“I fell in love with cooking when I was 18 or 19 years old, living in Maui between high school and college.”
Chef Jason Wilson is renowned in the Seattle area. His three local restaurants, Miller’s Guild, The Lakehouse, and Civility & Unrest, keep the locals satisfied and the tourists coming back for more. He will soon be adding another restaurant to his ever-expanding Seattle presence with a Pike Place Market addition, with a menu inspired by the market itself. Wilson took some time out of his hectic schedule to chat with us about cooking, business, family, and more. (Answers have been edited for space.)
What drew you to cooking and what made you stay with it?
I fell in love with cooking when I was 18 or 19 years old, living in Maui between high school and college. I was working in restaurants and earning enough money to support surf boards and rent, and live the Hawaiian lifestyle for a while. I lived with two other chefs in a small apartment. They both said that I needed to learn how to cook because my cooking skills were horrible. And I tried it out a couple of times in the restaurant industry and I really enjoyed it. I had this day when the three of us chipped in $50 and bought a really large tuna off of one of the commercial boats. The subsequent experiences that happened from that one fish just kind of got me into this and made me say “This is something I should follow in my life.” So I came back from Hawaii and I realized if I was going to do this, I need to know how to run a business and how to cook. So I did college for a couple of years, and then dropped out and went to culinary school. I haven’t looked back since.
How would you describe your cooking style?
I think it’s personality-driven. I tend to believe I cook to a sense of place. I’ve cooked in France and Iceland and Singapore, throughout Southeast Asia. I professionally cook in the Seattle area predominantly. So I find the pinnacle ingredient and then I find the best technique to highlight that ingredient. And then I add some personality to either how it’s presented or how it’s finished.
How do you incorporate sustainability into your cooking ideology?
I’ve always engaged with this idea that a pinnacle ingredient is as much about how it looks and tastes as how it’s reared and where it comes from and, in some cases, how it’s harvested or killed. So if we take a second look at that and look at sustainability, I think that produce kind of leads the way as the most sustainable ingredient. That pinnacle piece of produce needs to come from a fantastic source. So I’ve engaged farmers from Walla Walla to as immediate as Redmond or Woodinville to grow for our restaurants. We commit to that farm-fresh produce.
What advice would you give to people pursuing success in the culinary field?
You know, it’s changed a lot since I started. In today’s world, I think you have to be ready for a strong level of commitment to succeed.
And I think it’s important to think big. That doesn’t always have to be big restaurants or great success, but to think big in the sense that dreams can become a reality. But it takes perseverance and sacrifice. That’s a very true reality. I think many folks get involved in this industry and think that if they win “Top Chef ” or “Chopped,” they can retire shortly afterwards and sip brandy at the bar. That’s never the case. The restaurant industry changes as fast as the technology industry.
Have you always been an entrepreneur?
No. Not at all. That was never my forte. I’ve been with my wife for 18 years and she’s the one that spurred this on me — she’s the one that really drove it. Nicole is the impetus behind our first restaurant, CRUSH. She was the one who helped put the deal together at Miller’s Guild. She did the design work there and pushed it. With The Lakehouse, she was really the one who said let’s talk about how we assign a vision to it and unfold it. By then, I was resigned to the fact that I would always be an entrepreneur, but I was not always like that at all. It was my wife who really ignited that passion to work for myself. And ultimately, it’s not working for myself. It’s working for my family.
Are you originally from Seattle?
No, I’m a transplant of 20 years this year. I came here via Singapore, and before that the San Francisco Bay area. I came here to be chef de cuisine [at a restaurant] in Seattle and then I fell in love with my wife. While the falling-in-love part fades, she and I grew a life together and subsequently grew restaurants together as well.
Where do you spend your days outside of the kitchen?
In the winter I snowboard. When it rains here, it’s snowing in the mountains. In the summer, I’ll hike or fly fish or paddle board. But I like to get to a place where it’s quiet, because the majority of my time and life isn’t quiet.
What’s your guilty-pleasure snack?