Critic-Turned-Cook Bears Witness to Chef's Winning Ways

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Rachel Yang assembling her dishes.

Since coming out from behind my critic's cloak of anonymity, I've met a few chefs whose restaurants I’ve reviewed. There’s often that awkward pause during which I wonder whether they're going to stick a fork in me.

Not so with Rachel Yang, the chef-owner of Joule, who said she was happy for us to finally meet. Yang and her husband/business partner Seif Chirchi came to Seattle a few years ago after working in New York for some of the biggest names in the business: Alain Ducasse (at the now-shuttered Essex House), Thomas Keller (at Per Se), and Daniel Boulud (at DB-Bistro Moderne). The French-Korean restaurant she helmed in 2007, the now defunct Coupage, was the very first place I reviewed for The Seattle Post-Intelligencer.

Shopping with a Chef

Shortly after we shook hands last Saturday at an annual Iron Chef-style cooking competition at the University District Farmers Market, I was enlisted to be Yang’s assistant. Well, assistant might be a stretch—I carried her shopping bag while she cruised through the busy weekly market looking for raw ingredients for the Ready, Set, Go, Cook contest. The challenge was to put together a meal for four on a budget of about $10. The U-District Food Bank, which I'm a board member of, provided a pantry from which the chefs could select items commonly found on the shelves of this unconventional operation. (This food bank doesn’t hand its clients a bag of random goods; it’s set up like a grocery store.)

Shopping with a chef on a mission was a big thrill because I got to witness creativity in action. Yang grabbed a bunch of purslane, a spindly green that looks like a weed, but has a vibrant citrus flavor. At another stall, she selected a bunch of zucchini vines—I had never seen those before. The shopping bag quickly filled with yellow squash and squash blossoms, blackberry honey, Japanese eggplant, fennel, and a dozen eggs.

Watching the Creative Process

20090820-criticturnedcook2.jpgBack at "kitchen stadium," Yang got to work, grilling some of the veggies after a quick soak in honey and soy sauce (her secret ingredient) and then separated the eggs, gently placing the yolks in straight-up soy sauce.

Forty minutes later she had made a savory congee using the peeled zucchini vines, which she topped that with diced and sautéed Spam from the U-District Food Bank pantry and the egg yolks “cured” in the soy sauce. The grilled veggie salad was the first course. Brilliant!

She won. No big surprise, though her competition did a fine job as well.

I felt like a winner too, thoroughly inspired by this talented chef. It’s really amazing to watch the creative process from start-to-finish—to see those wonderful ingredients coming together in something unusual and crazy-flavorful. It's that process that’s got to be what hooks so many cooks, right?