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Chef Jerry Traunfeld Discusses his Inspiration and Desire to Give Back

The owner of Poppy tells us about his past and his involvement with FareStart
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Sponsored by FareStart

Chef Jerry Traunfeld has been cooking since he was just a kid. Inspired by the famous Julia Child and her mastery of the kitchen, the culinary arts have been a part of his life ever since. In high school, while most of us were busy socializing, being drama queens or kings, playing sports or generally misbehaving, Jerry was toiling away at the kitchen counter. "The first hot dish I remember making on my own was [Child's] potato soup," he says. "I taught myself mostly from cookbooks, and throughout junior high and high school, cooking and baking were my main hobbies."

His persistence and passion have paid off. He's been lauded in numerous Seattle publications (including Seattle Magazine) and Travel and Leisure, has received the James Beard Award for Best American Chef, has appeared on Top Chef Masters and Martha Stewart Living, and is the author of two award-winning cookbooks: The Herbfarm Cookbook and The Herbal Kitchen.

Now the owner of Poppy on Capitol Hill, he wants to give back by passing on his knowledge and expertise. As such, Traunfeld has partnered with FareStart, an organization that works to get the homeless and the less fortunate back on their feet with the job training and support necessary to start a culinary career of their own. Each Thursday, the FareStart restaurant in Seattle hosts a Guest Chef Night, in which the guest chef works with FareStart's students to prepare and serve a three-course meal. Since it started its Guest Chef Night series, FareStart has amassed an astonishing $4.5 million to contribute towards student education, training and placement.

Chef Traunfeld's Guest Chef Night is on March 10 from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Booking a reservation ahead of time is recommended. You can do so here.

In the meantime, we were able to steal Jerry away from the kitchen (only for a moment) so we could figure out what makes him tick, and why he chose to work with FareStart.

When did your culinary career officially begin? Where?

Truth is, my first cooking job in Seattle was at The Canterbury on 15th Avenue East in 1979, but my career started when I attended the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco. I graduated in 1984 and worked at several prominent San Francisco restaurants.

Did you ever have any doubts or regrets?

I’ve often thought about what it would have been like to have chosen a different career--one that might not have been so stressful and demanding.

If so, how did you overcome them?

I look at how lucky I am to love what I do. I work in a profession where I can be as creative as I’d like. Instead of sitting in an office all day, I’m surrounded by great smells, delicious flavors, chatter, colorful fresh ingredients, and even get to garden at work! More than that, it’s a great feeling to know that so many people every day get direct pleasure from my work.

What made you want to get involved with FareStart and give back to the community?

As a restaurant owner and chef I am asked daily to contribute to many different types of organizations. I choose to participate in Guest Chef Nights at FareStart because it feels very different than donating to yet another black-tie event. It’s the one event where my chefs and I get to interact one-on-one with the people who are benefiting directly from our contribution. It allows us to understand their challenges and see direct results from our day’s effort.

What dish or dishes will you be cooking on your Guest Chef Night?

We’ll be preparing smoked eggplant soup with coconut yogurt and masala braised chicken with fried onions and raisins.

Why did you pick this dish? Why did you think it would be good for the students to learn about this particular dish?

In the summer I cook with fresh herbs and in the winter I love to cook with spices. Both these dishes use spices in an interesting way. Hopefully we will expose the students to ingredients they may not be familiar with and techniques they have not seen [before].

What is special or unique about Seattle that has allowed it to become such a foodie town and culinary destination?

Two things come to mind. First is the amazing ingredients of our region, second is Seattleites’ receptiveness to quality and originality, and [their] support of independent businesses.

Beer, wine or whisky?

Whisky, please.

French cuisine or Italian cuisine?

I’d rather have really good Chinese.