If you haven’t had the pleasure, meet Executive Chef Chris Peterson. In the past, he’s worked the local culinary scene at Nordstrom, Café campagne, Bis on Main and Milagro Cantina, among others. But for the past year and a half, he’s been the mind behind the Bellevue Club menus, and he wants you to be his guest.
Reflections magazine: Have you always been interested in cooking?
Chris Peterson: No, I have not. My mother couldn’t cook, so I didn’t grow up with it. I was in grad school at Cornell and was washing dishes part-time at a great French restaurant when I fell in love with cooking food. So I dropped out, and the rest is history.
RM: What were you in school for?
CP: I got a degree in marketing. I was also in the U.S. Marines for four years, stationed in Japan for three years. I loved it but didn’t want to retire out of the Marines, so I got out, did school and found food.
RM: And it just clicked?
CP: I’ve always been friends with writers or artists or musicians. I always ran with that crowd, but I never had my own thing. Then the chef and owner of the French restaurant in New York gave me an opportunity and food became my guitar. It was the perfect combination of being tactile and creative.
RM: What was your first job when you moved to Seattle from New York?
CP: It was in 1997 and I got a job at Café Campagne downtown. I was a sous chef within a year, and then I took the job at Bis on Main in Bellevue.
RM: And then you tried a stint as a personal chef?
CP: Yeah, I took a brief hiatus to be a private chef for the Vulcan group. But I found being a private chef is too much solitude. I like to be around people and being in the restaurant; I really like talking to guests, and I like all the direct feedback, good or bad.
RM: So, you went back to restaurants?
CP: I went back to Bis on Main and worked for another couple years. During that time I wrote a cookbook, and while I was working on that book I was approached by the group that owns Hector’s and Milagro; well, they didn’t own Milagro then. That was the project on the slate, and they asked me to be the director of culinary operations and build the concept of essentially a large authentic Mexican restaurant. So I traveled to Mexico and basically built the thing from the ground up, from construction to design to staffing.
RM: That’s quite an undertaking.
CP: It was. But that can be an area where I think chefs often shortchange themselves by not being involved. It’s important to understand the development, planning, numbers and all the things past the food piece, just understanding the business as a whole.
RM: What part was most challenging for you?
CP: As it is everywhere, staffing. The director of operations and I interviewed candidates, and we hired 100 people. So you can imagine how many people we interviewed, and then the process of cutting that down was a big, big challenge. The food development side of it was fun. We traveled to Mexico and all over the U.S. to glean ideas from people; then it was up to me to incorporate my own knowledge, and the sky was the limit.
RM: Sounds like a good learning experience.
CP: That experience blew my world wide open. At Bis on Main I was a working chef; I was constantly on the line and I wasn’t really involved in the financial piece. The Milagro project was huge in that I was involved with the entire philosophy behind the food. I developed all the food recipes right out of my apartment, and held tastings with the owners to get their opinion. After that, I went into consulting for a little bit.
RM: And eventually you helped open Bake’s Place when it moved to Bellevue, right?
CP: I got the offer to be executive chef, and we gutted the space.
It was a bank records building, and we built the concept from the ground up. From there, I was known as the guy who could get stuff open. Nordstrom called me to open the Habitant concept. I didn’t personally develop the concept, but I was the chef on the project.
RM: Then you came here to the Bellevue Club in March 2014. What was appealing about bringing all that experience to the restaurants here?
CP: I think it was the idea of so much opportunity under one roof. Having creative control in multiple concepts makes my job a lot more challenging and dynamic. Obviously, food quality and consistency is the most important piece. If the food is not good, I’m not doing my job. But with all these moving parts, if I only thought about the food, I’d be doing the Club a disservice.
RM: You’ve changed and added quite a few menu options since taking over as executive chef. What’s your process for each new menu item?
CP: It’s a combination of things. I used to sit and stare at the wall until something came to me; not so much anymore. When I’m making significant changes, I now tend to close my curtains, not leave the house for a few days, have books spread out and watch horror movies, and then create food. That’s no joke. But really, I am influenced by a lot of people, other chefs. I read a lot but also rely on my past training. Also, whatever is in season—sometimes it’s just a single ingredient. I’m definitely methodical, but it’s not just one single creative juice that flows; it’s a little bit of everything.
RM: I know you eat out a lot for research and for pleasure, what’s your number one pet peeve?
CP: Consistency is the most important thing, so it bugs me the most when I go to a place that I’m starting to like and the consistency falls off.
RM: Are there specific ingredients or cooking styles you think are overrated or underrated?
CP: Food goes in cycles. For a while tall food was trendy, then molecular gastronomy became popular. I’m not that kind of chef. I can do it, but I prefer to be able to tell what I’m making or eating. But I think home cooking always comes back in; simplicity always comes back in.
RM: What are you currently excited about in the culinary scene?
CP: I don’t think there’s a specific food or dish I’m excited about, but in general more ethnic cuisine. Peruvian cuisine I’m really excited about. Mexican, Farsi—I really enjoy those cuisines; there are so many diverse ethnic cuisines out there.
RM: What about local dishes? What’s fun for you right now that comes from the Pacific Northwest?
CP: Oysters. I’m a huge fan. All you do is shuck them and make a simple sauce, but the diversity is remarkable. Of course, all the local farms too; meat and pig farms continue to expand. The local distillery scene is really intriguing too.
RM: What cocktails are you into?
CP: I’ve been teaching myself, so I always start with the classics. I start with Vespers and martini-style cocktails. But I’ll tell you what cocktail I’m really into is the cocktail that Shauna is making at Cosmos—Watermelon en Fuego. It is the bomb. It is a reposado tequila margarita–style cocktail with jalapeños. But to me, there’s nothing more civilized than going home and unwinding with a Vesper or martini.
RM: Do you have any advice for aspiring chefs?
CP: Pay attention. Take notes. Be present when you’re cooking. Think past the dish. Line cooking is one thing, but think about the final impact. You’re probably not introducing a dish to the world, but you are providing an experience for customers to enjoy, and hopefully that’s why you’re cooking. In the same vein, know your audience. That doesn’t mean you can’t introduce new things to customers, but it’s a reciprocal relationship. Although people may not always know what they want, when they get it, they know. You have to get them to trust you. Slowly try new things. Lastly, keep track of everything. Write down everything. You’re your best reference as you get further in your career.
RM: Lastly, restaurant work is notorious for long hours and hard work. What has kept you cooking all these years?
CP: I love it. That doesn’t mean I don’t feel it sometimes or get mad sometimes. But I guess there are way more pros than cons, and that’s satisfying. You’re making people happy. Yes, I want to make food I like, but ultimately people have to like it. It’s my guitar.