Basqueing in the Rain
Greg Atkinson - October 2008
Colorful doesn't begin to describe Joseba Jiménez's picaresque life, which he now carries on as the Northwest's unrivaled exponent of Spanish cuisine.
While serving as an army chef in the Franco-Prussian war in the early 1870s, Auguste Escoffier was inspired by the military ranking system's rigid chain of command and discipline to create the brigade de cuisine that has characterized professional kitchens ever since. But few kitchen soldiers have actually done time on the front lines of a real war. The idiosyncratic Basque born chef Joseba Jiménez de Jiménez of Seattle's The Harvest Vine and Txori has.
Perhaps some underlying symmetry between the military and culinary worlds made it easy for Jiménez to move from one career to another when, as a young man, he abandoned his career as a soldier in the elite Spanish Foreign Legion to pursue a life as a chef. "For me," says Jiménez, who entered military school at age 13 when Francisco Franco gripped Spain with his ironfisted repression, "cooking was just a new way to use the sword. You know, cutting the vegetables."
Jiménez's eyes gleam devilishly, as if there is something else he's not saying. And that is indeed the case; there is always more to Jiménez than meets the eye. Seattle's premiere Spanish chef and three-time James Beard award nominee is not only the most colorful character in a cast already studded with vibrant figures, he is by far the most eccentric. After more than two decades in the United States, he maintains a Spanish accent as thick as crema catalana. He sports a Salvador Dalí-like moustache and an enormous floppy black felt beret, cultivating a look that dares anyone to challenge the absolute authority he assumes on all matters gastronomical—on all matters, period.
"I come from a high-end family," he says in a tone that is evenly matter-of-fact. "I was born into money, and my family can be traced back to Spanish aristocracy," adding that his family tree includes members of the Order of St. James of the Sword who fought in the Crusades in the 12th century. "But I was raised in an unhappy household." His brother died before Jiménez was born, "and my mother never really got over that," he says. The steely blue eyes beneath the beret are suddenly deep, as if they had seen into the abyss, or at least into Pan's Labyrinth, Guillermo Del Toro's mysterious film set in the Basque country where Jiménez grew up.
"It's taken me years of therapy to come to terms with my childhood," says Jiménez, who laughs again as if this, too, were a joke. But it isn't. "Let's just say that when I went to military school, I thought it was great. The other boys complained about the discipline; but after my childhood, it was a walk in the park. I was like, ‘Hey this is good.'"
Again the hysterical laugh, and for an instant it's as if we're in the company of Kurtz, the black heart at the center of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Indeed, Jiménez was christened into the dark world of war as a teenager; by the time he was 19, he was a veteran of a clandestine war in Uganda. No graphic war stories are forthcoming, but he says he experienced enough to know that he didn't want to spend the rest of his life on the front lines. "It's truly horrible to see what human beings can do to one another when their families are threatened.
"At first I decided to go to medical school," he says. "But after a very short time, I knew that wasn't for me." He liked the sciences though and that interest led him to cooking. "I studied pastry in France and eventually went to hotel school in Germany." While still in his 20s, in 1981, the Spanish government hired Jiménez to work as an apprentice in the household of Juan Carlos, King of Spain. By 1983 he was working as a special liaison for the United States embassy in Madrid. While he was there he met President Reagan, who encouraged him to go to the United States--and in 1984 he did. For the next 10 years, Jiménez worked as a kitchen consultant for Marriott, Sheraton, and Ritz-Carlton; from his base in New York City, he helped open more than 20 restaurants all over North America.
"I had a beautiful apartment in Manhattan overlooking the river, but I never saw it. My job was to go from one hotel kitchen to another. I had one of those big suitcases that unfolded to reveal cabinets and drawers; instead of clothes, mine was filled with kitchen tools. I loved the work, but it was difficult. A big part of my job was firing people when things were not working the way they should. My colleagues called me Patton," Jiménez chuckles. "You know, like the military commander."
After a foray into domestic life in the Carolinas, where Jiménez turned in a stint as a private chef for the family behind the R.J. Reynolds tobacco company and fathered a son, he moved to Seattle to start a new life. In 1994, he became chef de cuisine at Prego, which at the time was the flagship restaurant of the Renaissance Madison Hotel (now the Renaissance Seattle Hotel). From there, he found his way to The Ruins, an exclusive private dining club. It was there, in 1996, that he met pastry chef Carolin Messier, who, one year later, became his wife. Soon after, the couple opened a catering business called The Harvest Vine.
Meanwhile, Jiménez worked as a wine buyer and consultant with the owners of The Spanish Table, helping establish the store as a mecca for all things Iberian, not only in Seattle but all over the United States.
Two years later, Jiménez and Carolin came upon the 612-square-foot corner storefront in Seattle's Madison Valley neighborhood that would become their first restaurant, The Harvest Vine. Essentially a kitchen with seats, the tiny hole in the wall served the first authentic tapas Seattleites had ever seen, attracting a loyal and enthusiastic following, and Jiménez began to show his flamboyant character.
"Once I watched a woman drop a spoon into her purse. What does she want with my spoon, I'm thinking. Carolin and I, we did not have any money when we started the restaurant, so we bought used silverware, all of it silver-plated, none of it matching. Now we have imported stemware, nice dishes—things like that; but then we had nothing. That silver spoon, I couldn't believe she was taking it. So I walked up to her and I said, ‘Excuse me, ma'am, I believe you dropped something into your purse.' She denied it of course. But I persisted until she reached into her purse and handed me the spoon. She never came back."
But others did come back. In January 2003 the couple expanded the restaurant, opening a wine cellar/dining room in the adjoining space, with floor-to-ceiling wine racks, 200 year old Spanish doors, and hand-hewn beams on the ceiling.
The seasonally changing menu—divided into salads, soups, cheeses, cold tapas, and hot tapas—includes mejillónes en escabeche (steamed mussels with Sherry vinegar), lomo embuchado (dry-cured pork loin), and morcilla en piquillo (piquillo peppers filled with blood sausage). The panza de cerdo (pork belly) regularly sells out, as does the pichon (squab), which might appear in winter with an apple/rosemary puree or in spring with creamed nettles. The foie de pato (foie gras) takes on seasonal guises, too, appearing con arrope (with caramelized pumpkin and grape must) in the fall or con melocotón (with peaches) in duck demi-glace in summer. What draws most patrons back to The Harvest Vine, though, is Jiménez's sleight of hand with vegetables: Brussels sprouts glisten with bits of Serrano ham in winter; asparagus spears come grilled with Spanish olive oil and Meyer lemon juice in spring; sautéed spinach studded with pine nuts and golden raisins carries a whiff of cream Sherry in fall; summer delivers a bowl of padrone peppers fried in olive oil and sprinkled with sea salt just before being passed to the copper topped bar that surrounds the display kitchen.
Before The Harvest Vine opened its doors, Madison Valley was one of Seattle's transitional neighborhoods. Now, punctuated with parks and a flourishing pea patch where residents grow their own vegetables, it's known as one of the city's most desirable areas for dining, shopping, and setting up house. Five years ago, the Jiménezes bought a house just a stone's throw from the restaurant. And, in the decade that he has been serving the neighborhood, Jiménez has become something of a local legend. "Not long ago I was making some candied hazelnuts and a woman was having lunch at the counter with her little girl. I asked her if I could give the child some sweets, and she said, ‘Yes,' so I gave the little girl some, and she said, ‘I don't think you're mean like they say you are.'" Jiménez laughs until he weeps. ‘I don't think you're mean like they say you are!'"
The Jiménezes may be fixtures in their own neighborhood, but their horizons are expanding. This year the couple opened a second restaurant, Txori (pronounced chor-e), in Seattle's Belltown neighborhood, and they purchased a small 16th century château on the French side of the Pyrenees mountains, just a few miles from Jiménez's hometown, Roncesvalles, Spain. "Eventually," says Jiménez, "I'll host cooking classes and culinary retreats there." During a recent visit, the Jiménezes took a research trip to Château de Villandry in the Loire Valley, a much grander property from the same era now open to the public as a museum. "I want to restore the kitchen at my château to the style in which it was originally built. Perhaps it will look something like this," he says, flipping through photos of the kitchens at Villandry. "I'm building storage racks just like these, and I want to figure out how to re-create the kind of spit they have in the fireplace there. You can turn it like this," he says, making a motion with his thumb and two fingers, "with two fingers."
Meanwhile, he has The Harvest Vine and its younger sibling, Txori, to run. In many ways, Txori is even more casual than The Harvest Vine. Named after the tiny bird that flits around urban sidewalks in Spain, the place models itself on the bars of San Sebastián in Spain's Basque region. The restaurant occupies a slender strip of a 100 year old building. The Jiménezes opened the back half of the building onto an even narrower vein of alleyway filled with weeds and decades worth of urban detritus before they cleaned it out, poured a concrete patio, filled it with sleek tables and chairs under portable propane heaters, and installed a walk-in cooler. The space is a perfect setting for the pintxos Jiménez serves here.
Pintxos is Basque for thorns, a colloquial moniker for tapas on sticks, essentially bar snacks like boquerones olivada (anchovies with black olive tapenade) or chorizo con chocolat (chorizo with chocolate). The menu also includes bocadillos, simple flavorful sandwiches, and a handful of raciones, or small plates, such as pochas con almejas (clams cooked with white beans, garlic, and broth). Prices here are lower than at The Harvest Vine, ranging from $2 for the tortilla española, the classic Spanish omelet, to $7 for the cordero, meltingly tender braised leg of lamb with potato mousse. Nothing costs more than $10.
Txori's kitchen is reminiscent of the galley on a sailboat. "Or a submarine," quips Jiménez. Chef de cuisine Joey Serquinia transferred to Txori from The Harvest Vine, where he worked for seven years. "He figured out where everything needed to go," Jiménez says.
Custom-built cooling racks, perfect for stashing a half sheet pan, are ingeniously incorporated into shelves that run floor to ceiling behind the line. And the line consists of four electric burners, a plancha, a pair of turbo fan ovens, and a hot well. "Everything is electric," Serquinia says. "No open flames." Under the counter refrigerators, dishwashers, and refrigerated drawers are meticulously maintained with a precision that again recalls Jiménez's military training.
In his memoirs, Escoffier describes in some detail the perils and triumphs he faced as a soldier, procuring ingredients to feed the officers to whom he was assigned and detailing the menus he prepared for them with little or nothing on hand in the way of supplies. His life's work, though, was not in the field of battle, but in the kitchen, and so it is with Jiménez. And yet, there is something about having experienced the deprivations of war that seems to make someone a better, more compassionate person. An entire chapter of Escoffier's memoirs is devoted to an essay he wrote in 1910 entitled "An Important Subject: The Suppression of Poverty."
"When I was in Spain," says Jiménez, "and had never been out of the country, I thought we were different from other people. But now that I have been out in the world, I see that we are all the same. Basques are deep; we come from the people who painted those caves of Altamira 18,000 years ago. We have been around a long time.
"And yet," he muses, "everyone has different products and different ways of using them. America has its own great food traditions; I don't want to change that. I just want to offer people here a taste of the foods I remember from my home."
Along with some of the magic and mystery, too.