Orcas Island Afterglow

Last weekend I headed up to Orcas Island to meet up with two legends in the culinary world,Christina Orchid and Robin Woodward. Christina runs the lovely Christina's Restaurant on Orcas Island. She, along with Alice Waters, was a pioneer...working with seasonal, fresh ingredients. Still going strong after 28 years, her charming restaurant overlooking the smattering of San Juan Islands is the perfect place to be!

I stayed at Christina's place...in what is affectionately known as "the barn." The only creatures this place stables are guests (me!) and visiting chefs. (Annie Somerville slept in my bed!) Frogs out by the pond serenaded me to sleep every night, and the family of geese greeted me in the morning.

The barn's first level features a commercial kitchen stove, refrigerator, and all the amenities you could ever want (I counted 5 types of tart pans!) The oversized glass doors open up to a patio overlooking the pond and a view of the Sound out in the distance. This is the space booked for "Cooking in the Barn," which is held throughout the month of June. Past chefs have included Jerry Traunfeld, Nancy Oaks, Annie Somerville, and this month will include James Beard Award winner Crescent Dragonwagon, and Cornucopia’s Becky Selengut. (If you want in on this season's classes, event details are at the bottom.)

Next, I met up with Robin Woodard who owned a couple well-known restaurants in Seattle. The history is completely fascinating but if you want to get a sense of her impact...she was the first person to sell scones in Seattle! Eventually, she discovered Orcas Island and moved up there. Her son, Charlie, now owns a wonderful spot called "The Restaurant" on Orcas and he carries on her seasonal, fresh approach with incredible Asian-inspired dishes.

Saturday we paid a visit to the farmer's market. A mix of produce, flowers, meats, and crafts make up this bustling scene. Afternoon story hour is put on by the local library. And fire up the grill... those oysters were the best I've ever had! (I even brought back some of Local Good's secret sauce: a lovely horseradish & carrot mignonette. Mmm...)

As luck would have it, Saturday night I was invited to Charlie's birthday party. Held out on Maple Rock Farm, they were serving up...roasted chickens from the pizza oven, salads made with home-grown produce, and cakes provided by Robin (carrot, rosemary, and polenta). On the island, they're committed to organics...and I was assured even the keg of beer was organic!

Talking with many of the locals, I began to understand some of the challenges living on the island. Staffing is a difficult issue--not only because of the limited population, but because of a shortage in available housing. As Robin explained, you can lease a house on the island, but often times, not for the entire year. With the wave of summer tourists, landlords find it much more profitable to lease to seasonal guests. So for three months out of the year, a number of the locals have to find alternate housing. That, combined with the influx of staff needed to work the summer crops and tourist industry, housing is definitely an issue. Many people camp through the summer and I met one guy lived on a boat that was dry-docked (on land).

Sunday morning Christina and I went to breakfast at the beautifully situated, Rosario Resort. The place is legendary (both historically and due to significant promotional efforts), but the food was horrible. Truly horrible. It's a nice spot for a cocktail and a look out over the water...but for food, there's much better fare to be had in town.

Afterwards, we took a drive into Moran State Park. This is an idyllic location with old-growth forest and as you can see...from Mt. Constitution...a jaw-dropping view. I wish I had a wide angle lens to show you how the islands wrap around 180 degrees from this vantage point. It's amazing and if you get the chance, you must come see it for yourself. In all my travels, this is one of the most spectacular places I've ever seen. It's a pity the photos don't do it justice...

Christiana and I became fast friends...and so with a teary goodbye, I headed back on the ferry. The ride, snaking through the San Juan Islands, is just amazing. I loved sitting on the deck, spotting houses tucked away in the rocks and watching sailboats catch the breeze...Crossing from one side of the ferry to the other, I spotted that funky motorcycle and just had to share it with you!

Ah, and the Alpacas? Friday, on my way up to the island, I knew I'd missed my ferry and would have to take a later boat. So when I spied the Alpaca farm just off the highway, I stopped to say hello. Curious and shy, the younger alpacas had recently gotten a trim. So cute...

For me, the highlight was just having a chance to chat with Robin and Christina. Rarely at a loss for words, somehow I find myself unable to capture the experience with a string of sentences.

In sum...they talked, I listened.

And it was one of the best weekends of my life.

If you want to get in on the 3 remaining Cooking in the Barn classes, here's the scoop:

June 12 - Crescent Dragonwagon is traveling from Putney, Vermont to the barn to share her wealth of cooking experience with us. She has written over 40 books including the James Beard Award-winning, “The Passionate Vegetarian” and "Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread: A Country Inn Cookbook." Crescent appeared on NBC's Today Show, ABC's Good Morning America, CNN’s On the Menu. Crescent’s focus is on locally produced raw materials which she transforms into scrumptious meals. She is currently planning her menu with the guidance of John Steward from Maple Rock Farm. Crescent is an accomplished teacher whose warm and engaging personality makes every class an event to be remembered.

June 19 - Greg Atkinson is making his third appearance at Cooking-In-The-Barn. He has a new book for us to savour, “West Coast Cooking” and will be planning his menu using recipes from the book. Greg shares his vast knowledge of all things culinary through consulting, writing, teaching, and radio and television appearances. He is a Northwest treasure.

June 26 - Becky Selengut is a bold young entrepreneur who founded Cornucopia in Seattle. She is a teacher and private chef who earlier in her career worked with Jerry Traunfeld. She graduated from the Seattle Culinary Academy where she was awarded the Outstanding Culinarian of the Year. She has worked on two PBS cooking shows and did stints at La Medusa and La Spiga before starting her own business. Her most recent innovation is a website http://www.seasonalcornucopia.com/ which is a tool “..to easily identify when local foods are in season” for all Puget Sound cooks.

Proceeds benefit the Orcas Island Children's House. Classes are $125 each and include cooking demonstration, dinner, and wine--to say nothing of the sunshine and good company! Author's books will also be available for autographed copies.

To register contact: Orcas Island Children’s House (360) 376-4744 (Monday through Friday from 8am until 5pm)