bison meatloaf crepe. This tour started at Central Food, the first eatery to open in the up-and-coming Kendall Yards development just north of downtown.
White’s first impression: “This is a good-looking restaurant.”
And when the Thai beef arrived, he seemed similarly pleased. “The meat’s great,” he said. “They cut this really thin.”
White had been living out of boxes on the South Hill, staying with family and his girlfriend and her 4-year-old son while she looked for a job and they looked for a new home.
Growing up, he said, “I wasn’t as interested in food as I am now. But what I remember is (Spokane) was chain-food central. If you wanted a nice dinner, you would go to Black Angus. You would go and celebrate at Red Robin. Mexican food was Taco Time or Azteca.”
Back then, White listened to country music and attended private Christian schools. “I grew up in a strong Christian household,” he said. “My first concert I ever went to was Garth Brooks.”
He got into hip-hop, R&B and rap when he serving in the military. White graduated from Central Valley High School in 2001. He enlisted on Sept. 11, leaving the following January for basic training.
White completed his culinary training in the U.S. Navy. Until recently, the 32-year-old had been splitting his time between San Diego, where he had two restaurants, and Tijuana, Mexico, where he has one. He closed Común Taqueria before coming back, but plans to keep running Craft Pizza Co. in San Diego as well as La Justina in Tijuana.
He had considered moving to Mexico City – “I have a big following in Mexico,” he said – before returning here to be closer to family.
He plans to open Native Post and Provisions in late spring. The focus will be on seasonal, organic and “as wild as possible” foods of the Inland Northwest: wild game, river-caught fish, duck, quail, maybe deer.
He also plans to bring in guests chefs from outside of the area “so we can share what Spokane has to offer them, the charm that we have here.
“People hold doors. They say thank you. People are friendlier here. That’s what feels great about moving back here.”
Plans for a second restaurant are also in the works. That concept centers around eclectic, farm-to-table, Baja-influenced fare. It could open as early as this year – “if things go right,” White said.
Before returning to town, White had reached out to Jeremy Hansen, chef and owner of Santé Restaurant and Charcuterie and Common Crumb Artisan Bakery. White had eaten at Santé during a visit a couple of years ago and liked what he experienced. The pair started planning a collaborative dinner before White left San Diego. The sold-out $160-per-person homecoming dinner took place at Santé on Dec. 20. White prepared four of the seven courses.
A few days earlier at Central Food, White met chef-owner David Blaine, who accompanied him to stop No. 2: Ruins, a few blocks away on North Monroe Street. They shared a sausage platter. White liked the spiciness. He also enjoyed the chef’s choice: braised beef with parsnip gnocchi.
“It’s perfect winter food,” he said. “There wasn’t anything I didn’t like about it. The gnocchi was really fluffy and nice. It wasn’t lumpy. I liked the grapes. I liked the sunchokes.”
Blaine and White talked shop – suppliers such as LINC Foods, chef relations, chefs’ retreats at Quillisascut Farm in Stevens County – and did a little, just a little, name dropping. Did you know Kevin Gillespie from season six of “Top Chef” worked at Luna in Spokane for a short time in 2007?
White couldn’t talk about his appearance on “Top Chef,” other than episodes that have already aired. The competitive culinary show’s 13th season started with a two-night premiere at 10 p.m. Dec. 2 and 3.
Filming took place during eight weeks last summer, and the finale took about another week to shoot, White said.
Episodes take chefs on a road trip through the California, with stops in Palm Springs, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and San Diego, where White’s two daughters – ages 8 and 10 – live with their mother, White’s ex-wife.
San Diego had been White’s primary home base during the past 15 years. He plans to visit about once per quarter.
“In San Diego, I came in as the young guy into a group of very talented, well-established chefs, and I had to make my mark,” White said. “How I did that was generating relationships with those other chefs. In turn, they would take me under their wings and teach me things. What it did was make me a better chef.”
White said he’ll be looking for ways to give back to Spokane’s culinary arena as well as community as a whole, including mentoring younger chefs and promoting healthful eating.
“A chef has to have an ego,” White said. “We work in a very difficult industry. You’re on your feet all day. You’re an artist. Art doesn’t come from anywhere but within. Otherwise, it’s not genuine.”
But, he said, “Outside your kitchen, you should be a good steward and a good neighbor.
“In San Diego, I made it a point to be involved and not just with the local food scene. I’d like to be as involved in this community as possible. I want to see how we can work together.”
Stop No. 3 was Durkin’s Liquor Bar in downtown Spokane, where Blaine and White took a booth in the back.
“I like this place. This place is cool,” said White, who asked for a virgin version of whatever the bartender wanted to make. Dealer’s choice was a Parkside Fizz without vodka.
White stopped drinking two years ago this month. The lifestyle change came about when he started a hardcore work-out program and a strict, 2,000-calorie-per-day diet.
“I was almost 300 pounds,” said White, noting his trainer challenged him to two weeks without alcohol. Two weeks became 30 days, then 60 days, then 90 days. During that time, he dropped about 60 pounds.
After that, White said, “I decided I didn’t need alcohol anymore.”
At Durkin’s, he said he “definitely” needed to try the barbecue carrots and signature fried bologna sandwich.
“You don’t find a fried bologna sandwich on many menus, and I think it’s cool,” White said. “I would definitely order it again. I would bring friends here just to eat that. I might be back tomorrow for it.”
For more information, visit White’s website at www.chefchadwhite.com or the new restaurant’s website at www.nativeprovisions.com.