A Weird that Wows
BY NAOMI TOMKY
If you ask Travis Kukull of Seattle’s Gastropod to describe his cooking style, the answer may surprise you. “It’s totally weird and you’re going to love it,” says the chef and co-owner of the SoDo gastropub that opened in early 2013. But don’t let the weird part deter you.
“Travis doesn’t see the word ‘weird’ as a pejorative,” says Cody Morris, Kukull’s business partner and brewer of the gasotropub’s Epic Ales. It simply means that any day could be Thanksgiving—in the form of turkey torchon with sweet-potato puree and tasso gravy. Or that jalapeno, tequila, and sour cream may show up as ice cream on the dessert menu, rather than with your tacos. It may be weird, but it works. Seattle Magazine named Gastropod as one of their best new restaurants for 2013.
Kukull claims he likes to confuse people with his cooking. But watching him on a Saturday night, it’s obvious he prefers to clear up confusion. He revels in answering questions, watching diners’ eyes widen as they learn about a new ingredient or technique on the menu. Mutter, “What’s a kumla?” and he’ll promptly describe the potato dumpling. The food is not challenging to eat. The kumla shares the menu with jazzed-up versions of familiar food: butternut squash soup, beef tartare with kimchi and baked oysters with yuzu.
Kukull’s path to the kitchen is as unconventional as the ingredients and dishes on his menu. His approach to cooking might lean more on a degree in literary theory from the University of Washington than on the short stint he did in culinary school (“It was too slow,” he says). Instead, he went straight into the kitchen—at Mona’s Bistro & Lounge first, then Mandalay Cafe, the Wallingford curry house that closed in 2006. After graduation, he rejected standard résumé builders in favor of spending time with the tropical produce of Hawaii, heading to rural Alaska to cook, and moving to New York City.
In Alaska, Kukull fell in love with foraging morel mushrooms and fiddlehead ferns, with making beer, and with his wife, Rachel (she was a barista and he drank a lot of coffee). The pair returned to Seattle in 2006, Kukull raring and ready to return to Mandalay Cafe. But two weeks after his return, the restaurant was sold.
“Coming back to close Mandalay was hard,” Kukull says. “But it was also the best experience, both to go through all the recipe cards and to see all the people I love.”
He landed at Elemental, where the self-taught Laurie Riedeman translated home-cooking dishes from books and magazines into fine-dining food. Anyone who ate in Riedeman’s restaurant will recognize the same counter-cultural, chef-driven, eclectic love-it-or-hate-it style in Gastropod.
“They gave me my whole idea,” admits Kukull, who as a line cook never thought he’d open his own restaurant. “I saw what they were doing, and I thought: I can do this.”
Just as Elemental was driven by the beverage curation of Riedeman’s partner, Phred Westfall, Gastropod is driven by the Epic Ales brewed by Cody Morris. Kukull had originally wanted to open his own brewpub, but some quick math showed there were not enough hours in the day to both brew and cook. Morris’s beers were the closest thing to making his own; the two men share a desire to surprise.
“A Walk in the Woods” is a wild-watercress farmhouse ale, and the Fungal Pale Ale is brewed with matsutake mushrooms. It doesn’t taste like the forest floor, but it brings out the mushroom’s citrusy, buttery notes, an accurate impression of the hops they replace.
For as playful as Morris’s beers sound, they taste close to traditional. The drinker recognizes the twists but doesn’t miss the original. It’s a subtler version of Kukull’s menu, where “fish and chips” becomes gremolata-stuffed smelt wrapped in potato then fried, and Caesar salad might show up in the form of a Japanese pancake.
For the foraged ingredients and re-imagined classics, Kukull is garnering big praise. The Stranger called Gastropod “the tiny place in SoDo that is about to be a big deal.“ Seattle Magazine named Kukull a new local tastemaker for 2013, and he finished in the top five for Eater Seattle’s 2013 chef of the year award. Weird—at least in Kukull’s complimentary sense—is working.
When asked where he finds his ideas, Kukull says, “My library card is very full.” The books that line the walls of Gastropod support that notion, ranging from the serious (The Science of Cooking) to the fun (Amy Sedaris’s I Like You: Hospitality Under the Influence), to the completely unrelated (Underwater Dogs).
Two years after the opening of Gastropod, enthusiastic and well-funded regulars-turned-investors are backing the duo’s second restaurant, Mollusk. The 4,900-square-foot curry-and-brew-house will open in South Lake Union this spring.
At Mollusk, Kukull and Morris want to bring the same offbeat style to a well-funded, large-scale restaurant—one that needs to appeal to far more people to be successful. It sounds tough, but if Gastropod is any indication, we’ll probably love it.
3201 1st Avenue S. #104
Seattle, WA 98134
Naomi Tomky is the unrelentingly enthusiastic eater, photographer, and writer behind the blog The GastroGnome. Since 2006, she’s brought her (sometimes over) eager mouth to tables around the world in search of new things to shove in it.
Morel Mushroom French Onion Soup