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Chef Holly Smith Strives to Improve Upon "Outstanding" At Cafe Juanita

The chasm between practically perfect and perfectly perfect inspires Kirkland's most celebrated chef to keep pushing forward. Here's one of her favorite summer recipes, Tuscan pappa al pomodoro (tomato and bread soup).

 

HOLLY SMITH is an amazing chef. Anyone who’s ever been to knows that to be true. The restaurant has been honored by every local award imaginable.

And let’s not forget its prestigious national recognition by the James Beard Foundation for Outstanding Chef in the Northwest in 2008, a nomination as the Outstanding Chef in the U.S. in 2012 and three nominations for Best Service in the country.

With trophies like that, many might kick back with a glass of wine and coast through the next decade on the residual fame. But Chef Smith has never donned the attitude of one who has arrived. That is why, despite the accolades, Smith is working hard to make her restaurant even better.

In August and September of 2011, Chef Smith made two separate trips to the Napa and Sonoma regions of California -- with all of her servers, key kitchen staff and the general manager/wine director.

“The purpose was to get out there and see what people are doing,” says Smith. “I felt that by taking them out of their own market and into another that the conversation about performing at the highest level was in greater context.”

Cafe Juanita shares diners not only with Seattle restaurants, but with national culinary destinations like New York City, Chicago, San Francisco and Napa Valley. It takes first-hand experience in other outstanding restaurants to stay competitive. The team visited Boulevard, The Slanted Door, Meadowood, Redd, Bouchon Bistro and more.

Smith says improvement is on the restaurant’s daily checklist. Having her staff experience what she calls “the personal voice of each place” served as a catalyst for great conversations.

“Whenever you dine out at a high level, there is something to learn,” says Smith. “We really came back inspired to continue doing what we do and striving to add an ever better attention to detail.”

Notice that Smith did not say “even better” but “ever better,” implying constant action. This is the mindset of a great person -- always striving, always willing to sharpen the edge of perfection.

As for practical “take-aways,” Smith fell in love with a sauce spoon at Cyrus in the Sonoma town of Healdsburg that apparently gets every last bit of sauce from a plate. It’s the small pleasures in life, isn’t it?

Most of the staff enjoyed the California scene so much that they half begged Smith to move Cafe Juanita to Sonoma. Thankfully, she and the restaurant are staying put.

“I am dedicated to Cafe Juanita and to working every day to greet my guests with extraordinary food and service,” says Smith.

Chef Holly Smith’s summer favorites -- cherries, apricots and nectarines grace the menu in many dishes. With the arrival of heirloom tomatoes in mid-August, look for her amazing pappa al pomodoro (tomato soup) with grilled potato bread and burrata -- her son’s favorite.

Chef Smith was gracious enough to share that recepe with us. Here it is.

Pappa al Pomodoro

* These numbers are approximate. Taste and add as necessary to balance flavors

  • 2 lbs tomatoes
  • 2 TB finely chopped garlic
  • 1-2 tsp cayenne (to taste)
  • Kosher salt to taste (start with 2 TB)
  • Fruity Extra Virgin Olive oil – (begin with 1 cup to cook garlic)
  • 1/4 cup chopped basil leaves
  • 2 TB  balsamic
  • 2-4 TB sherry vinegar - begin with 2 TB - acidity of tomatoes and balsamic will affect total needed
  • 2-3 slices torn bread (Ciabatta works well - use crust as well as center)

Core tomatoes. Chop basil and reserve for the end. In a large stainless bowl, combine tomatoes and bread.

Heat oil in sauté pan and add garlic; stir to separate well and continue stirring while it cooks. When this begins to go golden pull off heat and add to tomatoes. Add half salt and cayenne.

Work with hands until nicely uniform.

Add balsamic and sherry vinegars halfway through mixing.

Remove excess skins once all mixed -- squeeze out good stuff!

Taste and adjust seasoning.  Add basil after all the tomato skins are out!

Note: This soup holds for 2-3 days 

Serve at room temperature. Depending on your preference and how much oil flavor your soup is showing you can garnish this soup with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and cracked black pepper.

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