Hometown woman is one of Seattle’s most influential

  • Written by Deborah Stone
Courtesy Photo. Renee Erickson
Seattle Magazine recently released its list of the most influential people in Seattle for 2012.

Among the movers and shakers were such noted individuals as Seattle basketball arena investor Chris Hansen (Person of the Year), King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg, Olympic boxer Queen Underwood, President and CEO of Pacific Science Center Bruce Seidl, Hal Griffith, co-owner of Pier 57 and the Seattle Great Wheel and Steve Singh, CEO of Concur Technologies.

Also recognized was chef and restaurateur extraordinaire Renee Erickson, who regards Woodinville as her hometown.

She spent her formative years here,attending Hollywood Hill Elementary, Leota Junior High and Woodinville High School.

“Woodinville was a great place to grow up,” comments Erickson, who now lives in Seattle. “It had a different feel to it back then because it was so sparsely developed. I remember the town area as being mostly a daffodil field with only a few stores. It’s changed a lot over the years to the point where I don’t recognize it anymore.”

Erickson describes herself as a good student who played soccer and softball at WHS, and whose passion was art.

She pursued her interest in college, eventually graduating from UW with a degree in fine arts.

It was during her university days that she first began working in the restaurant industry as a waitress at Boat Street Café.

“I hated it,” she says, “and so they moved me to the kitchen, which I discovered I really enjoyed.”

After graduation, Erickson spent much time roaming around Europe. She discovered that travel did wonderful things for her soul, as well as providing a window into so many different cultures.

“Europe also showed me that food matters,” explains Erickson. “It’s just not sustenance. It’s so much more and the process of selecting food, preparing and cooking it and eating it  —  each of these is an experience to savor and appreciate.”

Though she took a few cooking classes during her travels, the local woman considers herself to be a self-taught chef.

She learned by doing, by spending time in kitchens and by working with people she admired and respected.

At 25, she bought Boat Street Café from its original owner and previous boss, Susan Kaplan.

“I was pretty young,” admits Erickson, “and I wasn’t a particularly skilled chef, but I was determined and I was a quick learner.”

The lower Queen Anne establishment, which specializes in country or rustic French style cuisine, has garnered excellent reviews over the years and has a solid reputation in the Seattle restaurant scene.

In 2010, Erickson opened The Walrus and the Carpenter, an oyster bar in Ballard.

“I thought there was a need for a true oyster bar,” says Erickson. “It’s a very cozy, small space – a combination of a New England fish shack and a Parisian oyster bar. It’s done very well. The response has really been surprising.”

Recently, the local restaurateur added a third establishment to her portfolio — The Whale Wins, in Fremont.

“The food is French Normandy-inspired, but there’s definitely a British influence, too,” explains Erickson. “All of the food is cooked in a wood oven and the atmosphere is very cottage-like inside and very open.”

Owning and operating three restaurants is definitely more challenging than two and Erickson confesses it’s a bit of a juggling act that she’s trying to perfect.

But, she says her ability to be successful in handling everything is greatly dependent on her staff.

“I hire people who care about food like I do and that I personally want to be with,” she explains. “Getting good employees is a must — people who have the knowledge, who want to work hard, who believe in what I’m doing — that’s extremely important to me.”

As to the rewards for her efforts, Erickson points to being surrounded by a community of incredible people, eating great food, having a wonderful avenue for her creativity and giving her customers a complete dining experience they will remember.

“It’s not just about having good food,” she notes. “It’s the whole picture — a beautiful space, beautiful dishes, well-chosen wines, excellent service —  everything matters. And for me, it’s not about making lots of money or being the most influential. It’s about filling my life with beauty and sharing it with others.”

Up next for the famed chef and restaurateur, is the opening of Narwhal, a new food truck that Erickson says will be used primarily for catering special events.

“It’s going to be a traveling oyster bar,” she explains. “I’m hoping to get that going very soon. It was supposed to start operating much earlier, but then I opened The Whale Wins and had to put it on hold.”

She adds, “Life is very busy, but very full and satisfying for me. I’m very happy doing what I do.”

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