Category: Eat + Drink Articles
It’s dusk on a lovely May afternoon in chef Jerry Traunfeld’s lush Ravenna backyard. In garden terms, it’s still early for many flowers, and spring greens dominate the scene. A hopvine has just begun to twine itself up the fence, and a bay laurel tree shivers in the breeze. A half-dozen guests linger over elderflower champagne cocktails and a slyly potent pomegranate cocktail called Turkish Delight. Meanwhile, in the kitchen of his lovingly restored Craftsman home, Traunfeld, usually a model of composure, is showing just a bit of frazzle as he moves from stove to countertop and back again. Every available surface is covered with plates and trays. Traunfeld is making due without a professional assistant, so a friend is placing twining leaves from the sansho tree he has growing in his garden on pieces of black cod, which sit in small, oblong dishes. “Are they ready?” he asks. A spring herb soup, bound with eggs, has curdled, and Traunfeld is rescuing it by whizzing it in the blender. “Now, they get some pepper sprinkled on them before they go on the thalis.”
The night’s juggling act is serving as an informal preview for Traunfeld’s new restaurant, Poppy, which will specialize in thalis—individual food trays, each covered with almost a dozen small dishes.
Thali is a typically Indian form of service: Diners are each served a platter topped with little dishes of curries, chutneys, rice and raita. Poppy, however, “is not going to be Indian food,” says Traunfeld, shaking off the major misconception about his concept. Instead, think of Traunfeld’s thali as small-plate dining without the confusion over what to order or any tension about who gets the last morsel of food in a favorite dish. You’ll simply choose a vegetarian or non-vegetarian thali, and for around $30, you’ll get a tray of 10 or so ramekins and dishes filled with a range of varied but harmonious tidbits. Unlike India, where thalis might be served on a banana leaf, or on a plain, stainless steel tray, Traunfeld has kitted out his trays with classic American midcentury-style ceramics: Heath ramekins and plates in earthy, sensual shades of toast and pumpkin.
Traunfeld, of course, is known best as the chef, for 17 years, of the rarified Eastside restaurant, The Herbfarm, where very expensive, themed dinners took guests way beyond parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme, introducing them to the eclectic charms of anise hyssop, borage and pineapple mint grown in the restaurant’s own gardens. While at The Herbfarm, he won the coveted James Beard Foundation Award in 2000 for best chef in the Northwest and wrote two well-received cookbooks.
But he has always worked for someone else. Poppy puts him in the unfamiliar position of being part veteran—a lauded chef with more than 25 years of experience in restaurants—and part neophyte—learning how to set up his own business for the first time. To learn more about the transition from chef to restaurateur, I met with him over the course of several months in early 2008, interviewing him, and joining in pre-opening events such as design meetings and May’s preview dinner.
Traunfeld, compact and graceful, wears his brown hair closely cropped. His clothing, too, is trimly cut and rather hipper than one might guess given his former place of employment, which is known for a certain abundance of chintz. He is always gracious when he talks about The Herbfarm, but he makes it clear that he is happy to redefine himself with Poppy. “I never considered myself an Eastside guy. It was nice to have a farm and a garden, but I’ve always lived in the city and hung out in the city.” With Poppy, he is trading deepest suburbia for scruffy metropolis, French country décor for organic modernism, and no-holds-barred food and wine budgets for din