Home Eats Getting Personal with Chef Lauren Thompson of Cafe Juanita

Getting Personal with Chef Lauren Thompson of Cafe Juanita

by Komal
CookingComics Simple Skills Fantastic

Hi everyone! Hope you all had an amazing three day weekend! A few weeks ago I told you about new content and special guests coming to the blog. We have already had two guests posts and today you are all in for a treat! I am SO excited to finally share with you my interview with Lauren Thompson, Seattle Met’s Next Hot Chef of 2015 and Chef de cuisine at the Northern Italian fare restaurant Cafe Juanita.  All while balancing a restaurant, kids and a brand new cookbook, she found some to sit down and chat with me about Cafe Juanita, what seasonality means to her, the release of her new cookbook and reminiscing about her childhood days in Zimbabwe. 

Persevere and figure out what you love and do it! – Lauren Thompson” 

What made you fall in love with the profession of cooking? You didn’t initially start with it.

CookingComics Simple Skills Fantastic

Photo courtesy of Lauren Thompson

For me it was a long process. I fell in love with cooking right after I got out of college. It was kind of a weird situation. The first job I got out of college was in IT doing a graveyard job. You can’t alter your schedule. So, for about a year I did that job…all my friends were sleeping because they had normal schedules…I had no social life after 10 pm, which was new to me so I started cooking as a hobby. I had 3 nights a week off and it was a way for me to pass the time at night. It was always something that I enjoyed. I was never really serious about it, and to be completely frank, I would watch the food network, back when the showings were cooking demonstrations. I would watch the old-school characters. I thought, I could do that and I started doing it. It became a hobby and then it became something I progressively got serious about, to the point where I started doing it professionally. It took me a couple of years of convincing myself that it could be a viable profession for me and then I went to culinary school and it was alright let’s do this! It was a progression over those first years after college.

What drives your passion for Northern Italian Cuisine?  You were born in Zimbabwe and raised in Texas you have all these different backgrounds that create this food journey for you, so why Northern Italian?

It is an interesting thing…I don’t know if my background influenced it so much… its hard to say. In and of itself it’s something that I love and appreciate. It’s a cuisine that’s excellent but not so manipulated. I feel like… as far as European cuisine goes, in regards to the fine dining scene, that it is one of those cuisines that is simplistic in its nature. Italian cuisine is simple and natural. I don’t know how else to describe it.

With regards to Northern Italian cuisine I got into that for 2 reasons. My love came as a result of working at Café Juanita.  When I started working there I was relatively young in my career… I had only been cooking for about 3 or 4 years when I first started working there. So for me it was about, at that time, who I wanted to work for and who do I want to learn from?  Holly was high on my list and then as a result of working for her and learning about Northern Italian cuisine that is where my love for cooking started for that particular part of Italian cuisine. I guess the thing I really love is that it pulls from the regions around it. You’ll find a lot of eastern European influence. German influence. It embodies that philosophy of Italian cuisine and it lets nature speak for itself. Don’t muck around with the ingredients. That area allowed for us to play in other genres of European cuisine because of where its located. It has a pretty diverse palette with regards to generating dishes because we can go to France, we can go to Germany, we can go to Greece and we can pull from different places and still  maintain authenticity in regards to the region and the land. It’s a cool pocket of the world to focus on. It’s not so narrow. I just want to learn it all. 

How Long have you been Chef de Cuisine?

I’ve had two stints at Chef de cuisine. My first was just over 2 years long from…I have to think when my children were born because that’s the benchmark to all my dates. The end of 2009 to the beginning of 2012. I’m currently in my second stint  and its been about 2 ½ years and counting. Its almost 5 years over all.

What does Café Juanita mean to you? Has it helped mold you into the style of chef you are today? Do you stylistically think of yourself as a NI chef or are you more worldly dabbling in other regions?

I think that as far as the philosophy of food goes, absolutely. Focusing on NI and studying under Holly for all these years has definitely molded and shaped my philosophy about food.

It also helps that for most of my career I have been in Seattle and the philosophy of food here is also very much in line with the philosophy of NI cuisine. Seasonality and use of bounty. Mold what you have ingredient wise into your style of food…

The philosophy of  Café Juanita has been a huge influence on me personally. Using what’s around and when it’s around as much as possible. We are very blessed here in Seattle and the Pacific Northwest in general that we have a lot of artisan producers. It is something that is very Italian. Find the people that do that one thing and do it well. They focus on that… at Café  Juanita we look for those producers and we showcase that and embody that. That has influenced my philosophy overall.

I certainly like other regions, especially when I eat out. I like to play in other areas as well. No matter what styles of cooking.  The basic philosophy about ingredients, producers and seasonality follows me no matter what I do.

I heard that you are “fanatical about seasonal ingredients.”

I am! I am…very much so. That is something that has grown from Holly and from working with John Sundstrom at Lark as well. It is so important to respect the earth… to put it bluntly trying to lessen our carbon footprint. It’s environmental to be fanatic about seasonality…  that things just taste better when you are using them when they are supposed to be used.

If we are buying vegetables form half way around the world they are not getting picked when they are ripe they are getting picked when they aren’t ripe so that they can sustain travel.  It’s not good that they have to travel… they don’t taste as good. My idea is that if we use amazing ingredients we don’t have to do anything to them. We can let them speak for themselves and not manipulate them. It is going to elevate my quote-on-quote skill level as a cook in a way because I really didn’t have to do much because it is great on its own. It’s hard to achieve that if you aren’t utilizing ingredients at their peak. It is environmentally sound and it makes me look better. I want to cook food that I want to eat myself and that’s when it is in season. Pretty simple…

Thinking about Africa… when we lived in Zimbabwe we had quite a large garden on our party. My grandfather was an avid gardener and farmer. As a child, I knew what a really good vegetable tasted liked. We ate from our garden and we ate fresh fruit that was picked.

A mango is amazing when it has never has been refrigerated.  My dad would bring home a bucket full of mangoes or avocados for a dollar and it was amazing!

My mom would give my brother and I a mango and a steak knife to peel it with and we would eat the mango and suck it until the pit was completely dry because it was so delicious. It was a perfect way to spend a half an hour.

 I didn’t understand until we moved to Texas that mangoes were really expensive and had traveled from a far to get there. I remember thinking how lucky we were in Africa to have amazing produce at our fingertips. I lost my understanding for fresh vegetables until I became a cook and began tasting things again.”

 I hear you are writing a cook book! Tell us about it!

I just wrote it! Last night my editor gave me my first copy of it.

This isn’t your first cook book though? You also wrote with John Sundstrom “Lark. Cooking Against the Grain”

Yes, I worked at Lark for a number of years…I had just left cafe Juanita after my first time being Chef de cuisine and I had left to teach culinary school.  They knew that I had some time on my hands so they asked me to help pen all of the recipes for that book.

That was an amazing project. My job was to take John’s food and his dishes and write them down in recipe form so that other people could cook that food. It was a really great process because all of the recipes in that book I had to learn; some of which I was already familiar with from working with him… I had to learn as we were producing the book and put it on paper and then hope that I translated appropriately.

That was a really great process and a really great way for me to learn. I never intended to write my own book and I finished Lark saying o”h no, I don’t want to do that again!” I was like, that was a great interesting process but i’ll leave that to others in the future.

You ended up with your own book!

A friend of mine approached me about a year and a half ago with the idea and my book will be released on December 15th of this year. It is called Cooking Comics! Simple Skills, Fantastic Food. It’s a comic actually! Its got nothing to do with Café Juanita and Northern Italian food…

Using my experiences as a culinary instructor I wrote this book. The idea of this is that our target audience is people who want to learn  how to cook but don’t have the skills. They want to learn how to be a better home cook but don’t have the time to sit and pour through cookbooks. Millennials or people who just graduated from college who haven’t learned how to cook yet.

The book is broken down into 10 different techniques… we do a spread in braising or how to cook rice or eggs. Each technique is then followed by recipes show casing that particular technique.

It is a 100 page paperback book and it is in comic book form so that I can show how to do what I am talking about. There are techniques to  learn and basic recipes that will make a person become a better cook and hopefully they take what they have learned and use them in other recipes down the road.

CookingComics Simple Skills Fantastic

Photo courtesy of Lauren Thompson from CookingComics Simple Skills Fantastic

That is so cool! How did you come up with comic book style?

It was my editors idea. He is the one that approached me and was like I have this idea. I know that you taught culinary school… he approached me and said what do you think? …I thought about a cousin who just graduated from college and my children who are now 7 and 9… I also thought about my mom… my mom really needs to read my book!  I told her I wanted her to read it so we can work on a couple of things.  It is useful for so many people so I though it was a really interesting idea! Lets do it and see what we can do with it. It is illustrated and it looks great!

Last year you were named Seattle Met’s next Top Chef, which is amazing, and you cooked with the James Beard Celebrity tour. Tell us more about that.

It was here in Seattle ( James Beard Celebrity Tour) and I was invited to cook for it. It was a lot of fun!

For Seattle Met, it is always nice to get recognized, the food is what drives me. 

What’s next for you? Next 10 years? You haven’t hit the tip of the iceberg yet.

I’m not entirely sure actually! Ill definitely be busy the next few months with Café Juanita and then focusing on the cookbook. The hope is that if it does well we will put out more books in the same way. More comic books one focused on dessert or technique driven. Same basic plan and layout but more specific books.

As far as other career things right now its about Café Juanita… I do have a friend who is opening gastropub and I will be consulting for her.

There are some other side projects in the work. Between that, Café Juanita and my children there isn’t time for much else! That is kind of the near future.

Long term I would like to own my own restaurant and keep doing what I do… just keep trying to educate people about food and how important it is to eat well, eat fresh and to not eat processed food. That to me, other than feeding people and providing an amazing experience, is fulfilling.

When you do what you love its not work.”


/say the first thing that comes to mind/ 

Who would win in a fight between Spiderman and Batman?


Whats your biggest pet peeve?


If a penguin walked through the door right now what does he say and why is here?

 Hola! I lost my way can you help me figure out which way to go?

Whats your favorite 90’s jam?

Pearl Jam- Jeremy.

What did you eat for breakfast yesterday?

 A cup of coffee.

Lauren’s book Cooking Comics! Simple Skills, Fantastic Foods is available for pre-order on Amazon NOW and will be released on December 15th. It’s the perfect gift for your household foodie and just in time for the Christmas season. 

For more on her book please visit http://www.cooking-comics.com/.

Huge thank you to Lauren for for her time and fun interview! xxx 

You can visit Lauren at Cafe Juanita in Kirkland, Washington.

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