I’d heard a ton about FareStart before coming to Seattle. In a nutshell, they train the homeless and disadvantaged to be phenomenal gourmet cooks, or acquire other kinds of skills relevant to the culinary industry. As a practical training ground and revenue-generating vehicle, they run a restaurant by the same name in downtown Seattle, the proceeds of which flow back into funding their training program. And they also have a catering service, youth-run café (where they train homeless youth to become baristas), and contract meals program where their students cook meals for homeless shelters around Seattle. Extremely creative, and delicious, set of ways to tackle the social issue of homelessness and social disparity – and for that alone, FareStart gets my full support even before I’ve tasted their student-cooked food.
The reason I’d heard about Farestart was because the friend I was visiting in Seattle worked there every Thursday night, volunteering in their kitchens for their weekly Guest Chef dinner. A local chef from one of the many renowned restaurants comes in each Thursday, designs a three-course menu, and then works with a team of students and other volunteers from the community to serve up a gourmet dinner for the dirt cheap price of $24.95. Gourmet three-course meal by a famous chef, cheap price tag, and all for the social cause of homelessness – YUM with an angelic halo on the top.
We walked into the restaurant around 7pm, right in the middle of the ‘graduation ceremony’ for a FareStart student that had recently completed the training program. The guest chef of the night was Chef Wayne Johnson, the Executive Chef of Seattle’s Andaluca restaurant, who has a pretty impressive culinary bio as I later learned.
Moving on to the three courses for the evening, which despite all socially-benevolent intentions, I’m going to review with my usual brutal honesty…
For starters, we were served one of the tried-and-tested salads from Andaluca’s regular menu – the Apple Gala Salad with Spinach. This was my least favourite course of the three; the salad was overly dressed with a creamy apple-cider vinaigrette (or maybe they had tossed in truckloads of goat cheese?) that drowned out the high-potential combination of goat cheese (had it been used more sparingly), apples, pickled onions and candied walnuts.
Fortunately, I was able to wash down the greasy dressing with DRY Soda’s all-natural lemongrass soda, which I’d ordered in anticipation of the need for a palate-cleanser between courses. (It tasted more of rosewater than lemongrass, but nevertheless, it was refreshing and played its assigned palate-cleansing role quite effectively)
We ordered one of each of their two entrée options – the Crispy Skin Salmon with Vermouth Beurre Blanc and Cannellini Bean Mash, as well as the vegetarian Fiddle Fern and Oyster Mushroom Risotto – both also veterans of Andaluca’s dinner and lunch menus respectively. Both were outstanding. True to its name, the salmon entrée boasted a skin that had been seared to a chocolate brown crisp, providing a crunchy garlic-rubbed crust above the tender pink flesh beneath. What catapulted this dish into my ‘Best of Salmon’ list was its steep, bitter edge, created by the olives that had been tossed into the buttery juices on the plate – a pure genius move that I plan to steal if I ever attempt a salmon cooking experiment back in Dubai.
Likewise, we swooned over the mushroom risotto, which while less complex than the salmon entrée, fully capitalized on the timeless combination of pasta and cheese. Crunchy fiddlehead fern mushrooms (which look like green circular discs) and juicy yellow and red cherry tomatoes added springtime colour and texture to the dish, and were seasoned in a way that intensified their freshness and flavour (My post-dinner research revealed that the primary seasoning used was Marjoram, an herb akin to Oregano which is typically used in Mediterranean cooking.)
Dessert featured a wonderfully dense, mildly flavoured Lemon Olive Oil Cake with Lemon Curd and Mascarpone Icing. Thankfully the chef didn’t choose a heavier or more excessive dessert (e.g. chocolate) – that would have detracted from the light Mediterranean flavours of the previous course. The lemon curd and assorted berries accompanying the cake drew our meal to a temperately sweet, subtly acidic close, with a touch of indulgence creeping in through the creamy Mascarpone crowns icing the cake.
Dinner ended with a tour of the restaurant, its wall of famous guest chefs, and its kitchen, which made me really appreciate how much effort and planning must go into making this entire operation work: bringing in a different chef every week, training students, finding community volunteers to help run the kitchen and wait on tables, and of course, lest we forget, not just serving up edible food with a big red ‘In Training’ sticker, but real gourmet cuisine that was creatively prepared and presented. And for a meagre price of $24.95, while still making enough money to plough back into the training program.
If only every one of our meals was such a social change-enabling experience, the world would truly be a different place.
Phone: +1 (206) 267-7601
7th & Virginia, Seattle, WA 98101