A Conversation with Chef Jason Wilson

Crush is considered one of the top restaurants in the Seattle and with a well-earned reputation for excellence, they're firmly planted on the national radar. Chef-owner Jason Wilson has a long list of accolades, but just to name just a few...in 2006, he received Food & Wine's prestigious Top 10 Chefs award. Then in 2007, Crush received Wine Spectator's Award of Excellence, and earlier this year, he was nominated for the coveted James Beard Award.

I'm extremely fortunate to be surrounded by incredibly talented people. Swirling around me are a number of conversations that are rooted in meaningful dialog...and this is one of them.

Working on a project for my Examiner gig, I contacted Jason to ask him a couple questions. Within seconds, the conversation delved deep into food and his culinary philosophy. I grabbed my laptop and began typing furiously.....

Chef Jason Wilson, Crush restaurant

How would you describe your culinary style?

It's personality-driven cuisine, based on a perspective of cooking. I use French technique and the style is modern American. Our approach is to use the highest quality ingredients, with good consciousness. We obtain the best quality, using ingredients that are reared properly and grown in the right dirt.

The dishes are not too far outside the range of what’s happening in America today. We use lamb raised in Montana. Short ribs raised in NE Oregon. Fish is American watered fish – Hawaii, Oregon, and Alaska. Lobster is from Maine. The only exception is exception is octopus, which is Portuguese. The quality of American octopus isn’t quite there yet.

Our culinary style is based on the principal: what is the highest level of quality we can get?

It makes a difference in the food.

I grew up seeing salmon everywhere. Salmon is seasonal and fish is being depleted massively. A live fish grown wild, I think, is better during certain times of year. Salmon has a peak season. Early in the season it still has full fat reserves, the further up stream they’re harvested—towards the end of their life cycle, it doesn’t have the fat and that affects the flavor. Wild fish – it’s imperative to use wild. Farm-raised fish just doesn’t have the flavor. We may serve Kampache, but that’s different. It’s grown in pens in the open ocean. And it’s killed to order.

What do you mean by using ingredients that are “reared properly?”

I was just reading an article about peaches, the pesticides and the chemicals they use to hide blemishes. It’s the same problem with the pesticides that are used on raspberries and strawberries. It’s a culture of pesticides.

But really, do you want to consume something like that?

I don’t want it around my food.

Crush serves a cuisine that is product-driven. What can we do to add finesse and engage the diner? By eliminating pesticides, it inevitably helps the food quality. It’s not the best you can get if they’re using pesticides. You want something that has a purity about it. Raspberries taste so much better when they haven’t been manipulated to ship longer distances and forced to grow uniform in size. Raise raspberries for consistency in size and durability and you lose flavor. Irregular is where the flavor is.

Think about a carrot coming up-mid to late-spring--it tastes of soil and it’s sweet. Compared to standard commercial produce, that carrot has unique aroma. But the point is, it smells how a carrot is supposed to. We’ve lost the ability to recognize that.

Find a potato that actually tastes like a potato. Take a bit of mashed potato—you'll see...it’s so creamy and velvety. When you eat it, at first, you taste the earthen potato flavor and afterwards the flavor is just dramatic.

As a chef, once you’ve found a great product…you’re liberated even more....the potato chip is even better...the gnocchi is even better.

Our recipes are based on high-quality ingredient and a couple other things, but they’re not manipulated. The food is extraordinarily complex because of how it comes together. A dish may have 3-4 components, but they're simple and prepared in a unique way.

Like what?

Our short ribs are cured and then sous-vide for 24 hours. The sauce is prepared over 2-3 days. It’s a simple technique, but each process has an intense level of attention given to it.

Take, for example, our mashed potatoes. We always have some version of mashed potatoes on the menu. We use the best butter; our cream is organic from Oregon’s Willamette Valley. We use Alaskan salt. The Alaskan salt has no iodine and the flavor is so clean! It’s beautiful.

We use the best ingredients, but it’s the technique that takes it to the next level. We sous-vide carrots for 4.5 hours. It retains the flavor of the carrot and then we embellish it. The technique has no loss of natural water and maintains the flavors. When you bite into it, you say, “Now that’s a carrot!”

Working with the level of the ingredients that you do, how do you manage your costs?

Sous-vide exactness helps with cost control – especially with waste management. There’s not a lot of overrun with our products. We know we’re getting x number of fish in for x covers. And that’s it. No waste.

It’s about quality and if you want to have it as your moniker...people see that and understand it. They are driven towards it.

Cheap food has its place, but American culture has been lost by the wayside. I had a customer who brought her friend in from Germany. We talked about the food and the question came up: “Do German’s have a word for 'foodie'?” The answer is no, it’s a concept that is unique to America. He said, “The culture of food is how we live in Germany.”

You see, for Americans, it’s new to embrace food quality as an aspect of life. It might be a testament to how old the cultures are in Europe, but you think about Germany, France, Spain, Italy…food is a way of life there.

Our eggs are fresh from the farm. My mother-in-law raises chickens over on Vashon Island. It’s all organic. I know how the chickens are raised…heck, I’ve even killed a couple. So you pay 6 cents extra for an egg? In the overall scheme of things, what we provide is a unique experience.

What’s your take on Crush being considered an expensive restaurant?

We’re not. We had a customer bring in a menu from Outback Steakhouse. Nearly all our prices are on par with what you can get there, but it’s a much different dining experience here. I mean…what is expensive to you? We’ve been battling the “expensive restaurant” stereotype since the beginning.

[Crush restaurant is situated in a former home. The interior has wood floors, with modern white tables and chairs. It has been described as "stylized" and "chic".]

When you think about a place like (another local restaurant), their menu doesn’t use fancy words. They simplify the vocabulary, but our foods are all very similar when it comes to the growers. Sometimes they are even more expensive than dining here. The wood and the low lighting makes you feel like you’re in an everyday place. (In another comparison), they have wood interior and church pews for seating. It’s not special or precious. Our prices are the same, but the perception is different.

How do we battle the “expensive restaurant” stereotype? We embrace it. If people expect us to be special… then let’s be as special as we can.

When people come here, you feel good about what you’re eating.

2319 E. Madison Street
Seattle, Washington 98112