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by Ashley Lodato, Bluebird Grain Farms staff writer

Arriving at Kirkland’s Cafe Juanita feels a little bit like arriving at the home of a friend. A friend who is an exceptional cook and fantastic hostess, with a fabulous house and enviable yard. Although the mid-century modern house has served as a restaurant for more than 30 years, it was, indeed, once a family home, and it still retains the intimate ambiance of a welcoming, familiar space. Remodels in recent years have opened up several previously private or unused areas within the home, and now, still within its original footprint, the restaurant boasts a patio alongside Juanita Creek, a main level dining area with adjacent private dining room, a revitalized entrance, and enhanced lighting for the entire property. “The house,” says owner and chef Holly Smith, “is a full-fledged member of the team. [It’s] a great space with lovely energy.”


Smith herself seems possessed of lovely energy as well. Since opening Cafe Juanita in 2000, a whirlwind of glowing restaurant reviews, awards, stars, and magazine features thrust Smith into the culinary spotlight, which still illuminates her with great regularity. But Smith has never lost sight of her main focus: the guests’ experience. “Everything matters and everyone is important in helping achieve a happy guest. No one are is more important [than the others].” says Smith. Staff meet and discuss guest hospitality frequently, which “really frees us up to work independently at times to the same end,” Smith says. “Servers don’t need to ask permission to do the right thing, spoil a guest, or fix a problem. Same as for a cook, who knows they use only the best and freshest items and that each plate matters. [It’s more important for it to be as delicious as possible [than for it merely to] ‘get done.'”


Smith’s holistic approach has served Cafe Juanita well, and it’s one that she cultivated during an externship in Ireland after culinary school. “Chef [Peter Timmins] was a master chef so everything was based on Escoffier,” says Smith, referring to George-Auguste Escoffier, a 19th century French culinary artist who was revolutionary in upgrading the culinary arts and fine dining experience, from recipes to service to kitchen environments to sanitation. “Proper technique and history were combined,” says Smith of Chef Timmins’ teaching. “It was great to work with such amazing raw ingredients–the best butter, wild game.” She continues, “The art of hospitality was also important. In Ireland, culinary schools teach front of the house proper service, so it isn’t just the chef’s perspective, but a guest-centric hospitality.”

A career in culinary arts was not always on Smith’s life plan, but with a degree in Political Science and a background in working in restaurants, Smith began to realize the creative outlet cooking provided for her. “I have always been interested in politics and governing,” she says. “To have a business and creative combined was a great thing for my personality.” Smith “governs” Cafe Juanita, but it’s a compassionate rule. The family feel of the home the restaurant occupies is echoed in the familiarity of the staff. Indeed, Smith refers to her team as “family,” calling herself “fortunate to be surrounded by talented and passionate professionals, who strive to create an authentic dinner experience.”

Critical to this authentic dinner experience are “the finest ingredients from local and Italian artisans,” says Smith. A trip to Northern Italy when Smith was in her late teens was “eye-opening,” and provided her with “a foundation of food experiences to draw from” when she first began as a creative professional cook. Smith honed Cafe Juanita’s menu over years of studying regional Italian cooking and traveling to Italy. And of Italian food as Cafe Juanita’s focal point Smith asks rhetorically, “Who doesn’t love Italian food?!”


Good point. If any more people in the western Washington area loved Italian food, you’d never be able to get a table at Cafe Juanita. As it is, business is brisk, and growing. In fact, August 2019 was Cafe Juanita’s busiest month in the 19+ years it has been in operation, due in part to word of mouth recommendations and in part to a continued presence on culinary award lists. But Smith responds to the media attention and public demand differently than she did in the early days, when critical acclaim came at an almost overwhelming speed. In the first few years, Smith says, “It was not very enjoyable for me. As much as I was grateful and happy to be doing well and be appreciated, I found it all a bit too much. The constant feedback on sites like Yelp took me a long while to navigate.”

Smith says she learned to “consume the feedback in a healthier way.” She and her team have focused on the restaurant culture and prioritized improvement on existing things: the space, the menu, the service. “There are plenty of ways to improve and grow in our one spot and I think that has helped sustain growth and maintain quality,” she says. “I want and expect us to be all trying to be better today than we were last week.”

Quality and sustainability are top priorities for Smith when sourcing ingredients. She looks for local and regional organic products that showcase the Pacific Northwest’s bounty, as well as sourcing Italian food and wine. In Cafe Juanita’s kitchen, Bluebird Grain Farmsorganic emmer farro is featured in a vegetarian/vegan entree with local veggies, house-fermented shio koji, and, seasonally, locally foraged mushrooms, as well as accompanying roast game birds and soups: elements sourced from international flavors, traditional appetites, and adventuresome palates. And these eclectic and harmonious pairings seem so fitting–because this pedigreed grain that originated in the Middle East’s “Fertile Crescent” and is today considered Italy’s premiere rustic staple has been brought to the dinner table of an Italian-inspired Pacific Northwest restaurant by a North Cascades grain farm.

 


To learn more about Cafe Juanita and Chef Holly Smith, visit the restaurant’s website.

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