The Easy Island
A food-focused road trip to Camano Island
STORY BY MEGAN HILL
PHOTOS BY NOAH FORBES
“You’re not afraid of heights, right?” my guide asks me as I walk up to the edge of the zipline platform and try not to look down at the swirl of leaves and earth far below my feet. I am, in fact, quite terrified of heights, but, hey, life is short.
I step off the platform and catapult through the trees.
My adventure hurls me through a forest on the property of Camano Island’s Kristoferson Farm, whose 102-year history earned it a spot on the National Register of Historic Places. For decades, the 134-acre property operated as a dairy farm, though it today grows hay and culinary lavender. And it’s the site of Canopy Tours Northwest’s six-section zipline, which includes one exhilarating run that is longer than the Space Needle is high.
Visitors seeking a more subdued experience can partake in the farm’s dinner series, which this year began in May and runs through October and involves five-course, wine-paired meals of locally-sourced ingredients prepared by island chefs Donna King and Jeremiah Leighton. The meals are served inside the restored barn, and diners are seated at long, communal tables bedecked with flowers and candles.
Camano Island may not be anyone’s first thought for a farm-to-table dining destination, the way, say, San Juan or Vashon islands may be, but the region’s continuing growth has meant more people — and more restaurants — on Camano.
“It used to be just summer houses and retirees,” says Jessica McCready, the Camano Island Chamber of Commerce’s marketing and tourism coordinator. “Now we’re seeing more young professionals moving here full time and commuting as far as Seattle for work. And they want to stay on the weekends.”
Jessica explains the shift over sandwiches and beer at Naked City’s new Camano Island brewpub, a spin-off of the Seattle-based brewery that opened on the island’s north end in April. Though it serves Camano-specific beers, along with Seattle staples, the island location doesn’t brew on-site. Still, new establishments like Naked City are key for making the island feel more like a community.
It helps that Camano is accessible by bridge rather than relying on the sometimes tedious — and often, expensive — ferry rides that link other islands to the mainland. And it’s just a 60-mile jaunt north of Seattle. For those reasons, the chamber uses the tagline, “The Easy Island.”
The growth could be a windfall for island farms, of which there are few. Naked City, for its part, buys some ingredients from the island, and it plans to expand those efforts as the restaurant gets into the swing of things. The new pub forms one spoke of a wheel of new businesses encircling a grassy amphitheater that holds concerts and a farmers market on Mondays from July through September. Naked City wants to send its chefs right out the back door to select produce from market vendors. Eventually, the restaurant aims to source nearly all of its ingredients from within a 100-mile radius.
Naked City is part of a larger development called Camano Commons, which consists of several local businesses, a library, and a growing list of dining options. So far, there’s also Camano Scoopz ice cream shop, and Camano Island Marketplace, a dining-and-retail hall with a bakery, butcher shop, chocolatier, and an array of island-made art and gifts.
It’s also the headquarters of Camano Island Coffee Roasters, whose subscription service delivers sustainably-grown and ethically-sourced coffee around the country. The Commons will also welcome new additions that include a wine bar, creperie, and pizzeria.
“We’re really trying to connect people to their local community,” says Jeff Ericson, who owns the development and the roasters. “We want to create a gathering place for the island so people don’t have to leave to find what they need.”
But Camano Island’s draw isn’t limited to newcomer businesses. One of the farm-to-table standbys is Cama Beach Cafe, where chef Donna King says she “tries to use as much local as I can.” Donna, who also oversees the Kristoferson Farm dinners, buys produce from Ananda Farm and Island Harvest Farm, plus baked goods from Wildpatch Bread and eggs from Camano Island Egg Company. Occasionally, she’ll even pull crops from her personal garden. Her kitchen makes its own jams, biscuits, and scones, and the scones are so popular that she sells them raw for people to finish baking at home.
The island’s other standby, just up the beach, is Camano Island Inn, a nine-room lodge facing the Saratoga Passage that separates Camano from neighboring Whidbey Island. Here, chef Kris Gerlach crafts dinners from a handful of local farms, both on the island and nearby.
Kris is a recent Camano transplant from Pennsylvania who remembers buying zucchini and raspberries from the Amish farms near his hometown, and the experience proved formative. “I used to think, ‘Why don’t we do this more often,’” he says.
Having worked in high-stress restaurant environments since he was 16, Kris says he welcomes the change of pace the island brings. “It’s great to be out of the rat race,” he says.
But Kris isn’t kicking back at his new job, which he’s held for about a year and a half. His kitchen produces 80 percent of its menu from scratch, including items like ice cream and baked goods. They change the menu once or twice a week to follow the rhythms of the seasons. A small blackboard in the dining room lists the places that Kris sources from: Camano’s Island Harvest Farm and Camano Island Egg Company, plus others in the region, like Skinny Kitty Farms, Stoffel Farms, and Silvana Meats.
A short drive from the restaurant’s dining room and patio sits its small farm, which is just starting to sprout with seedlings when I visited in May. Kris has designs on a diversity of plants he can use in the restaurant: basil, tomatoes, cauliflower, kale, salsify, herbs, raspberries, chicory, potatoes, gooseberries, parsnip, beets, elderflower, carrots. In winter, he constructs a hoop house to grow greens like spinach and mustard.
But Kris is quick to admit he’s not a farmer by trade, and his process will rely a lot on trial and error — his move to Camano has been as much the education of a chef as it’s been the growth of a farmer. “I’ve got this little thing here and I’m trying to polish it,” he says. “I’m trying to figure out what Pacific Northwest food and farm-to-table mean to me.”
For now, he’s planting crops that seem interesting, and he will later figure out how to craft a dish around it. And he’s getting staff involved in the cultivation. “I want them to learn why we do what we do,” he says.
Later that evening, I dine on the patio at sunset. My meal kicks off with a loaf of rustic sourdough smeared with butter dyed pink with berry salt, then sashays into a watermelon and quinoa salad flecked with feta, and culminates in a coffee-crusted flat-iron steak accompanied by morel mushrooms and cheerful fiddlehead ferns. Nearly everything is grown by Kris or harvested from a nearby farm.
As I eat, I watch for whales in the Saratoga Passage, and the sunset glints off a slice of Olympic Mountains visible over Whidbey Island. This, I muse, is certainly what Northwest cuisine means to me.
Editor’s Note: As this story was going to print, Kris Gerlach departed Camano Island Inn to join Donna King at Cama Beach Café. The inn’s new chef is Dylan Alexander. Both chefs continue their kitchens’ farm-to-table sensibilities.
Kristoferson Farm Dinner Series: Dinners scheduled for September 23 and October 21.
More information and tickets available at facebook.com/KristofersonFarm.
Megan Hill freelances for a number of food and travel publications. When she’s not writing, she can be found enjoying the beauty of the Pacific Northwest via sailboat or hiking trail.