Seattleite Spotlight: Chef Thierry Rautureau and Chef Nat Stratton-Clarke

Two Madison Valley restaurateurs invite you to celebrate French cuisine and culture.

On the morning of July 14, 1789, a large crowd of working-class Frenchmen converged on the most notorious prison in Paris to protest the oppression of monarchic rule. The storming of the Bastille directly preceded the French Revolution, and is seen today as one of the major turning points in that country’s political history. Every July 14, the people of France honor the event with Fête de la Fédération, a national holiday celebrated worldwide as Bastille Day. This summer, two of Seattle’s top chefs invite local residents to take part in Bastille Bash — and like last year’s inaugural shindig, the 2013 festival will be held in Madison Valley, a dynamic neighborhood with a well-established European culinary community.

Chef Thierry Rautureau, also known as ‘The Chef in the Hat’, is one of the Seattle food scene’s most recognizable faces. For more than 25 years, he’s served as owner and head chef of Rover’s, a Madison Valley institution that combines local flavors with classic French technique; Thierry recently announced Rover’s will permanently close its doors this summer, and he will be moving on to an exciting new project (more details to come). He is also the owner and head chef of LUC, another Madison Valley eatery that specializes in the ‘French comfort food’ he enjoyed as a boy in the Muscadet region of western France. Chef Rautureau is a culinary celebrity in every right; he has twice appeared as a contestant on Top Chef Masters, co-hosted a cooking-oriented radio show with Tom Douglas for more than a decade, and received (among many other honors) a James Beard Award for ‘Best Chef in the Pacific Northwest’ and a Chevalier de l’Ordre Du Mérite Agricole from the French Government.

Thierry’s partner in crime for Bastille Bash, Nat Stratton-Clarke, is another member of the Madison Valley cooking elite. A Berkeley native, he first made his mark on the Seattle food scene in 2006 when he became the general manager of Cafe Flora, a vegetarian and vegan eatery that has served green delicacies to local herbivores since the early 90’s. Two years later, he purchased the restaurant from its original founders and became the owner. Cafe Flora has recently received some notable accolades; earlier this year, Seattle readers voted it ‘Best Vegetarian Restaurant’ in the city. When it comes to operating a successful restaurant, Nat believes sustainability and good relationships with local farmers are just as important as serving delicious food.

Last year, Thierry and Nat (whose three collective establishments all sit within one block of each other) first explored the idea of a large-scale celebration to not only honor Bastille Day, but also invite local residents to check out the underrated charm of Madison Valley. The result was smashingly successful, and both men are pleased to announce the second annual Bastille Bash festivities will take place on Saturday, July 13. I recently spoke with both chefs about the joy of French cuisine, Madison Valley’s dynamic food scene, and their expectations for this year’s Bastille extravaganza.

Thierry, you’ve long been known as ‘Chef in the Hat’. Who gave you this nickname, and how did you earn it?

TR: My wife Kathy is the one who gave me a fedora for Christmas, which I wore almost all the time. One evening about 13 years ago, I entered the dining room at Rover’s to speak with a guest without removing my hat. The guest exclaimed: ‘Look, it’s the Chef in the Hat!’ Other guests overheard the comment, and the phrase eventually became my nickname.

Tell us about your first trip to the Pacific Northwest. What were your first impressions of our fair city, and when did you decide to relocate here permanently?

TR: My first trip to Seattle was in 1985, and then I came back in 1986 and 1987, in which I found out Rover’s was for sale. That is when Kathy and I decided Seattle would be a great place to move and start a family.

You purchased Rover’s from the original owners in 1987, and recently announced the restaurant will close this summer. What are some of your fondest memories as owner and head chef of this celebrated establishment?

TR: Some of my fondest memories were cooking for Julia Child, Nathan Mhyvold, all the chefs that walked through the doors, and all my great customers who have been supporting me for the last 25 years. I have so many wonderful memories, there are too many for paper.

In addition to Julia Child, you’ve prepared food for Hillary Clinton, Julia Child, and Francis Ford Coppola. Do you feel extra pressure when cooking for a celebrity?

TR: No… umm, YES! Julie Child, absolutely!

In 2010, you opened a French-American cafe in Madison Valley and named it after your father. How have Seattleites responded to LUC over the past three years?

TR: Kathy and I are still amazed how Seattleites have welcomed and embraced LUC. The spirit of what Kathy and I wanted to do has received such a great reception from guests.

You’ve co-hosted food-oriented radio shows with Chef Tom Douglas for more than a decade; first In the Kitchen with Tom and Thierry (2003-10), followed by Seattle Kitchen (2012-present). What are some of your most memorable on-air moments with this fellow local foodie?

TR: Some of my most memorable on-air moments are when I prove to Tom that, even though I am classically trained, I still have good things to say. It is also always a highlight to cook in Tom’s kitchen while hosting the show.

You’re on the Board of Directors for Food Lifeline, a Seattle-based nonprofit that provides meals for homeless individuals and low-income families. How long have you been involved with this organization, and how can local residents help out?

TR: I have been involved with Food Lifeline for over five years, and have been a board member for over two years. Local residents can participate with friends, family, and businesses in many ways. They can schedule a repacking day at Food Lifeline’s [Shoreline] location, follow ongoing events and campaigns, and donate to Food Lifeline. A $1 donation goes a long way and provides a full day of nutritious meals for a hungry individual. Last but not least, they can participate in the campaign to build a new warehouse and combine both locations. For more information visit the organization’s official website.

Nat, what is your culinary background?

NSC: Cooking was something I always wanted to do. I got my first cooking job when I was 16 as a prep cook for a catering company, and spent a lot of time learning from others. I loved every minute of it, and I’ve been doing it ever since. I started working at Cafe Flora soon after I arrived in Seattle.

How long did you serve as general manager of Cafe Flora?

NSC: About a year and a half. I started at Cafe Flora as a buyer in 2005. Basically what I would do is coordinate all the purchases from farmer’s markets — and since we were buying from more than 30 farms, it took quite a bit to coordinate all of that. I was going to these farms every week to pick everything up and make sure the kitchens had anything they needed, or could imagine or dream up. I took over as general manager in 2006, and then I bought the restaurant in 2008.

What changes have you made to Cafe Flora in the last five years, and what has remained the same?

NSC: I was lucky enough to buy an amazing restaurant with an amazing team of people, and they had really laid a lot of groundwork. Janine Doran, who’s the executive chef, just celebrated 20 years at Cafe Flora. She started as a line cook and worked her way up. We have dishwashers who have been here for 15 or 16 years, and servers who have been here for 10 or 12 years. So much of the staff has remained the same, which is great.

We recently did a remodel of the main dining room. We wanted to take a sustainable approach, so we visited local farms for materials. We’ve got a great deck that’s from an old collapsed barn, and the gate is from another local farm. We also added in a bar, which we didn’t have before. I think cocktails are such a fascinating form of art and science, and it was something we wanted to bring to Cafe Flora. We also added breakfast to the menu five days a week. We were known as a place with a great weekend brunch, but we didn’t offer breakfast Monday through Friday. So that was something we decided to change.

Cafe Flora has a very eco-friendly reputation. In addition to the recent remodel, what are some of the other ways you and your staff promote sustainability?

NSC: We started composting back in the early 90’s with one bin in the back garden, and now we’re producing enough compost each week to fill two dumpsters. All of our to-go containers and materials, everything from straws to pizza boxes, is compostable, as well as our trash bags. And not only do we buy the produce we use, but we also sponsor a free mini-CSA program for all of our staff. This allows them to use that amazing organic and local produce when they’re cooking at home.

Tell us about the non-toxic, soy-based stain you use for Cafe Flora’s concrete floor. When did you start using this product, and where can Seattleites find it?

NSC: It’s called SoyCrete. Let me tell you, back in 2009, nobody ever really used it. Stains can be so toxic, so it was nice to use something that was less toxic for our guests, as well as the people performing the work. It is a great product, and it’s held up incredibly well. (You can purchase it here.)

Last year Cafe Flora celebrated its 20th anniversary. Any big celebration plans for the restaurant’s 21st birthday?

NSC: We had a pretty big blowout last year, and I think it’s amazing for any restaurant to make it 20 years, especially for a vegetarian restaurant. There aren’t that many vegetarian restaurants in the United States that are 20 years old. But I think we’re going to hold off for now and have our next bash on the 25th anniversary.

What are some common misconceptions about French cuisine among American eaters?

TR: That French food is difficult, fussy, very heavy, and very expensive.

NSC: People also don’t think there are any French vegetarian options; unless it’s a baguette or brie, everything has some kind of meat in it. But I think one of the things Bastille Bash has been able to do is show people how many different types of food can be inspired by French cuisine.

Outside France (and Seattle, of course), what are some of the best cities for French food?

TR: New York City, Vancouver, Montreal, Chicago, and San Francisco.

NSC: And dare I say London, because I know England has a bad reputation. But there has been an incredible transformation within that city’s culinary scene over the last few years, and it’s just thriving today. People are doing really interesting things there.

How did the two of you meet, and when did you decide to collaborate for a summertime festival commemorating French cuisine?

NSC: The Madison Valley Merchant Association is open to all the local restaurant and retail shop owners. We all sit down for coffee every month, and that’s where Thierry and I first met. We both wanted to do a neighborhood celebration to bring more people into Madison Valley. Thierry and I have both celebrated Bastille Day in various parts of the world, but nothing like that really existed in Seattle, and we thought it would be fun if a European neighborhood hosted something like that.

What were your impressions of the inaugural Bastille Bash event?

TR: [We were] way overwhelmed by the outpouring number of people that showed up!

NSC: We underestimated ourselves, and thought maybe we’d get 500 people in the first year. We started planning about three or four months in advance. But we had more than 2,000 people show up, which was incredible, and we sold out. So this year, we started planning as soon as last year’s event was over. I think it’s going to be absolutely phenomenal this year.

Who are some of the other restaurateurs and chefs scheduled to appear at Bastille Bash 2013, and how can local culinarists take part in the event?

TR: In addition to Cafe Flora, LUC, and Rover’s, this year’s lineup includes: Chef Jason Wilson from Crush, Carolin Messier from The Harvest Vine, Voila!, The BottleNeck Lounge, Norah Belai from Inés Patisserie, Pagliacci Pizza, and Harbour Pointe Coffeehouse.

NSC: If people want to participate, Madison Valley has a great website with email contacts for them to get in touch with us. We always say the more the merrier, so if people want to get involved they should shoot us an email. We also have a Facebook page. We are expecting to sell out, so we’ve reserved a limited amount of spots on Brown Paper Tickets for people who want to avoid the line and go straight to will-call.

What can 2013 Bastille Bash attendees expect in terms of live entertainment?

NSC: Last year we were working with a limited budget, and this year we’re able to do so much more. Viking sponsored a stage for guest chefs to perform French cooking demonstrations, as well as gardening specialists who will show audiences techniques for planting culinary herbs and lavender. We’re also hosting three can-can troupes and four bands. People in very elaborate historical costumes, jugglers, mimes, and accordion players will be wandering up and down Madison all day.

Who are some of the retailers scheduled to appear at this year’s event?

NSC: A lot of the local, independent stores are hosting special events for Bastille Bash. Vian Hunter is doing a whole Marie Antoinette-themed sale with live models in the windows. City Peoples is doing a huge, French lavender-themed display. It’s not your typical fair with funnel cake and carnival rides. It’s all Madison Valley business owners, no outside retailers.

TR: All [participating] retailers will have wineries in-store and will be serving wine with the exchange of food and drink tickets.

Proceeds from Bastille Bash 2013 will benefit the Children’s Response Center. What can you tell us about this local nonprofit?

TR: It’s a great organization!

NSC: CRC serves children who are victims of sexual assault and traumatic stress, and that’s something we can always put more money toward. The organization partners with Harborview and the University of Washington.

Please visit Brown Paper Tickets to purchase advance tickets for Bastille Bash, which will be held Saturday, July 13, from 3 to 8 p.m. throughout the Madison Valley neighborhood. All other tickets will be sold on the day of the event; judging by the crowd at last year’s festivities, you’ll want to arrive early if you choose this option.

Although Rover’s will cease operations later this month, Rautureau has no such plans to close LUC. The cafe opens each afternoon at 4:30 p.m., offers happy hour every day from 4:30 to 6:30 p.m. Thierry hosts ‘Happy Weekend Brunch’ at the restaurant every Saturday and Sunday between noon and 4 p.m., and summertime guests are welcome to celebrate the sunshine with patio dining.

LUC | 2800 E. Madison St. |  (206) 328-6645

Cafe Flora serves breakfast, lunch, and dinner every day throughout the spring and summer months. The happy hour menu includes a wide selection of wine, spirits, and local brews, as well as enticing dishes like coconut tofu with sweet chili sauce and a platter of lentil-pecan pâté.

Cafe Flora | 2901 E. Madison St. | (206) 325-9100