Mix one part adventure with two parts gastronomy and business acumen. Cook over high heat, stirring briskly. Season with fresh ideas and a penchant for hosting. Garnish with a warm smile.
Long before the Travel Channel glamorized global culinary adventure, Renée Behnke was already hopping flights, trains and rickshaws in search of original dishes with a heaping side of culture.
From Vietnam to Morocco, owner and president emeritus of Sur La Table has made it a personal mission to sample the good, the bad and the weird—all for the love of cooking.
“My whole life I’ve been really fascinated with cultures,” she says. Her love of cultures, along with her deep interest in food and cooking, spurred her initial involvement in Sur La Table back when it was a single French cooking store at the Pike Place Market. In 1995, her husband Carl’s family acquired the niche shop with plans to open several stores throughout the region.
Noting the diversity of cooks and tastes in Seattle, Renée wanted a place that offered hard-to-find kitchen utensils for multicultural dishes.
“Nowadays, people have the ability to eat so many different foods, and I wanted them to be successful in what they want to cook,” she says. It was a concept that spread quickly. In the past 15 years, Sur La Table has grown to more than 70 stores across the United States with many of them offering popular community cooking classes.
During her time as president of Sur La Table, Renée often led culinary pilgrimages across the globe to such far-flung locales as India or the Greek islands.
“I would take our employees all over the world to buy product and understand how food was served so we could pass on the true experience,” she says.
When Renée stepped down from the day-to-day operations of Sur La Table in 2005 and moved into her current role as president emeritus, she continued her global jaunts with friends and coworkers.
“I’ve made so many friends around the world. Going to a country is not just about seeing a statue—it’s about the people,” she says. Renée is adventurous in her travel, avoiding tourist traps in favor of back alley cafés and authentic experiences.
“Often, those meals in a small, intimate restaurant with friends are better than any tour,” she says.
When Renée’s not an ocean away, she’s typically throwing some sort of party at her Bellevue home with ingredients from her legendary garden that covers two city lots.
“We do at least two major dinner parties per month,” she says.
Her love of hosting and travel recently collided in the enormous project of putting together her first cookbook, “Memorable Recipes,” with local food writer Cynthia Nims. Heavy on crisp photography, cultural themes and comfort food, Renée’s book earned recognition from National Public Radio as one of the “10 Best Summer Cookbooks of 2009.” From cornbread to couscous, the book includes theme ideas and “do-ahead tips,” and is sprinkled with a mix of folksy family memories and travel tidbits that add her distinct personality to the recipes.
While a cookbook seems like a no-brainer for Renée, she says the amount of work in putting together the 234-page project was staggering.
“In a restaurant, the kitchen staff makes the recipes and the chef just goes in to taste it, but I had to do every recipe one by one and write them up,” she says.
With her cookbook finished, Renée is planning for 2010 to be a year with no plans.
“This is the first year of my whole life where I don’t have something big planned,” she says. And what else would Renée do with some extra free time, but get her crowded passport stamped a few more times?
With trips to Turkey, Laos and Maine already on her loose agenda, Renée’s idea of “no big plans” is a little different from most.
“There are tons of places that I want to go,” she says with a smile.