The Rebel Chef
STORY BY MEGAN HILL PHOTOS BY HILARY MCMULLEN
Derek Ronspies isn’t afraid to tell it like it is. The Seattle chef and owner of Le Petit Cochon in Fremont is straight-talking, especially where his restaurant and its nose-to-tail, farm-to-table approach is involved. Everything else is laid bare, too, from the housemade charcuterie hanging just a few steps from the dining room to the open kitchen where Derek works his magic.
Derek is serious about his commitment to local, seasonal sourcing, but Le Petit Cochon is quite a leap from where he started.
“My mom said ‘get a job’ when I was 14,” Derek says. So he landed one at Mama’s Pizza in Florida, where his older brother, Dustin (now chef of the celebrated Art of the Table in Wallingford), had worked. “It was an Italian joint, so I washed dishes and sinks full of that orange grease.” He then followed Dustin to Outback Steakhouse, a chain where local beef is probably the last thing on anyone’s mind.
“I was kind of hesitant, but I did it and worked my way up the line,” Derek says. “I started washing dishes there, and then I was on salads, then on fry, then saute, then on grill. After that, I went to a little cafe and worked there a while. I didn’t really want to be a chef; I was just trying to support myself.”
Derek took a break from kitchen duty to pursue a degree in computer animation and design. “I wanted to be an artist, make the big bucks,” he quips.
He soon found that jobs in that industry were scarce, so he waited tables to earn money while looking for a design job. “I waited tables for about two years and I freaking hated it. I thought it was probably the worst job in the world, but the money was good. But I decided I was going to go back in the kitchen and just forget the money. I figured I’d be happier in the kitchen. When I did, it was like a smack in the face, blatantly clear: I loved it.”
Next stop, culinary school. Derek enrolled at age 28 “just to have some kind of direction.” He worked in the best restaurants in West Palm Beach while going to school. Then, he followed Dustin out to Seattle and worked as his sous chef.
“I’ve kind of got that sibling rivalry thing, so I didn’t want to work for him at all,” Derek says. “ I decided to get the heck out of there.” He landed a job in Nantucket and worked for four years as a sous chef at American Seasons, where the head chef took him under his wing.
Sibling rivalry aside, he again worked under his brother, this time as his sous chef for a year and a half at Art of the Table. Then, the opportunity arose to open Le Petit Cochon.
Derek owes his creativity to his mom, he says. “My mom was a first-grade teacher, very creative. I think she instilled that creativity in us.” He pauses and smiles. “That, and the recreational drugs I took when I was younger.”
At Le Petit Cochon, Derek has found his own voice. His rebellious spirit is still there, simmering under the surface, but his food is a thoughtful homage to the ingredients he sources — and the people who cultivate them.
Derek sources as locally as possible, with about 80 percent of his menu coming from farmers in the region. He changes certain items on the menu daily, with a complete overhaul weekly or biweekly, following the rhythms of the seasons. Farms like Local Greens, Wildwood Farm, One Leaf Farm, Olsen Farms, Jones Family Farms, and Alvarez Organic Farms feature heavily on the menu.
Derek makes all of his own charcuterie, and in summer, when he’s not behind the kitchen counter, he’s pickling and preserving the surplus to use the rest of the year.
“Pigs make all those beautiful things, and it’s such a cool animal, because you’re like, ‘Wow, I can make all this delicious stuff out of this little buddy here.’”
When he opened Le Petit Cochon in late 2013, Derek drew inspiration from the nose-to-tail cooking he’d witnessed on a trip to Argentina. He made friends with a local who invited him to a lamb roast with his family. They slaughtered and butchered the lambs, saving everything — blood, heart, liver, kidneys, and testicles. Later, at the family barbecue, he was treated to the eyeballs and the brain.
“It was all delicious,” he says. “Nothing made me squeamish. And just to see that whole communal thing, the family together, that is something we lost, I think, as a country.” Derek says it’s also about respecting the animal and not letting its life go to waste. “Ours is probably the most wasteful country in the world. I don’t know if anyone’s ready to change that, and I think it’s ridiculous. At the restaurant, we get whole animals, and we use that entire animal — except for its soul.”
As adventurous as Seattle eaters tend to be, things are a little slow at Le Petit Cochon, and Derek thinks part of that is due to diners feeling uneasy about what they anticipate will be a menu consisting entirely of offal. “Calling it nose-to-tail is probably the dumbest thing I’ve ever done in my entire life,” he says. But while the dishes include duck feet and foie gras, there are also burgers and pork chops, soups, and lighter fare like salads.
His love affair with pork started with charcuterie, even though his first attempt at making it in his basement ended up covered with mold. “You either stop there and say, ‘I’m never going to do that again because that was a waste of money,’ or you try to figure out what went wrong,” he says. “Pigs make all those beautiful things, and it’s such a cool animal, because you’re like, ‘Wow, I can make all this delicious stuff out of this little buddy here.’”
Derek says he also fights the misperception that all his food is heavy and rich — it’s not, especially in summer — or that it’s all meat — he loves vegetables, too — or that it’s a French restaurant — apart from the foie gras, there’s not much France to be found. “We just try to cook really good food, try to have fun with it.”
Chef Derek credits his creativity to his mother.
Megan Hill is a freelance writer specializing in food, travel, and the outdoors. She also acts as Edible Seattle’s social media manager.