by Ashley Lodato
Bluebird Grain Farms staff writer
photos by Ashley Loyer
The “farm to table” movement has swept the country by storm in recent years, but for those brought up like Chef Cameron Slaugh (rhymes with “raw”), farm to table isn’t a movement–it is a way of life. Raised on a rural Utah subsistence farm, Slaugh grew up eating gorgeous produce served raw or prepared simply, freshly-laid eggs, and whole grains. So even while his peers were slurping up popsicles as an after-dinner treat, Slaugh found pure pleasure in the form of a warm vine-ripened tomato or a handful of berries for dessert. And at the impressionable age of 8, Slaugh began seeking inspiration in the kitchen, surrounded by the bounty of his family’s farm and the freshest ingredients he could ever hope to handle.
At 12 Slaugh started washing dishes at a small local ski area, then helping with banquets, then serving in the dining room of another ski area. “At 17 I finally found my way to the kitchen,” says Slaugh. “I’d always had that desire to cook. Cooking made sense to me.”
When Slaugh decided to pursue cooking full time, at 20, he proceeded full steam ahead, jumping onto a train bound for New York City–a place he had never before visited–and entered the French Culinary Institute. He got a room in the dorms, started school, and almost immediately found a job cooking at Park Avenue, a restaurant with a seasonally rotating menu then located in New York City’s Upper East Side (it has since moved downtown).
“Everything really started for me there,” says Slaugh. “I loved the way that everything changed with the seasons at Park Avenue,” he says. “The uniforms, the menu, the dining room decor. It was very refreshing.” Mentoring with the acclaimed Chef Craig Koketsu at Park Avenue, Slaugh learned to maximize the flavors of each season’s freshest available produce.
Slaugh’s next job was at NYC’s renowned Eleven Madison Park, and landing that position took special effort. “I basically annoyed the chef at Eleven Madison until he let me into the kitchen as a sous chef,” Slaugh says. But it was worth the effort; being part of the culinary team at Eleven Madison Park’s kitchen was both professionally rewarding and personally meaningful. “I took so much away from that experience,” says Slaugh. “The detail and organization, the technique and creativity.”
But most of all, Eleven Madison’s lasting impact on Slaugh were the lessons he learned about cooking from the heart. “In an intense environment like Eleven Madison you can forget about that,” Slaugh says, “but the best advice I ever got there was to cook with heart and soul. Your technique can be flawless, but the best food has to also be delicious, and you can really only get that if you invest yourself in the process.”
In the fast-paced, stress-filled kitchens of the world’s finest restaurants–of which Eleven Madison Park is one–preparing meals takes on game-day proportions, day after day after day. “Being one of the best restaurants in the world doesn’t come without sacrifice,” says Slaugh, “but while in many restaurant kitchens there is a pervasive fear of failure, Eleven Madison wasn’t about that.” Instead, says Slaugh, at Eleven Madison the kitchen team worked toward common goals, with a high enjoyment factor. Still, “It’s like a Super Bowl every day,” says Slaugh. “You have to push yourself, it’s like you’re pushing through battle every day, sprinting to the finish. But you feel like you accomplished something. And when you look back you see the growth.”
Slaugh and his wife eventually moved back west to his mother’s hometown, Los Angeles, and Slaugh began cooking at Osteria La Buca, a country Italian tavern focusing on “grassroots Italian cooking.” Slaugh’s legacy at Osteria La Buca is the West LA farmland he leased and used to grow produce for the restaurant. This allowed Slaugh and his team to plan seasons ahead in their menus, planting what they wanted and creating menus around the daily harvest. Restaurant staff picked produce just hours before it was to be served to La Buca diners. “It was a different way of thinking about menus,” says Slaugh. “It was more spontaneous. Sometimes we had no idea what a dish was going to look like, but we grew the best produce, and we bought the best of everything we couldn’t grow: from salt to grains to caviar to oil.” Quality ingredients make quality food.
This implementation of farm to table in its most literal sense brought Slaugh right back to his childhood. “We ate so much in a raw state at home,” he says. “Tomatoes sliced with vinaigrette, peas just shelled, the sweetest carrots.” Slaugh says he fell in love with cooking all over again at La Buca.
In early 2016, Slaugh ran an Osteria La Buca pop up restaurant in Yakima. “We did it in the Icehouse Bar,” he says. “There were 8 seats. We did 4 dinners–2 dinners each day for 2 days. We sold them all out. There was no menu; guests had no idea what they were going to get. They just signed on to this journey with us.”
That visit to Yakima turned out to be fateful for Slaugh; he was recruited shortly after by Cowiche Canyon Kitchen owner Graham Snyder to move to Yakima full time and embark on a new restaurant with a farm-fresh mission. The rural aspect of Yakima appealed to Slaugh, but he also sensed a hunger–both literal and figurative–in Yakima patrons for his style of cooking. “There was a community desire for adventuresome eating,” he says. “I just connected with it.”
Not long after Slaugh joined the Cowiche Canyon Kitchen as its executive chef, he and Snyder launched Restaurant Wahluke. Although the concept of a four-course prix fixe menu served at a family-style 14-seat table is not new, it’s not exactly commonplace in rural areas like Yakima. But to assume that rural diners are not sophisticated enough to embrace a micro-restaurant like Wahluke would be narrow-minded; Yakima diners filled the dining room night after night for the 90-120 minute dinner services.
Riding Wahluke’s success, Snyder and Slaugh decided to develop an Asian-inspired eatery in what once was Wahluke’s lounge; they opened E.Z. Tiger in April 2018. The dim-sum and noodle house features “the flavors of the Pacific Rim” and caters to a regular local crowd. “It is a better fit for the space, and we had a feeling this might work better,” says Slaugh. “There was nothing in Yakima really like this.”
Meanwhile, Wahluke operates as a pop-up restaurant that will serve season-based menus out of various Yakima Valley venues. Response to Slaugh’s menus has been “huge,” says Slaugh. “Way more than I ever could have imagined. The reviews are off the charts. We are just thrilled by the positivity. We feel blessed to have people that believe in us so much.”
Both EZ Tiger and Wahluke are quite young and are still evolving. It’s this evolution and innovation that feed Slaugh. “I can’t be doing the same thing all the time,” he says. “That’s who I am, that’s how I cook. I can’t grow as a chef and as a person if there isn’t evolution.”
Slaugh learned about Bluebird Grain Farms from the 21 Acres Center for Local Food & Sustainable Living in Woodinville (a center for “conscious consumers who want to learn new, more sustainable ways of living”). “They sold Bluebird products and I tried some,” says Slaugh. “It was the summer before Wahluke opened and we were looking for the best of everything. We needed quality grains, so we bought whatever they had and started cooking with it. I was blown away.”
Slaugh continues, “Bluebird sent me some samples–milled flours, Einkorn, emmer farro–so I started a little R&D, playing with the ingredients. All of the flours, all of the whole grains–everything was just excellent.” One of Slaugh’s most surprising innovations is his popular farro/celery root dish. “That dish was such an unexpected hit,” he says. “It’s almost literally just emmer farro and celery root. People love it.” He adds, “Vegetarians always get short-changed. I want the vegetarian entree coming out of my kitchen to be as special as any of the meat dishes, if not more so.” The celery root farro is indeed that, evidence that Slaugh is honoring his commitment to “cooking properly” for all guests, not just the omnivores.
For Slaugh, “cooking properly” means maintaining a steadfast connection to food sources. He adheres to the basic food principle he learned as a kid, and which was reinforced early in his career in fine dining: the best chef is the one who uses the best ingredients. Slaugh and his wife settled in Yakima with not just a house, but also a farm. His parents moved from Utah and bought a farm as well, where they grow some of the produce Slaugh uses at E.Z. Tiger and Wahluke. “Farmers are the real superstars,” Slaugh says. “If the ingredients are right, we don’t have to do a lot with them in the kitchen. We let the ingredients shine.”