Why These Seattle Chef Transplants Wouldn't Live Anywhere Else

By Jackie Varriano  |  July 25, 2016
Credit: Visit Seattle

It’s easy to explain to outsiders why we love Seattle during the summer. The sun, the Sound, the farmer's markets brimming with everything a home cook or chef could want. But our detractors point to January, and the relentless pummeling of gray, rainy days. In a city that is now brimming with transplants (over 93,000 people moved to the state between 2014 and 2015 alone), many of them in the hospitality industry, we thought we'd go right to the source and ask chefs what brought them to our fair city. See why one moved from sunny LA, how a chef from Idaho beat the fabled "Seattle Freeze," what a restaurateur from Greece brags about to his friends, and plenty more reasons to love Seattle and its food scene.

  • Credit: Brady Campbell

    Caprial Pence: chef, Bookstore Bar & Cafe

    Original hometown: Portland, Oregon
    Year moved to Seattle: 1984, 2014
    Pence and her husband John moved to Seattle after culinary school, but then headed to Portland when the opportunity arose to purchase a small restaurant. “Also, we were having our second child and my parents were there and that helped," she said. And then Downtown’s Bookstore Bar & Cafe came courting. The timing was right for Pence and her husband, as they were working as consultants and had strong friendships in the city. “This city has always had such a draw.”
    What changed the most since 1984: “It’s much more of a big city than it was before. When we lived here, it was always bigger than Portland, but now it feels like a bona fide real city, where I think it was a little podunky and sort of what everybody thought of Seattle — just a bunch of lumbermen and fishermen. All Ballard was, was a bunch of old fisherman and nothing. I remember when our friends bought a house over there we’re like — are you nuts?”
    Best thing about Seattle now: The food scene is just exploding, I can’t believe the sustained growth; it’s amazing. I can’t even keep up — you can’t find a line cook to save your life. It’s crazy, but it’s also exciting because that means there’s a lot of creativity and energy in the city. 

  • Credit: Miller's Guild

    Jason Wilson: chef and partner, Miller’s Guild

    Original hometown: Born in Minnesota, spent teenage years in San Francisco, moved to Seattle from Singapore
    Year moved to Seattle: 1998
    Wilson moved here to open STARS Bar and Dining by Jeremiah Tower, after working with Tower in San Francisco and Singapore. He stayed after he met his now wife, Nicole. He and Nicole opened their Capitol Hill restaurant Crush in 2005, which has since become the test lab for Coffee Flour (flour made from the outer fruit of the coffee berry). In addition to Miller’s Guild, he’s got a few unnamed projects in the works.
    The most surprising thing about Seattle: “The community of peers, chefs and cooks that is honest and genuine struck me when I first arrived. There is less competition than in other cities I have cooked in and a greater level of camaraderie.”
    Best thing about Seattle now: “I love the area for its dramatic natural beauty, the escape that it offers and the magnificent products that grow here with which I can cook year-round. Almost 20 years later, I would still trade the weather for that of Northern California, but I guess each year it's getting closer and closer.”

  • Credit: Rosemary Garner

    Thomas Soukakos: owner, Vios Cafes and Omega Ouzeri

    Original hometown: Piraeus, Greece
    Year moved to Seattle: 1993
    It was while living in LA that Soukakos decided he wanted to move back to Greece. His only item of business before leaving the U.S. was to sell a house he had purchased (sight unseen) in Seattle. However, when he arrived, the housing market wasn’t what he wanted and he got a job to wait for a better price. “As the fates would have it, my wife Carol, a great baker at Columbia City Bakery and a cook, walked into my life and we built El Greco into a Capitol Hill favorite for Greek comfort food and brunch.
    What’s kept him here: “The city gave me the opportunity to dream and create four Greek restaurants that have all fulfilled different needs in the city’s neighborhoods. The Vios Cafes are totally focused on family and community needs (I believe Vios Cafe on Capitol Hill was the first restaurant in Seattle to devote an area for kids to play in — now they are everywhere!) and Omega Ouzeri that allows us to introduce Greek wine and spirits as a more modern take on traditional Greek recipes. The Seattle customer is very adventurous and loyal.”
    Best Seattle brag to outsiders: “The food scene has grown tremendously, great chefs have been creating wonderful food, and outstanding farms and purveyors have developed abundant varieties to play with.”  

  • Credit: Tilth

    Jason Brzozowy: executive chef, Maria Hines Restaurants

    Original hometown: Milwaukee, Wisconsin
    Year moved to Seattle: 2007
    Brzozowy had been living in Chicago since 2003, when he and his girlfriend decided they were ready for a change of pace. They got onto the Empire Builder Amtrak train with just a few boxes. “We were only planning on staying for a year,” he says. But from the moment he started cooking with Maria Hines at Wallingford’s Tilth he saw nothing but opportunity. He's now the executive chef across the board at her three Seattle restaurants. 
    What’s kept him here: “I will always miss the people from Chicago, they’re so upfront and down to earth. But the food here is incredible — we were paying twice as much for food [in Chicago] that I get now in Seattle, and it comes from our backyard. Plus, I love the mountains surrounding the city — Maria got me into rock climbing a few years ago and I was hooked.”
    Best Seattle brag to outsiders: “I always brag about how quickly you can get outside of the city and into nature, like old-growth forest, rainforest, mountainous-type nature. I’d never seen anything like that coming from the Midwest.” 

  • Credit: Shiro's Sushi

    Jun Takai: executive and sushi chef, Shiro’s Sushi

    Original hometown: Yokohama, Japan
    Year moved to Seattle: 2011
    After spending a few years in San Diego learning to speak English, Takai moved back to his hometown to learn all about fish. He returned to the states, specifically to Seattle, because he wanted to “spread the true sushi as close as you can eat in Japan. Seattle has four seasons just like Japan, meaning that they have seasonal local fish that are well-suited for sushi.” He’s worked at Shiro’s Downtown since moving to the city.
    What’s kept him here: “I love Seattle for the greenery and nature it offers. Plentiful local vegetables and fish, distinctive four different seasons just like Japan. Unlike New York or Los Angeles, I see great potential for the food culture to develop further in Seattle."
    Best Seattle brag to outsiders: “Seattle is blessed with a very agreeable climate — mild weather with four seasons, except rain of course. But I learned the rain is the token to the gorgeous summer the city offers. Needless to add, the fresh seafood is another blessing.” 

  • Credit: Marination

    Mario Hevia: chef, Marination group

    Original hometown: Curacavi, Chile
    Year moved to Seattle: 2008
    Hevia moved here for a girl — but ended up staying for another one, his daughter Valentina Paz. “I think Seattle is an amazing city to raise a child and I spend whatever free time I have with her. We love going to Ravenna Park and the Columbia City Farmers Market or just hanging out.” After spending years at Canlis, Hevia made the move to Columbia City’s Super Six and the Marination Group in March of 2016.
    Best thing about Seattle: “I like that people here seem to be focused on the right things — sourcing local ingredients, considering how what we do impacts the environment — and that the diners here really embrace those values and seek them out when choosing where they eat.”
    What he would change: "I do wish that people would be more willing to be adventurous, to try a new and different ingredient, even if it’s unusual, because it’s local and sustainable, not just trendy. I think with the influence of restaurants here like Super Six that try to bridge the gap between the familiar and the exotic, we’re starting to see more diners willing to stretch their palates and explore new things."

  • Credit: Amber Fouts

    McKenzie Hart: chef and partner, Peloton Cafe

    Original hometown: Sun Valley, Idaho
    Year moved to Seattle: 2007
    Hart had been attending culinary school in Portland and looking for a spot to fulfill her externship requirement. She came to Seattle to visit friends, ate at Taste at the Seattle Art Museum and quickly made the move. After stints at Taste, Sitka and Spruce and The London Plane, she opened Peloton Cafe in First Hill with three partners in 2015.
    What surprised her about Seattle: “Of course I had heard of the famous 'Seattle Freeze' [the idea that Seattle natives aren't friendly to outsiders], but I didn’t really experience it. I’ve come to believe that any city can work for some people but not for others. Portland wasn’t my city, but Seattle is. So I guess I was surprised at how quickly I met people and how quickly we became friends. Most recently I’ve been surprised, mostly shocked by just how much this city is changing and growing. There are a few neighborhoods I hardly recognize anymore, and I’ve only been here for nine years.”
    Best thing about Seattle: “I love the amazing products that are so accessible in this area. I also, I really love the pride that the people in the industry have for the product and where it comes from. To me it’s shown by not making the dishes overwhelmingly complicated. The majority seem to want to show respect to the product and give the customer the best product without turning it into something it’s not — like making an apple taste like an orange but look like a carrot.”

  • Credit: Seven Beef

    Jinho Han: chef, Seven Beef Steak Shop

    Original hometown: Busan, South Korea
    Year moved to Seattle: 2014
    Han and his wife had moved to Washington, DC, so she could attend graduate school, but they were only there for six months before Han got the call to come work for Eric and Sophie Banh at Seven Beef. He says they had never imagined living here, but after learning his wife could continue her studies at the University of Washington and talking with friends, they made the jump. “We thought, we’re young; let’s give it a try.”
    Best thing about Seattle: “In terms of food, I think 'farm-to-table' is kind of overused these days. But in Seattle it’s beyond being a trend, it’s just part of the food culture here for seasonal, locally sourced ingredients to be featured on menus. Not only that, but the fact that, even for people who aren’t involved in restaurants at all, it’s so normal to go to farmer's markets or forage for mushrooms or pick sea beans — that’s cool to me.” 
    Best Seattle brag to outsiders: “They’re already jealous that I’m here. I don’t need to brag.”

  • Credit: Zach Lyons

    Paul Osher: owner, Porkchop & Co

    Original hometown: Los Angeles by way of Ohio
    Year moved to Seattle: 2013
    Osher had been living in LA for 12 years, arriving at cooking after dropping out of graduate school. “As I was writing my dissertation, I stopped reading poli science journals and read more cookbooks.” He started a catering company, but never found the right permanent spot. He had a connection to Ballard’s Belle Clementine, heard it was closing and came up in January of 2013 to see if Seattle suited him. By April of that year Porkchop & Co was open in the old Belle space.
    Biggest difference between Seattle and LA: “The meat is much better than it is in SoCal, and the fish — I never ate salmon there — there’s something about the fish you don’t experience in other places, you just can’t. The product is incredible. It’s a really cosmopolitan city, but it’s not pretentious, not sprawling. There’s something about the scale of this city that feels very comfortable.”
    Best thing about Seattle: “I don’t think I would’ve moved here if it wasn’t for Ballard; it’s an incredible neighborhood. There’s something pretty special about this place.”

  • Credit: Geoffrey Smith

    Addam Buzzalini: chef, Tavolàta

    Original hometown: Detroit
    Year moved to Seattle: 2001, 2014
    Buzzalini originally moved to Seattle so he could get as far from Michigan as possible. “I was tired of the cold winters and the snow and had been dreaming of the Pacific Northwest for a long time.” You can find him now splitting time between Ethan Stowell’s two Tavolata locations in Capitol Hill and Belltown.
    What’s kept him here: Buzzalini first moved here in 2001 when he was 22, but absconded to Tucson for six years, moving back to cook at Tavolata in 2014 because he missed “the weather, the people and the environment. It’s just a really neat geographical place on earth and being gone for five or six years, the food culture had really progressed a lot in that time.”
    Best Seattle brag to outsiders: "I could honestly say working with Ethan Stowell. I definitely brag about that not only because he’s such a great guy and a great chef, but also our company is so diverse with so many restaurant options. Also, the food that’s available here. In Tucson you have prickly pears or grass-fed beef, and everything’s available at a moment’s notice here pretty much all the time."