Picea Sitchensis, the Sitka Spruce, is one of the largest conifer trees, right up there with Redwoods and the Giant Sequoia. Known not only for their massive reach but also how rapidly they grow, you can find these beasts in vast quantities stretched along the Washington coast. And at the base, Porcini mushrooms cover the forest floor in abundance. Matt Dillon, the restaurateur and one of Seattle's most important chefs, spent many of his days foraging those mushrooms. This was before he opened his first restaurant Sitka & Spruce bearing the same name of that big evergreen (the ampersand sandwiched in between, serving as his personal touch). He was awarded the James Beard back in 2012 for his innovative creations at Sitka but if you have the pleasure of siting down with Dillon you'd gauge immediately that he's not the kind to wear his accolades and the fanfare on his sleeve- though he's got plenty. For him, it has been and still remains all about his food and the experience of enjoying it. Since Sitka, he's opened the charming and intimate Corson Building followed by Bar Sajor which is, without question, one of Seattle's most striking dining interiors. The Old Chaser, his farm on Vashon Island is the heart of it all. They raise sheep, cows, pigs and goats and the farm also yields most of the vegetables, dairy and baked breads for all his restaurants. Aside from being a farm-to-table direct source to his restaurants, it also functions as a CSA share and because of the wide assortment of specialty items made there, an incredibly unique one. This year, Matt opened the doors to The London Plane offering Seattle a multifaceted artisan food experience set in a beautiful historic building of Pioneer Square. It's a restaurant/cafe and it's also a neighborhood grocery. And a butcher. And a bakery. And a flower shop. If you want to take home enamelware, a great cook book or perhaps some of the pickled vegetables you enjoyed with the plate of charcuterie you had for lunch, you can do that too. It's a dream. London Plane, like all of Matt Dillon's dining marvels, are the kind of places you walk out of and feel compelled to go immediately back so you can pass along your gratitude to whomever was responsible for what you just experienced. But Matt is explicit in saying it's not meant to be about him. It's hard however to separate the feeling of a great experience without having the desire to know who was behind it all. We caught up with Matt at London Plane to talk his approach and style of cooking, the design of his restaurants, and how he communicates through food.
"I started cooking when I was twelve. My mom's good friends had a cafe and I was helping them do prep and dishes. It was this really little space. They had a glass case full of pasta salads, jars of cookies and things like that. All in really small amounts. But they were very focused on the integrity of the product. The pasta was all made by hand- everything was made in-house. I really liked it there and the work I was doing there. I had a knack for it. I worked there and another cafe for about six years until I finished high school. My mom's friend encouraged me to continue cooking. So I enrolled in culinary school, quit briefly to go on tour with my band at time and then I returned to school a year later and did the whole program. During that time I lucked out with great jobs. Not necessarily for my resume but more-so just happening to land where that chef at the time was really forward-thinking. And I grew quickly through the ranks at those places. At a certain point I just stopped. I needed to take a break from cooking. Sometime after, I took a job working for The Herbfarm as a dishwasher. I had previously been a sous chef at Maximillien for two years working under Francois Kissel but I said, "Why not, I'll be the dishwasher there. That place is so cool." It was like the dream place for me. After 3 weeks of working there, I ended up being the sous chef. It was, at the time, the Noma of restaurants. I was exposed to so many cool things. The owner of the Herbfarm Ron Zimmerman was fascinated by anything edible- nettles, wood sorel etcetera. All these things are very much en vogue now but this was 1996. I was totally fascinated by it all too."
"After the Herbfarm, I picked wild food for a living for a year and a half. I had a little cabin down in the south Puget Sound and I lived there and also out of my car. I knew I needed to start cooking again. I took a chef job a restaurant called Supreme and then another at Stumbling Goat. And once I took over there, I started changing the menu alot. It began to get a little recognition and it was cool. I felt like I was really starting to make the food that was important to me. I started to develop my palate and my own expression. I had this deep interest in communicating through food. I said to myself, 'I need to open my own business'. I had a little money saved so I bought a space on Eastlake that used to be an old donut shop. I had no idea what I was going to do. Sitka and Spruce was not in my head. Initially I thought it would be just a late-night spot. As I started building it out I began working with friends who had really good design ideas. Now that I look back on it, it's kind of funny, it just started taking on a life of its own. It started transforming and taking shape. About month before we opened I was sitting around with some friends and we were talking about the name of the place and I thought, 'Sitka & Spruce!' because the Sitka Spruce tree out on the coast have Boletus Edulis that grow under there and I spent a lot of time picking those mushrooms. So we named it that and at that point, I thought, 'I should just do the food I like doing'. "
"With all of my spaces, I try to give a timelessness to the design. There is something so classic and timeless about the design of places in France and Italy. If you use certain materials and certain colors that you know are just going to be around forever, that enables you to try to become an institution rather than a flash in the pan. One thing I think that happens a lot in Seattle is people following trends. And that's fine, they exist for a reason. Design-wise restaurants started following this whole Northwest look. I like that but it felt as if it was becoming a monoculture. Seattle spends so much time in the dark. We're kind of like Scandinavia. The reason why their design is so amazing is because they're in the dark all of the time so they want their spaces to feel bright and open. So I like having the London Plane be this huge space where people can come in all the time and feel enlightened by the openness of it. And hopefully that adds to their day and they're going to walk out feeling good."
"I also want to serve really healthy food. Across my restaurants we spend the most money on vegetables. And I like serving vegetables. When you're going out to eat its hard to find restaurants that serve a ton of vegetables. Especially with London Plane- I really wanted it to be focused on serving lots of really delicious vegetables. And I also wanted it to be approachable from all levels. I want people to feel like eating the food there is more apart of their everyday than a going out experience."
"For me, I appreciate restaurants that are a very apparent example of what they're about. There's a lot a places that just have an idea but they're not really speaking to who they are. I think you can have the exact same great dining experience at restaurant that just serves tacos as, say, Noma because they're both being completely honest with what they are trying to do. There's this little place in London called Cafe Kick and it's a foosball bar. It's run by a Portuguese family- they're all buddies and the mom cooks. She does all these tapas. People play foosball and they watch soccer and the walls are covered in crazy punk-rock posters. And it's so awesome. You get the food and it's super delicious. And you drink the beer and its great. And they're totally into what they're doing. It's the exact same experience as any fine dining experience that has ever blown my mind. For instance, I went to a place called Etxebarri in Spain- it was the best meal I've ever had. It was ten courses. And it was amazing because this was what the guy was into. He made no excuses. He didn't try to be cool. Same experience as Cafe Kick, for me. No difference- just the exchange of money and what you look like while you're in there. But the honesty is there and the integrity is there. That's really the only distinguishing thing that I find with food. It's like, 'Oh, you can really tell this person gives a damn about what they're doing.' "
Photos by Andrew J.S.