The Pacific Northwest

Published in FSD Update

Locally grown or raised ingredients—especially seafood— are key elements of this regional American cuisine.

Seared Scallops from Microsoft.

“Pacific Northwest cuisine is not as easily defined as other regions in the country,” says Scott Clagett, executive chef at Lewis & Clark College, in Portland, Ore. Gitta Grether-Sweeney, director of nutrition services for Portland Public Schools, says, “What characterizes Pacific Northwest cuisine is not the dishes themselves, it’s the ingredients that go into those dishes.” Clagett adds that it’s about “where those ingredients are from and who is catching, hunting, [raising] or growing that food.”

So to understand the region’s cuisine, you must start with the ingredients. Seafood, from halibut and oysters to Dungeness crab and salmon, is paramount, though grass-fed beef and wild game are also common. There’s a beautiful bounty of edible plants, wild mushrooms, berries, hazelnuts, cherries and apples, and Washington is also one of the largest potato producers in the country. Couple those ingredients with “a belief among local farmers and growers to do things naturally” and “a cooking style that shows respect for the ingredients,” says Kerry Paterson, director of residential dining & catering at Oregon State University, in Corvallis, and you begin to realize what the region is all about. 

Whether you’re located in the Pacific Northwest or not, you can still take cues from the region. “Embrace your local area and apply some of our techniques—local, fresh, seasonal—to your local products,” suggests Craig Tarrant, regional culinary director for Compass Group, the contractor for Microsoft Real Estate & Facilities, in Redmond, Wash. “So if you’re in a climate where chowder might be popular, like the Midwest, give it a twist and make yours with walleye or Northern pike.” 

Paterson suggests operators “research what’s available, experiment with flavor profiles and network with chefs from the area to see what they’re doing.” Lewis & Clark’s Clagett agrees: “Work with your local farmers to get you the freshest products for your menu and pay attention to the seasons and how the ingredients of a dish work together.”

Built-in marketing 

Foodservice facilities located in the Pacific Northwest enjoy an inherent marketing strategy. “Here, we call out the farms and where the product comes from, giving customers the info they want to know about how far the product traveled to get here—we keep it under 300 miles—and how it was raised or grown,” says Tarrant, who works with more than 60 local farmers and sources nearly 75,000 pounds of pink salmon from a local fishery named Lummi Island Wild. “We even had the chefs go out on the boats with the fishermen and then used it as a marketing tool to show they really understood the fish,” he adds, recommending partnering with local councils to enhance marketing efforts—he works with the Washington Beef Council. “It’s all about how you tell the story—whether it’s a poster that shows a picture of the animals or the farm or writing descriptive menus about where a product is from and how it’s prepared. You’ve got to increase the levels of transparency.”

Grether-Sweeney and Paterson also agree, and both offer Harvest of the Month programs to educate and enlighten customers about local ingredients. Grether-Sweeney, who sources 32% of the district’s food from small local companies, showcases a fruit or vegetable twice a month in the cafeteria by serving it several ways. For example, tri-color cauliflower was offered raw and roasted in October. “We try to serve it two different ways to give our kids more exposure,” she explains. As part of the program, Grether-Sweeney displays posters featuring the farmer alongside nutritional information.

Grether-Sweeney also hosts special lunch days to spotlight a protein produced in the Northwest, like grass-fed beef raised in eastern Oregon, antibiotic-free chicken and locally made hot dogs. Tarrant has also created several internal programs centered around an ingredient, like “Mac & Cheesyology,” which highlights Dungeness crab. 

Don’t be afraid to get creative. Even though Grether-Sweeney can’t afford salmon, she can afford wild Alaskan pollock. “Even when we have to source something from a commodity supplier, like beef for stew, we use locally made gravy and fresh carrots, peas and potatoes to supplement it.”

Radiation concerns

Following the Japanese tsunami and nuclear power plant disaster in 2011, there has been concern about potentially high levels of radiation in seafood in the Pacific waters. 

“The radiation scare that we are reading about is a serious matter, but the levels of radiation found in some of the migratory tuna is not at dangerous levels as of yet,” Clagett says. “We have a companywide ban against flying in seafood from outside North America.” Clagett only sources seafood from local fishermen practicing sustainable fishing. “Only buy local fish [so] that you know where it’s coming from.” 

Mark Freeman, senior manager of global dining services at Microsoft, says, “In general, there’s an overall concern about the environment, from natural disasters to oil spills and pollution. That’s why we engage with companies like Compass to assist us in managing our foodservice, as they have the expertise and resources we need to supply us with the best and freshest products possible.”