Bringing the Love: Wayne Johnson


waynejohnsonIn which Edible Seattle visits the home of a prominent Pacific Northwest chef and reports on the contents of their refrigerator, snacks served, the advantages of buying in bulk, how to understand people and other miscellany.

THE SUBJECT: Wayne Johnson has been the executive chef of the Mayflower Hotel’s posh, intimate Mediterranean restaurant Andaluca for 10 years and counting—which, in chef-years, is approximately 117. Johnson’s lived in West Seattle all those years, the past five of them in an old-fashioned two-story house with a giant yard. By the front door is a “Home Sweet Home” sign; “One of the kids made it,” he says. “The kids” are the blended family of Johnson and his “better half,” Sally; at times, the household includes up to five teenagers. “It makes you appreciate quiet time,” he says, laughing. Johnson believes in buying in bulk.

On a Wednesday night, Top Chef is on TV in the living room, while in the kitchen, jazz plays low. He has dozens of Belgique pots and pans (“They all get going!” he says), and an apparently infinite number of knives (“I know, do you really need 85 knives?”) Many things in the kitchen are labeled in Spanish—estufa, says the stove—an educational initiative undertaken by Sally for their next visit to Spain. Their first trip was last year, two weeks involving Johnson working in four kitchens with five chefs, ending with cooking paella on the beach in Marbella in Andalusia. How’s his Spanish? “Very un poquito.” He laughs. “I’m working on it, though.” Wayne Johnson has the best laugh ever.

SNACKS SERVED: Salumi’s lomo (cured pork loin with “just a hint of spices through it, but you can still taste the meat—I think that’s important, not to overdo anything”), sliced translucently thin on a small-size professional meat slicer. A gorgeous blue-veined Brie. A decadent, dissolving Pierre Robert (“a real nice, soft triple-crème—I like the fat. I have to admit, I love the fat”). Very thin crackers.

To drink: a decanter of 2007 Can Blau from Spain, made with a blend of Mazuelo, Syrah, and Garnacha grapes. “I like a bit of red—come home from work, pour me a glass of red, and sit down and recover from the day,” he says, sensibly.

LOVE AND ANDALUCA: How has Johnson ended up staying at Andaluca for so long? “I’d have to say it’s the people. The staff I have—we cover each other’s backs. I think it’s important over time that everybody believes in the same thing. And our philosophy at Andaluca is to put love into every plate… If you can’t come in bringing the love, you can’t punch in.”

Does he have a favorite dish at the restaurant? “It changes. It changes seasonally, for sure. It changes daily sometimes. And sometimes it could change from morning to afternoon… Though I would say the Andaluca paella, when I’m looking for the big-meal deal, I like eating that, because it’s got the rice and the vegetables and chorizo and chicken and clams and mussels. I think I put everything in there but the kitchen sink… They say this in Spain: Every house’s paella is its own paella, and it’s the best paella. At Andaluca, yes, we have the best paella.”

HOME FOOD: Johnson’s dad was a tank commander in the Army, so he grew up all over. “The moving around helped me, for one, with food flavors, but two, with being able to understand people are different, but everybody has the same goals: to survive, to be successful, to be happy, to be in love,” he says.

His grandparents were from Kansas and Kentucky; he says he grew up eating “home food—things like pig feet, collard greens… chicken, my mom liked to do a lot of fried chicken. Greens, there’d be a pot of greens; matter of fact, I called her the other day, and she said, ‘Well, I’ve got this pot of greens’—’Well, you always have a pot of greens.’ My mom makes killer spaghetti, and that’s something we could come home from school and heat up on our own. Peanut butter and jelly in the cupboard—pretty much your everyday staples of growing up. Not quite like what I keep around these days… I still love making my fried chicken, don’t get me wrong. And I still like a peanut butter and jelly sandwich—though I may do it on the grill, get it crispy like it’s a grilled cheese sandwich, so the peanut butter’s dribbling down your arm.” He laughs. “It’s what it’s all about. It’s the same thing, but just a little different.”

WAYNE FOOD: When he’s cooking at home, does he tend to cook Spanish food or Southern food or…? “I call it Wayne food.” He laughs. “‘Cause there’s really no rhyme or reason. Sometimes it may have some of the hints of Moroccan in it. Sometimes it may have hints of Italian. And sometimes it may just have straight-up-bam!-Southern in your face. We got some beans soaking over here… tomorrow, maybe a pot of greens, too.” Maybe some fried chicken? “That and some good mashed potatoes. There’s a difference between mashed and whipped. To have that nice heavy, chunky potato—oh! Whipped is like whipped cream; it’s light and fluffy, and there’s air. I’m not saying right or wrong. Just give me the mashed.” What does he put in his? “Simple. Butter, a little sour cream, salt, pepper. Keep it simple.”

THANKSGIVING CROQUETTES: “I’ve got these potato croquettes on the menu at the restaurant that have almost the same elements—the butter, the salt, the pepper, it’s got Idiazabal cheese, that’s what gives that little kiss of saltiness to it… At Thanksgiving, you know, you always have food left over—I had turkey, and dressing, and potatoes, so I took it and I chopped it all up, put it in a potato ball, rolled it, fried it, put some gravy on it. People were going berserk. I called it a Thanksgiving croquette. It had everything Thanksgiving in it in one bite…. Do you know how many things I could make out of croquettes with that same mentality?” he marvels. “I probably shouldn’t say this. I could open a café and get away with this one day.” Would he call it Chef Wayne’s Croquette Café? He laughs.

THE FRIDGE: Johnson’s refrigerator is packed full, due to the five-teenager factor. Some highlights: five half-gallons of milk. Juice galore (Johnson likes to mix Newman’s Own Limeade with sparkling wine, a cocktail he has yet to name). Produce from Mother Nature’s Organics CSA (they’re good about making up for anything bruised, he says) and from South 47 Farm in Redmond (from which he sources sweet corn and pumpkins for Andaluca’s risottos: “Last year I got 500 pounds of pumpkin from that dude… They have the big corn maze and the big pumpkin patch. It’s incredible… They leave them on the vine as long as they can, but they start storing them in the warehouse, and they’ve got these fans going, and they’re keeping them perfect temperature, humidity—they’re just like, we are the pumpkin shit”). Metropolitan Market’s Mount Vikos feta cheese. A big bowl of beef ribs, cooked for five or six hours with onions, garlic, carrots, celery, red wine, demi-glace, and salt and pepper (the ribs are from a recent trip to Rochester, near Centralia, where Johnson and his better half watched Tracey Smaciarz butcher a side  of beef and a side of lamb). A bagful of smoked salmon collars (leftovers from the restaurant that a line cook’s mother smoked). In the freezer, there’s ice cream, tons of butter (“You don’t ever want to run out of butter!”), lots of meat (he buys bulk, cuts it up, and seals it with a FoodSaver vacuum sealer), and lots of King salmon (caught by the kids, who went fishing at the mouth of the Columbia).

THE ART: Near the fridge hangs an abstract painting of Johnson at Andaluca’s stove. “A firefighter from Seattle came down to the restaurant, and he goes, ‘Chef, I really would love to paint you.’ I go, ‘Sure!’ So he came back in the kitchen and he goes, ‘Can you just hold this pan in the fire?’ And he took a photo… there’s absolutely no brushwork whatsoever on that painting. It’s all knife work.”

Why did a firefighter want to paint his portrait? “One of the things I’ve done for quite a few years—since 9/11—I do holiday dinners at three or four firehouses each year, and he happened to be at one of them. It’s nice to go in and hear their stories and understand how real heroes live. They have to cook their own food and do their own laundry, and then they’re out saving lives.”

Also on the wall: a large plate inscribed with a quote from Maya Angelou: “Life is a glorious banquet, a limitless and delicious buffet.”

Bethany Jean Clement is a writer and editor. Her work may be found regularly in The Stranger, as well as in Best Food Writing 2008 and 2009.

For Wayne Johnson’s Thanksgiving Croquette’s recipe, click here
For Wayne Johnson’s favorite burger, click here

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