ALL IN THE FAMILY
Taking dad's advice, Scott Staples made Zoë
distinctly his own
"My father didn't particularly want me to work in restaurants," explains Staples, "but when he saw that I was hooked on cooking, he gave me some valuable advice: 'If you're going to be in this business, you'd better own it, because you don't want to be working for somebody else all your life.' So when I made up my mind that I was going to be a chef, owning my own place was part of the plan."
The senior Staples opened Good Friends in Denver in 1977. Racine's followed in '82, and Dixon's in '98. "They're not high-end places, they're low-end, casual," Scott Staples says. But filling in at his father's restaurants during the summer when he was in high school, Staples found he really liked the work and wanted to do it as well as he possibly could. "I guess it's because I'm competitive or something when I ski, I have to race so when I started cooking, right away I wanted to do high-end French food. My parents wanted me to go to college and get away from this business, so for a while I went along with the plan."
But in between semesters at college came jobs at his father's places and at fine-dining houses near the ski resorts Staples frequented. Then came a trip to France with a French friend. "We went to a place where the bay completely emptied out at low tide and we gathered mussels; they were amazing.
"He took me to visit his aunt, and it was there that I had my first hangar steak." Hangar steak, known as onglet in France, is a particularly succulent cut of beef that butchers used to reserve for themselves. Little known outside France and restaurant-savvy Manhattan, the cut struck a chord with Staples. "There were 10 or 12 of us and this big platter of steak cut into strips. I'd never had anything quite like it." At Zoë, hangar steak, cold-smoked and grilled rare, is served with vegetable ragout, over a bed of mashed potatoes. Like several items on the menu, it's a cut that diners are unlikely to see many other places, and these unusual cuts define Zoë's style.
"I wanted to do cuts that were unusual for two reasons. Half of it was that I was trying to keep the menu in a certain price range." From the beginning, Staples and his wife were determined to create a place that was affordable, "a place where we would want to hang out, where we would come more than just once in a while." The other half of the equation was purely culinary. "I just wanted to find interesting cuts and make them work. No one else in town was doing veal cheeks."
"I started serving lamb necks," says Staples, "because I had them in Italy." Staples spent a year in Milan cooking with Guiltiero Marchesi. Marchesi, the first Italian chef to be awarded three Michelin stars, is known as the first great Italian chef to create original, contemporary Italian food. "He would bring in two or three baby spring lambs a week, and we'd make the necks into a kind of roast. When I tried it here with bigger lambs, it didn't work, so I asked the butcher to cut the necks into medallions about two inches thick like osso bucco."
Staples does not try to re-create any of the dishes he learned from his mentor, but the time spent with Marchesi does inform his work. It is not difficult to imagine Staples' pan-seared scallops served over a bed of French lentils, garnished with roasted beets and drizzled with black truffle oil earning a nod of approval from the Italian master. Spice-crusted Alaskan halibut, served over Israeli couscous with pancetta, apple reduction and curry oil, speaks the same language.
The hard-to-peg but instantly familiar style of the restaurant, crafted largely by the chef's architect wife, reflects the character of the food. "Heather worked on several projects in Seattle," among them the Starbucks at University Village and a West Seattle restaurant called Circa, "and she felt that Seattle had a lot of rich, saturated interiors that bordered on the dark side. She wanted to create an urban space that was decidedly Seattle, but lighter."
As they prepared to open the restaurant, Heather Staples, with baby Zoë in arms, tried to communicate her vision for the new restaurant to a design firm but ended up doing the job herself. Dated, aluminum windows came out and oversized Craftsman-esque windows recaptured the old building's rugged early-20th-century charm. Heather's friend, Kathy Conner, a pastry chef turned plasterer, created a serene, green "Zen wall" on one side of the restaurant, and the remaining walls are painted a light-as-Brittany-butter yellow. Another artist friend, Paul Cunningham, designed custom-blown glass ceiling fixtures. And metal artist Art Donnelly provided polished-iron railings that define the interior spaces of the restaurant. The finished dining room says Seattle like no other place in town.
"My training is mostly French," contends Staples, "and I suppose I could be doing this food in any city in North America. I mean, if you have the money you can get great vegetables and seafood shipped to you anywhere. But I really identify with this place." Judging by the packed house and the rave reviews that Staples has gotten ever since Zoë opened, the feeling is mutual.
Greg Atkinson is chef at IslandWood on Bainbridge Island. He is also author of "The Northwest Essentials Cookbook" (Sasquatch Books, 1999). Barry Wong is a Pacific Northwest magazine staff photographer.
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