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Seattle Chef Renee Erickson’s ‘simple’ formula making big impact

Renee Erickson's The Whale Wins was listed among semifinalists in the James Beard Awards 2013 list for Best New Restaurant. (Image courtesy The Whale Wins)

It’s been a big couple weeks for Seattle chef Renee Erickson. First, her Ballard oyster bar The Walrus and the Carpenter was named on Bon Apetit Magazine’s list of the “20 Most Important Restaurants.” Then, the chef and another one of her restaurants were honored as award contenders for this year’s prestigious James Beard Awards.

“It’s been kind of crazy. We’re real excited and a little bit blown away by it all,” Erickson tells KIRO Radio’s Let’s Eat.

All this high-level recognition wasn’t the goal, says Erickson. Speaking of The Walrus and the Carpenter, she says her intention was just to create a simple environment, where a person could enjoy the best oysters in the world.

“I think we succeeded really well, how it’s been received is greater than I could have ever imagined.”

One of Erickson’s strongest tenets seemingly is “simplicity” with several of her restaurants’ descriptions mentioning food prepared simply.

The Whale Wins’ wood-fired, vegetable focused menu will feature the very best foods from local beaches, gardens and farms prepared simply and served casually in a lively, light filled, cottage-like space,” says its website. The description of the Walrus and the Carpenter also talks about “casual comfort.” And at Boat Street Cafe, “You’ll eat simple, sturdy, luscious food-the food of French grandmothers made.”

But the Bon Apetit writer responsible for naming The Walrus and the Carpenter as one of the “20 Most Important Restaurants” says the restaurants on the list also show a type of fearlessness, “spots that drive chefs to innovate, restaurateurs to imitate, and the rest of us to line up.”

While maintaining a casual atmosphere, Erickson also challenges diners with preparations and serving methods that are not necessarily conventional. Several dishes at The Whale Wins are served at room temperature, something not all are used to, but that Erickson says helps the food.

“I think it does throw some people for sure,” says Erickson. But she says without high heat or cold, you’re able to taste more. “It was a conscious decision to make the dishes that we have at room temperature that way […] They’re better that way.”

Another style not as conventional is offering food served to share.

“The sharing of things – it’s funny you do it all the time at home, you just don’t do it in restaurants,” says Erickson. In her experience though, she’s observed a friendly kind of caring and talking as a result of this serving method. A big part of the praise for her restaurants is the neighborhood feel.

One thing that is clear, is that whatever she’s doing, it seems to be working.

“It keeps getting busier,” says Erickson, who marvels at how her staff manages to serve 200 a night in a space with 40 seats at The Walrus and the Carpenter, “so far so good.”

Let’s Eat can be heard on KIRO Radio at 4 p.m. on Saturday. Available anytime ON DEMAND at

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