When made and served with heart, food is more than simple sustenance: it's the centerpiece that brings us together around the table. A steaming plate warms and revitalizes our spirits; a shared feast nourishes our relationships; and a rich, delicious dish reminds us to be grateful for life's bounty of flavorful gifts.
Our November Guest Editor, Ericka Burke, knows more than a few things about the value of a truly thoughtful meal. She's the chef and owner behind Seattle's popular Volunteer Park Cafe, a hidden gem in an otherwise residential neighborhood with a uniquely cozy vibe and a commitment to local, seasonal food. In fact, if you order the daily quiche, you can expect it to come "backyard fresh" — many of the herbs, greens and vegetables are sourced from the backyard garden, where the Cafe's chickens also lay their eggs. The menu changes once a week, as the available ingredients do, but certain staples are not to be missed, like the decadent Banana Brioche French Toast and the lip-smacking Chicken Pot Pie.
Below, Ericka tells us how she got involved in the restaurant business and explains her approach to the kitchen, which can be summed up (with aptly sincere simplicity) in the VPC's motto: "Always Fresh Goodness."
How did you first become involved with the food and restaurant world?
In the early 90s, I was living in New York and pursuing an acting career — so of course I started working in restaurants as a server and bartender to pay the bills. Quickly, I became really interested the food and sourcing — I started hanging out in the kitchen and asking lots of questions…In retrospect, that was probably super annoying to the chefs! After lots of learning and planning, I opened my first place, Sweet Potato, in Manhattan at the age of 23. Sweet Potato was a juice bar and health food concept, totally focused on organic and sustainably raised products. It was a blast.
Later on I moved to the Bay area and studied at the Culinary of America in Greystone. I learned a ton and really developed as a chef. After that, I moved around on the West Coast a bit, and had chef gigs in Seattle and even owned a restaurant in San Francisco. Eventually, I returned to Seattle and took a position with a large restaurant group as the creative director/executive chef. Though the corporate restaurant environment wasn't really my gig, I learned a ton about the systems and tools that it takes to run a successful restaurant.
What was your impetus for eventually creating Volunteer Park Cafe?
I opened Volunteer Park Cafe in 2007. The inspiration behind VPC was that I really wanted to do something that was very me…funky, homey, community-driven. At the time, I just wanted to cook honest food and share it with the local community — I wasn’t all that interested in being in the press, and in fact, I kind of thought I could hide from it. (Of course, that's not how it went, and in the end, I was glad to work with media and have been flattered by some incredibly kind write-ups over the years.) Over time, VPC has become a local gem where our customers feel at home — the cafe is coming up on its 10th birthday, which is so surprising and exciting and great. I can’t wait to celebrate.
What is your favorite dish on the menu, and your favorite meal to serve in your own home?
During the fall, the Pot of Gold is my favorite. It's a sugar pie pumpkin stuffed with polenta and fontina and topped with chanterelle mushroom sauce. So warming and delicious — and fun to make and serve. Year-round, the beef brisket with creamy polenta and greens is always comforting and heartwarming.
At home, I love to cook slow-cooked meals, like tagines, roasted chicken and Bolognese.
Who are your culinary icons?
Alice Waters for her early-on and long-lasting dedication to using local and organic food, Marco Pierre White for his verve and spirit, and Paula Wolfert for her incredible culinary research and writing — her books have been a great resource for me.
What would you say to someone looking to start their own restaurant?
Don’t do it…unless you REALLY love it. It's a tough gig.
In your opinion, what are three qualities of a great meal that cannot be compromised?
I think it's pretty simple: great company, plenty of food and good wine.
Where do you find inspiration (on both food and life)?
As corny as it sounds, I do find a lot of inspiration from nature. Fall leaves make we think about warm stews and broths with warm spices. Spring is all about green and crisp-crunchy goodness, like salads, English peas, snap peas and bright herbs. Summer is about juiciness: tomatoes, peaches, cucumbers and ripe figs. Winter is being grounded and wholesome: mushrooms, gourds, root vegetables and hearty greens.
Do you have any personal mottos or mantras that help you stay centered and focused?
For one, I only cook things that I love. For example, I don’t like okra or oatmeal — so I just don't cook them in my restaurant! It's fun to cook what you're excited by.
Secondly, have fun with food — it's just food! Its easy to take yourself too seriously as a chef — or in any realm of life, really. It's always good to remind yourself to take a step back and take it easy.
p.s. Are you hungry now? Here's one of our favorite fall recipes.