Meet the three chefs from Seattle and San Antonio that excel in everything from Southern fare to Indigenous cuisine.
Every year, C&I produces a comprehensive list of the best things out West: cheerful cocktails, inventive craft beers, and chuck-wagon meals, for example. This year, we focused on the people, and have rounded up the innovators, influencers, and fascinating figures who make up the many faces of the modern West. Here, the chefs and culinary innovators astounding the gourmet world.
Curing what ails
Chef and co-owner of Cured | San Antonio
Steven McHugh (pictured above) is electric with determined, focused energy. He is always on the go, whether at his stellar 5-year-old restaurant, Cured, or on the food and wine festival circuit — and he couldn’t be happier. “We’re at a place where I feel comfortable traveling,” McHugh tells us at the 2018 Chefs for Farmers festival in Dallas. “The team is really dialed in.” The chef is smiling, animated, his arms and hands punctuating his speech. “But I can’t wait to get back to the restaurant [to] jump in and break down a pig.”
There’s so much focus on butchering at Cured — a celebrated San Antonio hotspot in the historic Pearl Brewery complex lauded for its charcuterie — that the butcher team has its own work shift, the overnight shift. The fruits of their labor — aged meats on view resting temptingly in a 9-by-11-foot glass and metal curing case behind the restaurant’s hostess station — suggest the dedication and patience that have earned McHugh and his team multiple James Beard Award nominations, the Oscars of the food world. He was in the official running this year for Best Chef: Southwest.
Cured is not only one of the best restaurants in Texas but, frankly, in the country. Dig into three perennial charcuterie options: the gossamer duck ham, an egg-white dollop of preserved Meyer-lemon-punctuated pork butter, and a small jar of spreadable tart and zesty apple-jalapeño pork rillettes to understand the luscious reasons behind all the praise.
Cured is not only one of the best restaurants in Texas but, frankly, in the country.
Currently, McHugh is excited about the 2-year-old ham. “We used to do ham at 12 months. They’re ready at 12 months. But they’re a wetter ham, almost like prosciutto. Two years ago during a trip to Spain, I realized everything the Spanish do is on average 18 months to 24 months and beyond. You’re able to hand-carve ham aged for two years instead of using a slicer. The result is so much better. I think it’s some of the best stuff we’ve ever done. I’m really proud of it.”
There’s more to McHugh and Cured than cured meats.
The restaurant’s name is also a reference to McHugh’s successful battle against non-Hodgkin lymphoma. This second chance is not lost on the 43-year-old chef. Cured’s proceeds help benefit a monthly charity, and McHugh hosts an annual Cured for a Cure benefit dinner for which all-star chefs like Aaron Franklin of Franklin Barbecue in Austin, Texas, and Justin Yu of Theodore Rex in Houston pitch in a course.
Still, an acute sense of time (and patience) informs everything McHugh does, from the craft and science of aging meat to the building occupied by Cured. The former administrative offices of the Pearl Brewery are more than a century old. The building shows its age in spots — an exposed beam here, a brick wall there — but that’s deliberate. The building’s new lease on life mirrors McHugh’s own: open, energetic, and full of light.
— José R. Ralat
Translating Italian varieties to the Golden State
Winemaker and owner of L.A. Lepiane Wines | Santa Barbara, California
Back in the 1880s, Luigi A. Lepiane left his small town in Calabria, a winemaking region in the toe of Italy’s boot, and made his way to California. Discovering the climate suitable, he began to make wines, and by 1935, with Prohibition well over, he was ready to start selling his own, under the label L.A. Lepiane. The labels never made it to the bottles, because he was diagnosed with cancer and died in 1938.
Today, Alison Thomson, the 39-year-old great-granddaughter of Luigi Lepiane he never met, has picked up where he left off — and is achieving the recognition he couldn’t have dreamed of. Named a “Winemaker to Watch” by the San Francisco Chronicle in 2018, she earned a “Top Release From an Emerging Label” from The Wine Advocate for her 2014 Barbera (92 points), and 93-plus points for her 2013 Sisquoc — Nebbiolo.
In college, Thomson spent a semester abroad in Siena, Italy. A “healthy obsession” with wine led to jobs in tasting rooms and eventually to specializing in viticulture in grad school at UC Davis. Trips to Italian winemaking regions supplemented her coursework.
Thomson grew up making jam with her grandmother from apricots they’d picked together, just like her Calabrian ancestors, and hearing stories about her winemaking great-grandfather.
“I got to work in the fields in the vineyards and we picked all day long, from 8 in the morning until 8 at night, and then we’d process the fruit at night,” she says. “One night it was 1 a.m., and the moon was rising and it was backlighting the hills and a castle. It was so dreamy. I was so exhausted, but I was so in love with it all — I still am.”
On one trip she got to meet renowned winemaker Angelo Gaja in Barolo and taste his Nebbiolos. Thomson was well on her way to translating her knowledge and love of Italian wines to her Central California terroir. Today, her boutique wines, sold under the L.A. Lepiane label, are made by hand, like her great-grandfather’s were. (She also works as a co-winemaker for Alecia Moore, the singer known as Pink, for her label, Two Wolves Wine.)
Thomson grew up making jam with her grandmother from apricots they’d picked together, just like her Calabrian ancestors, and hearing stories about her winemaking great-grandfather. “With winemaking, I love the science of it, the connection between the arts and agriculture. It’s a product that depends on all of these factors, and it isn’t going to be the same every time. It involves flavors and something more than measurements.”
For Thomson — who now offers four different wines — it’s not just about all the exciting factors that go into making a good wine. It’s about keeping a family tradition alive.
— Ellise Pierce
Promoting pre-contact foodways
Chef, pioneer in Indigenous food sovereignty | Seattle
Hillel Echo-Hawk (Pawnee and Athabaskan) knew she wanted to go into cooking when she was 14 years old. But it wasn’t until after she had left her hometown of Delta Junction, Alaska, moved to Seattle, and then traveled to New Zealand and returned to Seattle, at the urging of her brother-in-law, that she enrolled in culinary school. It’s from Seattle that she works as a private chef and caterer through her company, Birch Basket, which focuses on pre-European-contact Indigenous foods.
That means she and other chefs who practice the same cooking do not use ingredients imported to the Americas by Europeans. Milk, pork, and chicken: no. Corn, beans, bison, squash, and certain berries: yes. Of course, the “yes” ingredients vary by and depend on the region and season. The Lakota don’t cook and eat the same way as the Navajo. In the case of Echo-Hawk, her life in the Pacific Northwest means including seafood and elements like nettles and cedar.
She’s worked with the Urban Indian Health Institute, the research arm of a health clinic in Seattle overseen by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Two years ago she created a packet of dry soup ingredients that the organization passes out at conferences and other events. “I’m super proud of that one,” the chef says.
When you look at colonization and you look at the genocide of Indigenous people and what colonizers do throughout history — you look at any kind of civilization — one of the first three things that they do is they take away the food. For us to still have these foodways is so amazing.
Asked how it feels to find a space in cooking that gives her the opportunity to explore her Native foods and share them with others, Echo-Hawk responds: “It feels natural and lovely. ... It’s one of the ways, one of my ways, of showing love.”
Echo-Hawk also extends that love and work as a member of the I-Collective, a pioneering organization dedicated to Indigenous food sovereignty and foodways. The group, which includes chefs like Twila Cassadore (Apache) and Quentin Glabus (Frog Lake Cree First Nations), works locally as well as nationally through fundraisers, pop-ups, and community center events. Through I-Collective, Echo-Hawk has shared her commitment to Indigenous foodways in Oklahoma; Washington, D.C.; and New York, among other locales.
“It makes me so happy when I’m around Indigenous people who are doing this work,” Echo-Hawk says. “When you look at colonization and you look at the genocide of Indigenous people and what colonizers do throughout history — you look at any kind of civilization — one of the first three things that they do is they take away the food. For us to still have these foodways is so amazing. Whenever I go to these things, whenever I talk to anybody — an elder or an ethnobotanist or another chef or anyone — I am always learning something. I love to learn about our foodways. It just gets me so excited.”
— José R. Ralat
Telling stories with every bite
Chef-restaurateur of JuneBaby, Salare, Lucinda Grain Bar | Seattle
When Seattle chef Edouardo Jordan smiles, people take notice: It’s a smile that feels contagious coming from the kitchen at JuneBaby or the stage at the James Beard Foundation Awards, where the Southern eatery won for best new restaurant in the country and he won for best chef in the Northwest — and it owns the room at Salare, his first venture, a neighborhood restaurant serving locally sourced Italian dishes. JuneBaby shot the 38-year-old Jordan to national acclaim with a rave review in The New York Times, along with best-restaurant mentions from Bon Appétit and Esquire.
The restaurant’s slogan, “Food With Roots,” captures what he is doing so effectively: telling his life story through food. It’s at JuneBaby that he shows off the Southern fare of his upbringing in St. Petersburg, Florida. “[It’s] not a gentrified Southern restaurant,” he says of the menu that includes his momma’s oxtails and introduces a new audience to pickled trotters.
The restaurant’s slogan, “Food With Roots,” captures what he is doing so effectively: telling his life story through food.
He’s won folks over slowly with dishes like crispy fried pig ears and smoked carrots in tahini — enough people that he even tried to expand the restaurant.
Foiled by permitting, he instead opened a third restaurant on the same strip, Lucinda Grain Bar. His pastry team is crucial in the new spot: whole grains have a starring role. Einkorn shows up in ice cream, there’s barley in the old-fashioned, and the bucatini (served with pork chili ragu) is made of buckwheat. “There’s more than just cooking when it comes to being a chef,” he says. “There’s teaching, continuing to learn, and there’s a story to be told.”
— Naomi Tomky
Photography: Josh Huskin/Courtesy Cured
From the May/June 2019 issue.