Home Eats Getting Personal with Chef Holly Smith of Cafe Juanita

Getting Personal with Chef Holly Smith of Cafe Juanita

by Komal
Holly Smith

Happy Thanksgiving week all! I am fresh off a Friendsgiving feast from this weekend. Nobody can say no to mashed potatoes twice in one week! As a special thank you to you all I am SO excited to share my interview with Iron Chef and James Beard Award winner, Holly Smith. She is a reigning girl boss as Owner and Executive Chef with Cafe Juanita, one of the best Italian restaurants in the country. She is giving us the scoop on what it’s like to be in charge, her favorite food memory, a look into her kitchen at home and a cause close to her heart. 

You attended Colby College and Washington College for undergraduate. I was in a sororHolly Smithity in college that was founded at Colby College, Sigma Kappa. Were you part of any organizations in school?

How funny! [laughs]

I played lacrosse and field hockey both at the competitive level in college, but no, I didn’t join any sorority’s or other organizations.

How was playing field hockey?

It was good. My son just did a lacrosse clinic for the first time which was fun to watch, and I started to talk to him about field hockey and he was like “field hockey, what is this?” Such a peculiar thing really you are bent over…and you know…[laughs] it was fun! It was never the most natural sport for me but I liked it!

You were a Political Science Major. I was also a Political Science Major! Many of my readers are millennials and are changing their career paths to follow their passions and work away from the standard 9-5. What made you decide to switch career paths?

You know…I think about this when I have younger people working for me. I know what my career path is now. If anything, I’m trying to figure out what the next chapter is. There are times when I look at someone who say is 22…it doesn’t really matter…anything under 30 it seems and you wonder “when are you going to get serious?” I always have the empathy to look back and think you know, even in my early 20’s when I first started cooking I had a stated goal that I wanted to open up a restaurant. I had been in front of house and I really loved hospitality, so somewhere in my mid 20’s I felt passionately towards that, but when I went into the kitchen I thought it was just going to be another piece to the puzzle… I didn’t realize that it was going to be such a driving location for me, that it would be how I got really on a career path that would be the most rewarding. So I think trying to remember you have to follow your passions, intelligently and thoughtfully, but listen to what resonates with you and then work really hard for it, instead of the “I’m supposed to be a lawyer or a doctor” kind of thing. But its not like if its passionate everything is easy, it doesn’t work like that. It usually means it’s not the easiest way through but I think it is much more rewarding. That’s what we find in hospitality. It has certainly been glamorized incorrectly but I think the basic tenant that people are reacting to is true. You get to do something creative and if you are doing it well you are making people happy; both of those things don’t always happen in other jobs.

What drives your passion for Northern Italian Cuisine? 

 So, I did an externship in Ireland and it’s interesting, if I had taken the chefs path more seriously back then I probably would have stayed in Europe for quite a while. My chef in Ireland wanted me to do that and I had been traveling in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji the year before that and it felt like it was time to come home. So I always sought out kitchens that were the best kitchens to be in. When I moved to Seattle the kitchen here was the Dahlia Lounge and that was earth shattering because they were doing Vietnamese and Japanese and Indian and I was an East Coaster; it was an explosion for me of ingredients and possibilities.

At the end of it what I found is that when I started to think about being a creative cook, I could put those other dishes together. I could, I got it, but the places where it felt more authentic, the places where I felt I was inherently bringing something to these traditional ingredients was Italy.

Most of my ideas tended to be just what I like. So I started to do a lot of research right before opening Café Juanita, and after getting that opportunity and really just trying to learn all that I could about the different regions and ingredients and the North… the more I kind of have a sense of place there. Again, it’s listen to your creativity. 

I made a goal right before I opened Café Juanita. A magazine came out and it said that Italian is the most favored cuisine in the United States. This was in ’98-’99. The poli-sci in me, the business person in me liked to cook Italian. Why not focus? It seemed to me, at least in this market, you were getting a lot of Pan-Asian….people wanted to be able to offer you everything. I think in my head it seemed smart to say, I’m not going to give you everything. How about I give you just what I love and I am going to do my best to continue to educate myself so that it is as authentic as it can be. That’s through my lens. There is a real story there. A real place. It’s interesting because I think that you hear that more and more. People are doing that in the next 10 years after I opened. It was very common for a chef to say I’m going to cook southern food because I grew up in Georgia…I am going to honor my family by cooking Vietnamese in a modern way with great ingredients.

It’s always been about what I want to eat.

Tell me about the history of Café Juanita. The restaurant opened in 2000 with a total remodel in 2015. What changed for you in those 15 years?

What happened was…I had the concept if you will. I had a menu. I knew basically what I wanted my restaurant to be. I think I was nervous and I knew I didn’t want investors so it was going to have to be a pretty miraculous thing to happen to me. I got a call from an old employer who had seen my menus, knew what I wanted to do and said there is a space for sale. I did have to buy the business in order to get the space, which gave me the right to call it Café Juanita still. I kept the name because it had been a restaurant for almost 20 years at that point. I really believed that the house was going to retain the name. People were always going to refer to that location I think… for people who have memories that were 20 years old in that space. We are at 16 years and people still say “I haven’t been here in 34 years!” We put in a banquet to get rid of all the old tables and chairs, paint, clean, put a little girlie touch here and there, not much, and try to avoid looking at the low slung acoustic ceilings. The house was in questionable condition at that point. Despite that we got great recognition right off the bat. People kept offering me other spaces to do other restaurants and I never liked the terms personally. For every new space I found myself between a rock and a hard place. Right around the do or die moment for me, the landlord decided it was time to sell the building. So I bought this building.

I always felt that if it is a three-legged stool that the house really is one of those legs. It’s the staff, it’s the food and hospitality… it’s something about that house.

Its rare for a restaurant to be able to own its space, so for me this whole process with Café Juanita has been about owning my trajectory. I was able to do the food I wanted to do.

I know that you are a huge supporter of local growers and sustainability. Why is this so important to you?  How do you take that into account when designing a menu? 

Well, our raw ingredients are the most important thing we have for sure. We try not to get in the way of them. I am trying to find the best ingredients so that you will tell me they taste delicious and that’s when they are in season. So that part is simple. Then you have to create relationships with farmers and people who are really about the land… that resonates with me.

One thing that was really pretty true early on was that I realized that I was holding really, really high standards at home. I was looking for organic and if it wasn’t organic I needed to know that it was sustainable, fresh farmed. And pretty early on I decided that I was going to make the exact same decisions at the restaurant. I mean why would I not. How disingenuous to eat 100 percent one way at home and then to do it about 80 percent somewhere else. So we started working with our purveyors to purchase with the highest standard we could which led to one-on-one relationships with a lot of purveyors. We get better ingredients and a better relationship and it kind of broadens the whole community. There are things we wait for, and things that we won’t serve if we can’t get a source we believe in.

What are some of your other passions? You are currently involved in a Go Fund Me Campaign for one of your longtime friends/employees, Jim Marriott. Could you tell us about that?

So Jim is the very first Café Juanita employee and the interesting thing is he worked at the restaurant before I bought it. Early on when trying to find out if that was a place I should buy, I went to dinner just to see. I had been once but it had been years earlier. Jim waited on me, so our relationship goes way back. He was in so many ways, we would both argue, I would be like “you’re the face of Café Juanita”, you know people came just for him. I think, personally, at times he built up a lot of good will for people to say “okay, that girl in the kitchen, if Jim says she’s okay I’ll give her a chance.” Jim’s always been older than me by some years. We used to laugh, and I wasn’t really joking, I’m like we need to make sure you can wait on tables with a walker. [laughs] And it was this joke, and unfortunately a few years ago he thought he was having heart problems, and his capacity at work was diminishing. It turned out Jim has early signs of Parkinson’s.

Jim Marriott Now he is battling it more firmly. All those best laid plans, you know now obviously the walker wasn’t going to work, but how about if we make a position, you’re going to stand at the front and greet people, you’re going to make bread plates, you know all this stuff. His body kept making everything impossible. I had to admit I was very frustrated that I couldn’t help this person. I didn’t feel like I was offering any meaningful help and I kept trying to figure it out, figure it out. Frankly the Go Fund Me has been at the back of my head for a little while. It’s been great, I mean past employees, I mean I think anyone Jim ever worked with probably donated, and some guests have been really generous as well. It’s been great. It’s that idea of community, and people say, you know, Jim made our family gatherings better. It’s such an honor to take care of him in any small way because he always took such great care of me. But Jim, getting the chance to help him is opening up those stories. You can see that every single day that if you move towards someone you can help them, and in return it gives back. 

You are an Iron Chef and have many accolades including Best Chef 2008 James Beard winner. What does your son Oliver think of this? Does he look at you like a celebrity?

I think, I have no idea [laughs]. On a day to day basis I think it’s “that’s just my Mom.” But as he gets older I think I am understanding it more, and I think he has a great deal of pride in my accomplishments. I think he’s proud, he really is an empathetic guy and likes to connect with people. I’ve always told him the story of what we’re doing and so he’s gone out to a lot of charity events [laughs]. He’s cooking at City Fruit with me this weekend. I said do you want a babysitter or help me do the event and he says “the event”. He knows what it’s like to haul in, haul out and feed 250 people. TV shows and magazines, the fact that I’m in them probably impacts him, but he’s been in them too and he likes it. So, I try to keep it more about “I like what I do”. And I talk to him about managing and I talk to him about interpersonal things and communication, and the skills that you need to have to work well with others. I muddy it up with so much hopefully meaningful stuff that I think he knows that the magazines and stuff don’t matter to me in a superficial way. It’s nice to be recognized but it doesn’t change my opinion of myself. So, I’m trying to keep it that way. 

Do you cook often at home?

At home? Yeah. I will say I’ve been lame the last week. Bad grocery, no grocery shopping. It’s been pretty abysmal. But yeah, I wake up early and make a nice breakfast, and, you know, make a real lunch, and send them off. Most nights I’m not working we sit down at the table. It’s important. And he cooks with me, he always has. I mean if he’s super busy now, and there’s homework and all that stuff, there’s priorities. But you know he’s a good cook, he knows how to cook for himself, which I also think is incredibly important.

Holly Smith

Spruce Tip Mousse

Is it more Pb&J and Mac and Cheese or restaurant quality dishes?

It’s never a Pb&J or Mac and Cheese [laughs]. My mom, we always ate pretty high quality. I have only just found it acceptable recently to make a sandwich for dinner. I have to admit I just have some rules. I don’t know, it’s a little goofy I realize and I’m trying to relax the rules. And I got a panini machine, we’ve been having some yummy things. But, I like it. You know what I mean? We sit down to a real meal. I’m fast so I can make a real meal in 30 minutes for the most part. We don’t have anything processed in the house. But we eat simple, a ton of veggies. Some sort of protein 70% of the time probably, maybe less. He is a big veggie fan, so we are happy in our house with tofu as anything.

What is your favorite meal/recipe to cook with/for your family that I can share with my readers?

You know I was just thinking about this. I didn’t know you were going to ask this question so it’s funny. I don’t know that there’s a dish that I like to cook more. You know I feel like everything is quite reactionary for me. I never plan at home, but I shop so that I have options. I don’t really know what I’m going to make us until I open up the refrigerator and start pulling things out. I don’t plan it at home at all. We definitely have our things, you know. I always have an assortment of veggies, I always have three different rices and two pastas and four cans of chickpeas in my house. Something can get made out of that, am I right? And tomato products. I just always try to tell people to get enough ingredients that you can always make something. But I think that quality ingredients are always going to taste better than getting triple the calories in questionable sources of ingredients.

What is the oddest request you have got in the kitchen?

Oh good lord. I don’t know, I try not to judge people on their requests. [laughs] You tend to find yourself in the middle just trying to figure it out.  We get a lot of people with all sorts of amazing dietary things, where people really have limits and things that don’t work for them. But I don’t know, weird requests, there’s been many.

What are 3 things people don’t know about you but you wish they did?

Sometimes I think I have OCD because I like to count things, but I don’t have OCD. I do like to count things. It’s a peculiar thing I’ve realized. Good for my job. I don’t know… I grew up riding motorcycles and horses. I had a motorcycle before a bicycle. I’m not always that confident on a bicycle and I think that’s one of the reasons why. [laughs] I would really like to learn how to do stone sculptures. I actually signed up for a class!

Have you heard of the term “Girl Boss?”

No, I don’t think so.

It is a term that is described as a “woman of character, hard-working and goal-driven, mature and cooperative, a leader and a team player, someone chasing-success.”

In the primarily male dominate world of cooking, how do you feel about being a MAJOR girl boss? Has it been hard to make your name/leave a legacy?

You know it’s an interesting thing, I think there is bias for so many of us. I have always believed that if you work hard and you do a good job you will get ahead. Now I definitely saw times where, you know, I like that we are appropriating girl in a positive way, although I think it makes me a little concerned we are still using boy in a negative way. My experience is that women don’t self-congratulate, we don’t tend to need as much kind of kudos, you know, to keep us moving and we don’t tend to broadcast our accomplishments, and there are cultures that tend to react only happy when they are told how well they are doing. I have controlled my own destiny by owning my own business, right, but we are still in a place where people define us as the best 10 female chefs in the country; is there a list that there are the best 10 male chefs in the country? [laughs] There are obviously differences in how men and women work and for that reason I have always liked a mixture of men and women to work with. There are certainly plenty of bad women bosses and there are plenty of enlightened men so, I don’t know [shy voice] The girl boss thing I love it. There is a benefit to being a short chick, everyone thinks we don’t know what we are doing, but we got it, thanks for letting me know.

What is your favorite food memory?

Oh, that’s tough [thinking]…. that’s a tough one, I think the most enlightening was in Japan. I was in a national park and I was pretty young in my early 20’s and not a lot of cash at all and these women, tiny little women, teeny little women were grilling oysters on a little hibachi in the woods and squirting sake as they opened up. They were expensive, but I couldn’t help it, they smelled so good! I bought one and then I bought another  it was amazing. Amazing. Amazing. And that was the simplest thing right. I love oysters but to have two ingredients and be so kind of mind blowing so that had a bigger, deeper, longer meaning.


/say the first thing that comes to mind/ 
Holly Smith

Holly’s last picture at Ronald Bog

If I gave you an elephant where would you hide it?

In my kitchen.

Pet Peeve?

People not using their blinker.

What was the best thing before sliced bread?

Sex. [laughs]

What’s your favorite ’90s jam?

What was I listening to the 90’s? [laughs] Oh wow…the 90’s……Danny Gatton…no one will know….Rolling Stone called him the best guitar player you’ve never heard of.

What was the last picture you took with your phone?

Probably of the dogs…let me look if you don’t mind…its usually food or a kid….oh! The last pic I took was in a bog. Ronald Bog, walking through an archway of dried leaves with fall leaves on the ground. We were adventuring though a bog. It’s a really cool picture!

Stay tuned next week when I highlight Chef Holly’s recipe!

To donate to Jim Marriott’s fund please visit https://www.gofundme.com/JimMarriott.

A BIG thank you to Holly! This was such a pleasure for me! xxx 

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

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