Even if you’re a close follower of Seattle’s restaurant scene, you likely haven’t heard of Michael Tsai—yet. That’s because the chef, perhaps best known for the six years he spent at Oakland’s well-regarded Camino, just moved to Seattle last year. Next month, he’ll be putting together the first set of pop-ups with his partner (and sommelier) Matthew Curtis under the name Three Sacks Full, a restaurant concept they hope to eventually turn brick and mortar.
Tsai’s approach to cooking is influenced most by his experience as a farmer, not by his Taiwanese upbringing or French training in the kitchen—though those factors play a part as well. Since moving to the area, he’s taken a sabbatical of sorts from professional kitchens and instead has been toiling away over at Goose and Gander Farm over in the Snoqualmie River Valley. “[This experience] has been so rejuvenating,” Tsai says. “I love being in the kitchen. I really love cooking. But there’s something about being inside all the time. And even when you’re working with really good produce, it’s nothing like being out in the dirt, planting the produce and harvesting it. It makes you know vegetables and appreciate them so much more.”
This passion for produce plays out in the concept behind Three Sacks Full: a restaurant that turns the meat-and-three idea on its head, where simple, wholesome main dishes will be predominantly plant-based, and sides will feature meat or seafood. It’s not exclusively vegetarian—“I may want to season something with anchovy!”—though it can easily be made that way. Tsai mentions his parents’ Buddhism and frequent vegetarianism growing up, and how he and partner Curtis eat this way now: veg-based dishes where meat is merely an accent. (You can check out a rough sample menu online here, though he says he’s very much still brainstorming for the pop-ups. Except a lot of winter produce, like celeriac and winter squash: “The menu will obviously be wintery and warming,” Tsai says.)
Though I haven’t tasted his food, Tsai is clearly onto something. Plant-based dining—whether you partake for health of body or planet or just because it’s super trendy right now—is less a fashion statement and more a way of the future. As co-chef at Camino, he told his cooks that people want steak or duck to be cooked perfectly; they have fewer expectations for the vegetable sides on a plate. And that gives cooks a valuable opportunity: “You gotta really wow them with the veggies,” Tsai says.
Curtis, who is both a sommelier and wine educator, plans to have a wine program that focuses on organic, biodynamic and/or sustainable wines. The brick-and-mortar location, when they find a spot, will feature both wine bar and restaurant.
The first pop-up will be Sunday, Feb. 18, at La Medusa in Columbia City from 5 to 9 p.m. (Tsai got to know La Medusa owner Meredith Molli because she also runs Goose and Gander Farm.) The second will be the following night, Feb. 19, at Delancey in Ballard, also from 5 to 9 p.m. RSVPs for both events are recommended, but not required—it’ll be a casual affair with a la carte options.