Chef Holly Smith Talks Travel and Her Last Meal on Earth

The Cafe Juanita owner explains her passion for cooking and involvement with FareStart
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Sponsored by Farestart

At some point in our lives we come to a fork in the road—we must make a potentially life-changing decision about which path to follow on our journey to become what we aspire to be. It’s hard to know if we made the correct choice. And some of us are too scared to make it.
Chef Holly Smith is not one of those people.

The 2008 James Beard Foundation Award winner for Best Chef Northwest and owner of the nationally recognized Cafe Juanita in Kirkland studied political science at Colby College in Maine before forging a new path in the culinary arts. “As much as politics and government interested me, I came to realize how much I needed a creative outlet and how much I needed to work in a team setting,” she says.

Smith ditched the comfort and familiarities of life in Monkton, Md., where she grew up, to travel the world and immerse herself in her greatest passion. She enrolled in the Baltimore International Culinary College and completed an externship in Ireland before moving to Seattle in 1993, where she eventually opened Cafe Juanita in 2000.

She has since joined forces with FareStart—a culinary job training and placement program using food to transform the lives of homeless and disadvantaged individuals.

The program concludes with Guest Chef Night, where every Thursday a guest chef works with students to prepare a three-course meal at the FareStart restaurant in downtown Seattle. An average of three students graduate each week at the event, which has raised more than $4.5 million to support student job training and placement services./p pWe caught up with Smith—who will appear September 24 at Guest Chef Night from 5:30 to 8 p.m.—to learn more about her history in the kitchen and some of her favorite recipes./p pMake sure to check reservation availability if you want to see her at the event.

How did you earn your first dollar?

My first “real” job was waiting tables. Before that I helped landscapers and took care of horses and worked odd jobs./p pstrongWhat drew you to Seattle, especially after growing up on the east coast in Maryland?/strong/p pI like to travel and wanted to live somewhere else. The real impetus was my ex-husband got into the University of Washington for graduate school.

How did your externship in Ireland help you become the chef you are today?

Our chef (master chef Peter Timmons) was a very accomplished man and his precision and knowledge has always been a motivation. I think that in its simplest way it showed me a broader world and therefore set me on a path of possibilities.

What would you say is your specialty or favorite recipe at Cafe Juanita?

I'm a very seasonal eater so hard to say—and it always changes—but I love our risotto Nero with octopus and the octopus with smoked bone marrow, salsa verde and chickpea crema.

What is the best part of your job?

Making guests happy. Connecting with people, staff and guests. And of course playing with food.

What is the best advice you ever received?

Don't take a position before you’re ready and don't get yourself in a position where you can’t ask questions.

What would you tell an aspiring chef who is just starting out and learning the ropes of the business?

Follow quality, ask a ton of questions and wait and listen well for the answers.

If it were your last day on Earth, what would be your ideal last meal?

Probably a long feast. Sashimi, pasta with caviar or white truffles, risotto, roasted goat, great cheese, gelato and a nice stroll.

What is the biggest life lesson you've learned in the kitchen?

I'm still learning every day. It is a place that can test you and, if you’re lucky, you find a way to let things flow and not grasp on too tightly to any one thing.


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