Chef Q&A with Tamara Murphy

March 25, 2010

James Beard award winning  chef, restaurateur and soon-to-be author, Tamara Murphy has more than a couple irons in the fire right now.  We asked the Seattle chef about her new book, her passion for locally-sourced ingredients and the future of Terra Plata.

There is a lot going on in your world these days, besides running Brasa, you are currently working on the relocation of Elliott Bay Café and hoping to open Terra Plata in the near future, how are you holding up?I definitely feel challenged. I feel confident knowing that I have handled my challenges respectfully and with integrity. Considering the circumstances, I am doing well.  

What would be the ultimate outcome for everything you have going on? Terra Plata is open and thriving, and I am able to put my energies towards  the creative side of my life, which is what I love most.  Elliott Bay Cafe will be staying in its current location in Pioneer Square and I am opening my second Elliott Bay Cafe in the new book store on Capitol Hill.

You also have a book coming out this spring, congratulations! Can you tell us more about TENDER: farmers, cooks, eaters? What was your inspiration behind it? And where can we find it once it's released? I have been working with farmers for a long time. Our local farmers are truly inspiring to me.  They grow and handle our food with care and in a sustainable and respectful way, which is very important to me.  Our farmers take care of our rural landscape and our farmers markets take care of our urban landscape. I wanted to share this simple message. TENDER is about honoring those farmers and the message behind their work. Its not just a recipe book. The photographs are beautiful.  TENDER... that which requires careful handling; soft and easily chewed; a softness or gentleness in ones relations with others that is expressive of warm affection, concern; to offer, to give; a means of payment; has or expresses affection, love, consideration; someone who tends. The name reflects the connection we share with  a farmer, a cook and an eater.   TENDER is currently available for pre-lease to reserve a signed copy of the first printing. It can be reserved at  http://www.farmerscookseaters.com/purchase-tender.

Once the dust settles from everything going on and Terra Plata’s doors are open, can you elaborate about the concept of Terra Plata; what can guests expect from your style of cooking? Terra Plata loosely translated means "earth to plate."  Spanish and Mediterranean influences will be strong,  because I love big bold flavors, but mostly it will be a menu that really expresses my values and honors our farmers in a personal way.  Of course using ingredients  from our local farms as well as items from the restaurant's garden is what I look forward to most.

You are one of the strongest proponents of eating locally and paying attention to your food sources. What local farms, foragers or gardens are you currently sourcing from? Whistling Train Farm raises  my pigs.  Working with a farm that raises pigs for me is a symbolic message, a lesson in sustainability as much as it is a product.  Ninety Farms in Arlington for lamb.  Totten Creek for goat.  Loki Fish for salmon, Taylor Shellfish for clams and mussels, oysters, geoduck.  Foraged and Found for wild greens and mushrooms. Of course, visiting the farmers markets weekly keeps me up to date in regards to new farms.

What new in-house ingredients are you making at Brasa, the cafe, or working on for your next venture?  Is there anything you are particularly proud or excited about? I am making vinegars , from wine that was made about 6 years ago, by my friend Doug Graves. I have been aging it and now playing....it's really really good. I have a couple of other items I am working on, but they will have to wait for now, as I have a lot going on.

What advice can you give to busy people who want to play an active role in sourcing their food locally? Farmers Markets! They are  are  all over the city.  These markets, are a great way to meet our regions growers, and get to know them in a personal way as well as the products they offer.  Visiting the farms are a fun way to develop a deeper understanding and connection to our local food source.   Many of the farms have a CSA( Community Supported Agriculture) program.  Signing up for a CSA is another way to get weekly product in support of your favorite farms. It  can help out with our busy schedules, as well. One  just has  to pick up the box at a designated pick-up spot and some  farms even deliver.  Buying  locally takes a commitment, but its worth it. Besides,  buying from a local farmers market is so much more fun than pushing a cart in a grocery store. Hands down the food is better for us and the flavor? That's a no brainer.  Also, when buying from a farmers market you want to allow yourself the opportunity to be inspired and driven by what is on the farm table, not a recipe that you have come with and shopped for and can't find everything your recipe calls for. Once you are familiar with the markets and what they offer seasonally, you can have a game plan before you go to speed things up if you are short on time.  The farmers are a great resource for how to cook their products simply! Simple is key.

For so many foodies in the northwest, one of the most anticipated events and one I am dying to go to, is an event that you came up with called the Burning Beast. Is it happening again this year? For people who have never been, what can you tell us about this event? Oh yes, it is happening.... July 11th.  Burning Beast takes place at a non-working dairy farm in Arlington called  Smoke Farm.  BB  is the ultimate outdoor BBQ. Chefs cook locally raised meat and fish over  open fires. Pig, Rabbit, Lamb, Goat, Duck, Buffalo, Elk, Salmon, Oysters, Geoduck and more!  Loads of fire roasted  vegetables as well, all from our local farms.   This year Swamp Soul and Pickled Okra are performing and they are really  fun.  Think of BB as a food version of Burning Man. Not that I have ever been, but you get the idea.  Guests arrive sometime in the early part of the afternoon, wander the farm and play in the river. Chefs  begin building their fires, early in the morning using different fruit woods. We have at 5-6 different fruit woods to choose from.  Chefs and their crew are hanging out cooking  on contraptions they have created out of re-bar, and other metals, or the chef may have something in the ground or in a cauldron, or on  spit.  Everyone is meandering from site to site, drinking, watching, talking and hanging out. At 6pm the dinner bell rings and then the party REALLY begins.This party goes  well into the night. BB is all about supporting the our local meat supply.  For us chefs, if we want local meat  in our restaurants we have to buy the whole animal. We can't just call up the farmer and ask for rib-eyes, or lamb chops. It doesn't work that way.  This event is all about supporting what are farmers and chefs are doing to bring locally raised meat to our markets, and restaurants. The line up of chefs, participating is amazing. Tickets will be available online, soon. This event also supports Smoke Farm, one of the other "loves" in my life.  Check out their website. www.smokefarm.org Tickets will eventually be sold here thru Brown Paper Tickets as well as on the chef's web site. Details will be on the web very soon. Just Google Burning Beast in the next month or so.

We all know chefs don’t eat gourmet every single night. I have to ask, what is your ultimate comfort food or quick meal? Pho, especially on a rainy Sunday afternoon.  I love  Roast Chicken. I am also a fan of Iceberg with Blue cheese dressing.

Most people say that you never stop learning when it comes to cooking, do you agree with that? I do! We  learn technique and that is an important component to good cooking, but I think  there is more. When we cook daily I think  we "discover."  Approaching it this way, frees us up.  Good cooking, comes from the heart, not from the head.  I don't usually follow a recipe to the letter, unless I am baking or making something for the first time. The recipe is a blue print.  Often I say "oh wow, look at this...taste this...this is the better than the last time I made this and I am not sure why. My best dishes happen when I am in a good mood and have beautiful product.    

What is something you recently learned even after all of your cooking experience? I haven't recently learned this, but again I discovered ....I like over-cooked vegetables, especially asparagus. When vegetables cook down the sugars intensify and so does the flavor. I am all about what something tastes like and put less emphasis on pretty food. I know its not a popular idea, and a diner would most likely be upset if their dinner came with over cooked asparagus. We have all been taught that colors, crispy textures is what we should expect.  For me its a flavor component that changes.  Chefs like to puree vegetables. We get away with cooking the vegetable totally soft, and a carrot puree tastes totally different than slightly blanched carrots.  I am  now learning how to use the sous vide circulator and work with a few molecular ingredients to see if that fits with my style or not. The jury is still out on that one.

Is there a certain ingredient that you have recently discovered?  Or a meal that inspired you? I am part of Seattle Chefs Top Tables and  last night with Thierry Rautureau, Holly Smith, Maria Hines, Jason Wilson, John Sundstrom, I was inspired by that meal and the company. I absolutely adore each and every one of them, of course the food was awesome.

What food or restaurant trends do you see for 2010? In my view,  how many really new things, under the sun, can we come up with when it comes to food? I believe that we  will be content sharing simple meals with great friends in casual and low budget build outs. There is a lot of movement towards less designed restaurants to save on those costs and the cost to keep those spaces up. Chefs want to spend their money on what matters, the food.  There is certainly a trend  towards interesting, savory cocktails, using local ingredients. Seems to be appropriate... in a challenged economy we all tend to indulge a little more  in the "spirit world." Has the bacon martini been created yet? Probably.

Will we see a Tamara Murphy food truck anytime soon?

HA! You must be reading my mind....I have something kind of like that in mind, but just a little different...for now my lips are sealed.

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