Chef Scott Carsberg doesn’t breathe fire. But that’s not to say the capricious, James Beard Award–winning chef, whose eclectic Belltown restaurant Lampreia was on many food critics’ top-five lists for the better part of two decades, isn’t capable of magic. Carsberg has the skill of an alchemist, taking fresh ingredients and combining them into something elemental and complex. The New York Times has lauded him as the best chef in Seattle. Others call him a genius. But it is difficult to mention his name without hearing stories of his alleged irascible temperament, his impatience with boorish diners, even his ejecting a pompous critic from his restaurant. Some of the anecdotes, allegedly involving flying pots of boiling water and screaming matches in his dining room, have approached the realm of urban legend. If Carsberg is one of the best chefs in America, he is perhaps also one of the most misunderstood.
“I’m not looking to be different,” says Carsberg, who earlier this year closed Lampreia and opened a Mediterranean small-plates bistro, Bisato, in its place. “I’m looking to be really great.” In truth, he’s both. Carsberg speaks fondly of growing up in blue-collar West Seattle, where his mother would drag all four of her kids to the supermarket because she didn’t have a car and needed help carrying the groceries home. Deciding he wanted to cook, he began as a teenager with a range of jobs, from dishwashing to room service to catering. His approach was old school, working his way up from the dish pits to the upper echelons of cuisine.
He says his breakthrough came when he was working in Washington, D.C., under Yannick Cam, chef at Le Pavillon, a bastion of nouvelle cuisine in the 1980s. “There actually was a single moment when I felt it,” he recalls, “and to this day I can turn it on whenever I need it, but it was when I realized that I was doing something perfect.”
Carsberg describes Cam as “tough” and the restaurant kitchen as extremely regimented. He says he thrived because he knew how to keep his head down, work hard and do what he was told. His capacity for focus in the crucible of restaurant kitchens continued to serve him in his next position with chef Guenter Seeger at the Mobil Five Star–rated Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, outside Atlanta, and then at the Michelin-starred Villa Mozart in Merano, Italy, where he earned his pedigree under chef Andrea Helriegel.
In the early ’90s in Seattle, pioneering chef Luciano Bardinelli was introducing high-end, modern Italian cuisine at Settebello. He was impressed enough with Carsberg’s Villa Mozart experience to offer him an audition, and Bardinelli subsequently asked Carsberg to helm a new restaurant in Kirkland called Stresa. Stresa was different from what patrons at Settebello knew and, while the reviews were positive, the food simply did not connect with diners. “I got a lot of good press and I was pretty cocky about it,” Carsberg says, “but the people just weren’t responding to it and I got spanked there. So I went to Luciano and said, ‘Look, this isn’t working out.’”
It was around this time that Carsberg met and married Hyun Joo Paek. The couple bought a condo in Belltown and, seeing signs for a new development going up at First Avenue and Battery Street, inquired about a commercial space for a restaurant. They maxed out their credit cards and opened Lampreia (which means “eel” in Portuguese) in 1992.
The chef seemed to scare off the timid in inverse proportion to the way his dazzling food attracted a passionate mob of torch-bearing foodies. His food was always infused with complete confidence and cut-glass attention to detail—invariably from a list of ingredients you could count on one hand, the antithesis of an overcomplicated pile of food. Carsberg’s Dungeness crab preparation was a signature Lampreia dish, elegant in its simplicity: the creamy crab rolled in a translucent layer of sweet, delicate melon and garnished with an apple gelée and a sprinkle of black sea salt. The textures and flavors accessed a reassuring sense of taste memory while somehow still managing to surprise. Carsberg’s adroit handling of the components of the dish demonstrated a reverence for the ingredients and, at the same time, a playful irreverence: a church and a playground for your palate.
People who love food continued to flock to Lampreia, but his reputation for alleged outbursts and mercurial behavior plagued him. “I think when we first opened, there were a lot of rough-and-tumble things going on around here, and some of it became urban legend,” explains Carsberg. “I never threw boiling water on a guest, that’s bull!” Others close to Carsberg echo this sentiment. “Sure, I’ve heard the stories, but I certainly never saw any of that myself,” says Dana Cree, pastry chef at Jerry Traunfeld’s Poppy, who spent three years at Lampreia as a cook. “Scott is a big personality, and that can be read in many different ways. But 100 percent of my experiences with him were positive. He’s big-hearted and insanely generous.” Food writer Hillel Cooperman, who runs tastingmenu.com and collaborated with Carsberg on a cookbook called All About Apples in 2004, says: “I’ve heard some people might have the perception that Scott is a scary guy. But the truth is that he’s incredibly focused on delivering exactly the experience he wants you to have.”
Carsberg also says he never ejected the head of the Zagat Survey from his restaurant, as has been reported. “What happened with Tim Zagat was that he booked a table for 10. But when he showed up, it was a party of two. And I was angry that he didn’t call to let me know ahead of time. He didn’t feel as though he had to because he was Tim Zagat.”
He admits his reticence to engage the press hasn’t helped. “The chefs I worked for—Yannick, Guenter, Helriegel—they weren’t celebrities. They weren’t on TV. They taught me to keep my mouth shut and do my job….You have to have PR. But I don’t know how you can have that and still have focus.” He adds, “I think part of it was also a mechanism to keep people away so I could have my privacy.”
The true Scott Carsberg is even a mystery to some of the people who know him best. His wife says, “I’ve been married to Scott for 20 years and sometimes he’s an enigma even to me....He’s really hard on himself. There are nights when everyone says the food was great, but he won’t believe it. He just beats himself up and says he could have done better.”
Carsberg and Paek closed Lampreia, concerned that their restaurant had come to be considered a special-occasion destination and somewhat disconnected from the realities of a deep economic recession. They reopened in March as Bisato (which means “eel” in the Venetian dialect), with a revitalized design of the formerly austere dining room and a more accessible menu modeled after the cicchetti bars of Venice. The focal point of the new space is an open kitchen in which Carsberg and his chefs perform a sort of ballet every night as guests watch. A Ferrari-red prosciutto slicer sits center stage, churning out buttery, gossamer-thin slices of Parma ham while the waitstaff attends to guests seated at a large, wooden J-shaped bar.
The new menu continues to emphasize freshness and sophisticated minimalism, as with silken asparagus risotto, lollipop-size lamb chops with velvety puffs of whipped potato, and sardines in a Venetian sweet-and-sour marinade served over shaved fennel and garnished with blood oranges. God is still in the details here: This may be Northern Italian small plates, but Scott Carsberg remains confidently at the helm.
Carsberg can more easily interact with his guests now in his open kitchen. Meeting the softspoken, passionate chef for the first time, the uninitiated might question the Sturm und Drang over his reported demeanor. Those who were intimidated in the past might suggest the chef is now a mellower version of himself, while the people who adore him might say he’s still the same generous, driven Scott Carsberg they’ve always known. Regardless of the prism through which you choose to view him, the brilliance of his cooking has never been in question. And though the chef might seem kinder, and his restaurant warmer and infused with more energy and color, the food is still 100 percent Carsberg, with less formality in the approach and at a more accessible price.
For Carsberg, life seems to have changed very little. He can be found most afternoons in front of his restaurant, continuing a longstanding tradition of chatting up the neighbors and petting their dogs. “I just care about making exceptional food and pleasing my guests,” he says. “Otherwise, I have a great life, great friends. I love my wife. I love my dog. I love living in Seattle. And that’s it.”