Shopping with a Chef
Ericka Burke of Seattle’s Volunteer Park Cafe
It’s your local farmers market. The corner convenience store. The coffee shop where you don’t need to place an order anymore because the barista knows exactly what you want every morning. The neighborhood restaurant that you can count on for a comforting meal with a wallet-friendly bill on those nights when you don’t feel like cooking, or when you want to show off your nabe to friends or family visiting from out of town.
The Northwest is home to many of these “third places,” or homes away from home. They’re extensions of our living and dining rooms, places where we feel comfortable spending time outside our own four walls. Surrounded by others, suffused with communal spirit, we come to converse in the shared language of food and drink. Volunteer Park Cafe, “VPC” for short, is one such place, tucked away amid the grand historic houses in Seattle’s North Capitol Hill neighborhood.
Since opening on a snowy day in January 2007, the café has quickly become the community’s food hub. The early spring Sunday I arrive to meet with VPC’s chef/owner Ericka Burke, the eatery is bustling. The sun is making a rare appearance and people are out in droves. It’s noon, prime time for brunch, and a crowd is milling outside, waiting for tables to open up. Couples and families, young and old, some showered, some scruffy, all parishioners at the church of Sunday brunch, are soaking in the rays of scarce sunshine while sipping mugs of Stumptown coffee.
Ericka’s day is just beginning. Between now and this evening, she will shop for ingredients, prepare them, and serve dinner for 55 people as part of her monthly Sunday Supper series. Diners will partake of a set menu served “mad family style,” as she describes it. Big bowls of salad will be passed around the tables, followed by baskets of bread, and plates of vegetables picked yesterday and bought today from vendors at the Ballard Farmers Market.
We arrive at the Ballard Farmers Market, a year-round market held every Sunday, and Ericka immediately homes in on cheesemaker Mt. Townsend Creamery. “This will be great on the flatbreads,” she says. The vendor offers us tastes of plain fromage blanc and another flavored with truffle salt. The flavor of the truffled soft cheese is pleasantly subtle, but it will likely be overwhelmed by the caramelized onions that will also top the flatbreads. Ericka opts for two packages of the plain and we move on.
The next stop is potato vendor Olsen Farms. The stall is filled with neatly stacked boxes full of potato varieties like yellow-skinned Binjtes, Red Norlands, and Viking Purples. Ericka buys ten pounds of mixed-variety, golf ball-sized new potatoes. She says she’ll roast them drizzled with some of the same garlic and herb oil that the chickens have been marinating in.
Now that the load is ten pounds heavier, Ericka thinks strategically out loud: “Let’s go to Full Circle Farm before anyplace else, because they’re holding some things for me.” We wend our way to the other side of the market, where baby carrots in shades of pale yellow and Chinese lantern orange await her. “We’ll just wash them with the back side of a sponge, not even peel them. Here, taste one,” she says, dangling a carrot in front of my nose. I take a bite. “Isn’t it sweet?” she asks. Yes, it is, and incredibly earthy too. They’ll go great with the aioli dipping sauce she’s planning to make with eggs laid by the chickens in the coop behind the café.
“This looks kind of fun,” she says, pointing to a basket full of bunches of bok choy rabe, the flowering shoots of the wintered-over plants.
She’s never cooked them before, so she asks the vendor if they’re spicy. No, he shakes his head, so Ericka starts loading up—eight, nine, ten bunches, and counting. “I think 15 will do it,” she says.
By Peter Szymczak
From our May/June issue of Northwest Palate magazine.
Photos by Geoffrey Smith.
Single printable sheet with Ericka Burke’s recipes for A Sunday Supper