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Greg Atkinson

Mr. West Coast

Greg's name is familiar for many reasons, but most often for his stint as the executive chef at Canlis. As a notable Northwest culinary figure, we wanted to know more about him.

Greg started cooking early in life. "I was always mom's helper, cutting carrots, standing at the stove, stirring batter. I loved to help. I was the youngest of six and think mom was growing weary. No one else ‘picked up the spatula,' so I did more and more," recalls Greg. "I saw cooking as a craft and very fun. The craft of cooking is why most people cook now. We don't have to cook anymore. We can put something together from the pantry and it's sometimes more affordable to eat out. We cook because it's a satisfying pastime. The degree to which we participate in putting food on the table can have a positive influence on our culture and environment. Cooking connects us to family, friends and the world at large—the environment and political issues that surround food."

Greg and wife Betsy in Le Puy, France, 2003

Greg attended an alternative college in New England and lived in a communal, vegetarian dormitory. There were 24 people in the dorm and everyone had to take a turn cooking dinner for 24. "I was a vegetarian for ten years, from my teens into my 20s. There were no convenience foods for vegetarians. You got good at working with grains, dried beans and fresh produce. We had a farm on campus and grew some of our own food. The late 70s were a very formative time in regard to natural foods." Greg dropped out of school, cooked at a ski lodge for two years, then transferred to Western Washington in Bellingham. While there, he worked at Dos Padres and La Hacienda (now gone).

"After college, I realized I had a lot of experience in restaurants. My wife Betsy and I moved to Friday Harbor. Betsy wanted to work at the fish cannery. She loved it. I got a job cooking at Café Bissett. The owners and crew were Ramtha followers. We called them Rampagers. Eventually, they fell apart. I became chef and another staffer bought the restaurant. It was a remote location and hard to get food product delivered. I started working with local farmers and realized how superior their product was. That's when I established my tradition of buying from producers, in the 80s." Greg also began writing a weekly column for the Journal of San Juan Islands and continued to do so for ten years

In 1985, Greg helped launch the food and beverage program at Friday Harbor House, and helped design the kitchen. While it was being built, the owners sent Betsy and Greg to France for three months. He staged with Roger Vergé, a Master French Chef who collaborated with Chefs Paul Bocuse and Gaston Lenôtre in opening the French pavilion at Epcot Center. "I didn't realize how big he was," laughs Greg. "I just asked to work there. This is where I began to love the French approach. Their emphasis is on technique. As Marion Cunningham of Fannie Farmer fame said once of Sharon Kramis (restaurant consultant and food writer), ‘Sharon could make anything taste good—she's mastered the techniques.' The Italians approach it a different way—buy the best ingredients and don't mess them up. My feeling is that when the two philosophies are balanced, you'll get the best food."

Greg in Friday Harbor House whites

The late wine writer Tom Stockley read Greg's work and said he should be writing for The Seattle Times. Greg wrote his first article for The Times in 1993 and still appears on a monthly basis in Pacific magazine. Another friend, Gourmet Galley's owner Patricia Destaffany, asked Greg to help her run a cooking school out of her home in her catering kitchen. Other chefs came in, including Sharon Kramis. She was a friend of the Canlis family and knew they were looking for a chef to revitalize their menu. "Sharon made the introduction and we worked in tandem. She coached me through the process of consulting," recalls Greg. "I consulted for a year, then was the executive chef for five years." When he took the job, he and Betsy moved with their two sons to Bainbridge Island.

Greg left Canlis in 2002 to help Paul and Debbi Brainerd with the food and beverage portion of IslandWood, a 225-acre outdoor learning center booked year-round with school-aged kids and on weekends with grad school types learning sustainable business administration. "I loved being closer to home. Betsy had been diagnosed with breast cancer and I didn't want to spend time commuting. She's 11 years out of treatment now and doing well." Greg was the chef for three years, then shifted back into consulting. Seattle Central Community College asked him to teach for a semester at the Seattle Culinary Academy (SCA). He stayed three years. He was on KUOW radio as a food-related commentator weekly for seven years, then decreased to once a month while teaching. He also hosted cooking shows on KCTS for four years. In addition, he began writing for Food Arts.

Greg in training mode at IslandWood

He was lured away to become the executive chef of a high-end vegetarian restaurant in Seattle. "I told them I would be leaving a secure job with benefits. We negotiated a contract that said if it didn't pan out, I would be given six-month's pay. It didn't pan out, so I had six months to figure out what to do. I loved teaching, but it was a difficult commute. I'd been very excited about opening a new restaurant and being a chef again. I'd always wanted to open my own restaurant but deferred it for a number of reasons. It was too early to retire. I needed a job. I didn't want to be someone else's employee. Betsy and I decided it was now or never if we wanted to own our own business."

Eight years ago, the owners of a building on Bainbridge Island approached Greg about opening a restaurant. The timing wasn't right then, but is now. Restaurant Marché is Greg's own place, built from the ground up (click here to read about it). He has created his ideal job.

He continues to write and has completed a three-part article for Food Arts about opening a restaurant. His sixth cookbook has just been published ("At the Kitchen Table") and has been included in the New York Times' annual round up of best cookbooks.

Greg and Nash Huber (Nash's organic produce in Sequim) taken by Jon Rowley, 2010

"There was a movement to make food safe, to free people from hunger, to get women working outside of the home. That brought us to a point where 90% of calories consumed in the developed world are processed. I'm sensitive to how it happened, but we need to get back to making food good for us and ensuring animals are treated humanely. I'm in a unique position as a reporter and chef to establish relationships with people who do things in a responsible way."

While Greg creates a restaurant haven on Bainbridge Island and continues to write, we'll be the beneficiaries of his research and work.

Connie Adams/January 2012

Photos courtesy of Greg Atkinson

Greg Atkinson

Restaurant Marché
150 Madrone Lane
Bainbridge Island, WA 98110

At the Kitchen Table, 2011
Northwest Essentials: Cooking with Ingredients that Define a Region, 2003/2010
West Coast Cooking, 2008
Entertaining in the Northwest Style, 2005
In Season: Culinary Adventures of a San Juan Island Chef, 1997
Recipes from the San Juan Islands, 1992

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