Interview with Chef Varin Keokitvon

More than 7,000 miles from his native Laos, Chef Varin Keokitvon humbly toils in his kitchen, seeking to create an experiential dish that satisfies every part of the palate. His kitchen at Heartland Provisions in Seattle is open to the dining room, inviting guests to enjoy their food from the moment the first onion is diced, to the last bite its savored.

Q

How did you get your start in cooking?

A

I was originally born in Laos. We immigrated to Seattle when I was very young. As far as cooking, I think it’s always just been something we’ve done in the family. I remember watching what my mother and grandma made and it was always interesting, but I wasn’t super-excited to help out in the kitchen. While my friends were playing outside, I was made to make crepes and things like that. I became more interested as I did odd jobs, like working in a kitchen at a ski lodge and seeing the high-level of pastry art around the world. So, I enrolled in the culinary school at North Seattle Community College. After that, I worked for a while before getting a scholarship to go to Seattle Culinary Academy. There I did pastries and specialty breads.

Q

What are some dishes your mom and grandma made that inspire you today?

A

For me, what’s synonymous with Laotian cuisine is sticky rice. We are the only culture that eats it as our main staple. While other Asian cultures eat it as a dessert, we have it with almost every meal. It’s almost like our bread. There are definitely a few other things, like this kefir-lime-lemongrass sausage that my grandmother used to make. We have our own little version that we serve at Heartwood that we make into little meatballs to make it more approachable and it’s a great bar snack.

Q

In Spain you participated in the annual Calcotada Festival. How did that experience impact you?

A

Calcots are a beautiful overwintered green onion and the funky thing about them is that they’ve got a long white part, kind of between a leek and a green onion. They are pulled straight from the ground and are charred over a pyre of last season’s grape vines. The charred calcots are wrapped in newspaper to steam and are served on heated roof tiles to keep warm. It almost takes you back to the caveman era where you just have fire and food and you come together and eat outside. It’s a good chance to get together with people and celebrate what’s happening in winter as well as the coming of spring.
At Heartland, we had a dish of grilled spring onions served with a pork chop drizzled with romesco sauce and dusted with green onion ash. That dish was definitely inspired by that experience.

Q

How does the change of seasons change your menu?

A

We’re always trying to switch it up as much as we can and showcase what’s around at its peak. We also try to save produce it if it’s really good, like pickling fiddlehead ferns or quince. We may be using Romanesco right now, but soon we’ll be switching over to Brussels sprouts to fry up as a bar snack. We always look forward to the change of seasons.

Q

How do you work with your purveyor?

A

We work with Charlie’s Produce and we love that they provide weekly reminders about what’s new and what’s good. Every week, they update us about what’s new and unusual. We also work with Foraged and Found to get greens in the spring and wild mushrooms in the fall.

Q

Do you work with local farms?

A

Yes. There’s a lady from King’s Garden and she just comes by every Thursday with beautiful tomatoes and squash and things like that. We may not buy a huge amount, but we get unique things that elevate the typical menu items.

Q

What’s currently on the menu?

A

I have a soft spot for wild mushrooms because I’m a forager myself and so every year I look forward to putting wild mushrooms on the menu. There is a little bit of winter squash; we’re using kabocha, butternut and things like that. The squash tops our wild mushroom risotto which we make with emmer, a northwest grain.

Q

The beverage program is very important at your restaurant. How is fresh produce used in the cocktails?

A

One that’s really cool right now is this drink that calls for jackfruit. So, we get these big, beautiful jackfruits and make a syrup out of them for the cocktail, but the coolest thing about it is that we take the spent jackfruit and create a chutney for our cheese plate. We try to use as much as we can and minimize waste; we have done the same thing with rhubarb, strawberries and plums. We also use a lot of fresh herbs.