Chef Q & A with Alex Pitts

February 18, 2010

Chef Alex Pitts  has given more than blood, sweat and tears to open Avila, a relatively new restaurant in the Wallingford neighborhood of, Seattle, Washington. He takes a moment to share his advice on how to get into professional  cooking, his obsession with fennel pollen and his appreciation of  local ingredients.

When did you start cooking? What can you suggest for someone just starting out who wants to learn how to cook?
I worked the fryers at Kentucky Fried Chicken for a few years in high school, that's where the addiction to the adrenaline of a busy kitchen developed.  Coming out of high school I knew I wanted to do something different than all my friends, something where there was pressure and a chance to use my hands, I went to culinary school because it was cheap and only a years' commitment, and if things didn’t work out I would've at least learned a usable skill--I hated it--barely graduated, and sullenly loped off to do my obligatory internship at the Salish Lodge in Snoqualmie, WA.  There was a huge difference between mind-numbing school and a lively hotel kitchen surrounded by 30 or so professional cooks with all the camaraderie, competition, and horseplay you can imagine.   Oh yeah, and the hostesses--I was in love with them all. Within a week I was hooked on cooking as a career, within a year I'd become the typical over-ambitious 19-year-old twat who couldn’t understand why he hadn’t been promoted to Executive Chef already.

For those just beginning to cook my advice is this--if you're learning to cook for fun, let it be fun: cook what you like to eat, there are plenty of resources and recipes out there, take it one at a time and be prepared to write off a few mistakes--you’ll learn from them, and don't get too worked up about things.  For those trying to break into cooking as a profession there's one absolute rule: beg and plead yourself into the best kitchen you can possibly get into, start with Daniel Boulud or Thomas Keller and work your way down the list until someone lets you peel their fava beans--anyone can work the grill pulling pre-portioned hamburgers from the freezer at the local bar and grill, but if you can throw yourself in there amongst the best and brightest, even if you start out washing the dang dishes, you'll never look back.

We all know chefs don’t eat gourmet every night. What is your ultimate comfort food or quick meal?
Popcorn--horrible I know, but it takes one minute and thirty-five seconds to make in the microwave, is appropriate at any time of the day or night, there are no dishes to clean, and hey I can get an Odwalla on the way to work, right?

You recently opened Avila, what would you say your biggest challenge and greatest rewards about opening your own place?
Biggest challenge: money.  Do you know how many beet salads we'll have to sell just to pay for the kitchen floor?  Jared and I had no business opening a restaurant but we did it anyway, and it put an inhuman amount of stress on our friendship and particularly on his family.  Rewards: too many to count.  Number one, we've got a restaurant--we did it, we actually did it, we've still got our families, and our friendship, and we have a business with every chance of being successful.  So many times the wheels wanted to come off but we followed through and got it done.  For me personally, sometime in the last year I learned how to compromise, a skill I've never been any good at--long-term it's easy you just choose a good location and do good work over time and you'll be successful--but there were so many instances where I didn’t get what I wanted and somewhere along the line I learned to be okay with that.  Not only to be okay with it but at the end of the day, I'm damn proud of what we accomplished, and I've learned a lot about what's important and what's fluff.

How do you get inspired in the kitchen? Great ingredients are the best inspiration, I love it when we get some great, say, carrots and you just can’t bring yourself to turn them into a foam or something pompous, you just want to shave them and eat them as a salad, or roast them whole with nothing but salt and pepper.  How lucky are we to live in the Northwest with all these amazing farmers?

What cooking tool can you not live without? What tools would you suggest every home cook invest in?
A good knife is the obvious answer, but recently Jared brought in a Magic Bullet he'd been given--I laughed at him and made some rude jokes at first but man was I wrong: it's the absolute best, most versatile thing in our kitchen--we use it to grind coffee and spices, make small amounts of puree, vinaigrettes, you name it, it's easy to clean, takes no space, and you can walk away from it while it's working.  We wore out the first one and that week we were waiting for its replacement to come was hell.

What food or restaurant trends do you see for 2010? Whose responsible, patrons or restaurant owners?
Someone is out there introducing patrons to new things and getting them excited about them but I couldn’t begin to tell you who it is, all I know is that my job as a chef is not to set trends but to give my guests what they crave--sometimes I can anticipate their wants but most often not, it's born out in the sales numbers.  Every time I try to put something light or healthy on the menu :steamed fish, raw vegetables, buckwheat noodles, these dishes rarely get ordered and when they do, people complain.  Maybe it's a function of the time of the year (February) but people seem to want familiar, comforting, stick-to-your ribs food.  I've been too busy lately to keep up with food trends, but someone needs to invent something in 2010 to replace the obligatory swoosh of puree and foamy sauce on every plate of restaurant food.

Arugula was chosen as a must-have green for the White House garden. What is your must-have ingredient in your fridge/garden? Fennel Pollen is the ingredient I just can’t seem to stop sprinkling over everything--it's like a musician who has learned a new chord--he has to try it in every possible variation to see how it sounds with the other chords.  The biggest thing I look forward to every year from the garden is strawberries in June--I can’t get enough of them.

Most people say that you never stop learning when it comes to cooking, do you agree with that? What is something you recently learned even after all of your experience?
Hah!  I recently learned how to make puff pastry.  I should have known how to do this YEARS ago, but I got promoted to management pretty early in my career and I was always too ashamed to admit I didn’t know how, so for fifteen years I found ways of delegating the puff pastry making.  What a schmuck!  A big part of my love for this business is the fact that you can never know it all--no one person ever has or will, and those of us who love to learn get a Sisyphean pleasure out of knowing this.

What restaurants, pubs, or bars are you currently frequenting?
I've been too busy opening a restaurant to go out much, I will say that the single best meal I've had in Seattle was, well, two of them:  Rovers ten years ago, and Crush last year--both just amazing meals.  You can find the crew and I at May's (Thai place open late-night across the street from the restaurant) at least twice a week--late-night happy hour everything is $5, and backribs are addicting and the vegetable spring rolls are delicious and spicy and make you feel like you just ate something healthy for once.

What local farms, foragers or gardens are you currently sourcing from?
A whole bunch of them, and more to come as the barren winter season ends, but here's my chance to give a special shout-out to Janell and Jerry at Stokesberry Sustainable Farms--they're good people, their chicken, ducks, and beef are delicious, and they really went above-and-beyond helping us out when we first opened.  It takes a different mindset to be a farmer than to be a chef, but they understand the needs of a restaurant and they make it so easy to serve great food!




Jonathan's picture

Great interview. I'm looking forward to trying this restaurant.

Jill Ireland's picture

I have heard wonderful things about Avila. I am going to check it out next time I am in Seattle. Hooray, for supporting local farmers!