Story and photos by Christopher Boffoli
Reporting for West Seattle Blog
It requires a healthy dose of imagination to envision what Gabriel Claycamp has planned for his upcoming butcher shop/deli on California (first reported here last month) when it opens late this summer.
When I visited the site recently, he walked me through the space, pointing out where there soon would be gleaming stainless steel and spotless tile. But for the moment the future Swinery is still a ramshackle warren of odd spaces that don’t look as though they’ve seen a fresh coat of paint since the Bush administration. (The elder Bush.)
After the spectacular fall of his mini-empire last spring, imagination is just about all Claycamp has left these days. With his past business in shambles and his family barely making rent on Vashon Island, he is gambling on a new retail store in West Seattle. It is a venture that he hopes will put him back on course and perhaps will restore the luster on his decade-long career in food. In the meantime, several layers of decrepit flooring exist between him and his dream. And the flooring looks as though it doesn’t intend to be pulled out without a fight.
As we shouted in his new shop, over the buzzing of saws and the clanging of crowbars, workmen labored to cut and pry off layers of vinyl flooring and plywood concealing the original Douglas Fir floors below. By his estimation, the structure began as a humble little house that was set back from the road with a yard out front. “As far as we can tell, the original residence was built in 1909, “ Claycamp explained.
“Around 1920 they built a shop along the edge of the street and then built a bunch of small, non-permitted structures in between to connect everything.” Apparently the last building permit registered with the City dates from 1951, when the owner sought to convert the entire structure back to a single-family residence. But then it was converted back to a retail shop in the 1980’s.
Most recently, the space housed Muttley Crew Cuts, which has relocated to a new storefront on Admiral. “From the looks of it, the dogs were basically free-range in the back of the space. So we’ve been working hard to remove all traces of the previous tenants in the conversion from doggie to piggie.”
Claycamp is removing decades of bad cosmetic alterations and, with the blessing of landlord John Bennett (who Claycamp says is also property owner of other favorite culinary venues like Hotwire Coffee [WSB sponsor], Luna Park Café and Georgetown’s Corson Building), he’s aiming to restore the look of the space to its origins. He plans to have the ceiling, floor and walls of the the new retail space sandblasted, before polishing and then buffing, to restore the golden color of the natural wood.
The myriad structures that occupy the site feature a couple of small stairways and elevation changes that make for some odd angles and differing ceiling heights. If there are any right angles on the premises, Claycamp hasn’t found them yet. “The landlord has owned this building for 15 years and even he doesn’t know if there is an attic above or how we’d even get to it if there were,” he says. The demolition has revealed some interesting archaeological surprises. The process of removing hastily built partitions and layers of old wallboard has uncovered a bunch of charming little windows that were long ago covered up and forgotten. They’ve even found a transom of small panes along the front wall of the store that echoes the language of many classic old retail spaces along California Avenue.
“The architect is doing as much research as possible because we’d like to be able to restore the appearance of the store to a 1930’s look,” says Claycamp. “We’re going to keep the red color outside but we’re probably going to add some awnings to provide shelter for people out front who are waiting for the bus. I’d really love for this place to become an anchor for the neighborhood.” He says the city will soon be rebuilding the sidewalk out front in response to the complaints of the previous tenants. In the meantime, Claycamp has been scouring the region for interesting doors, light fixtures and other salvaged architectural elements which he hopes will refine the space and add character.
Back in early June, Claycamp had announced he would be opening a shop-within-a-shop in the under-used space at the front of Seattle Fish Company in The Junction. But when a new space became available, he abruptly changed his plans, as he says he immediately perceived the advantages the new space offered.
In the main room of what will become the new Swinery, Claycamp will have a row of refrigerated cases from which he will sell artisan house-cured charcuterie and deli meats (including his famous bacon) along with more of a butcher’s selection of meat and Salumi-type sandwiches. The emphasis will be on fresh and local. He will continue to source heirloom pigs from a farm in Port Orchard.
Claycamp says he plans to focus on filling a niche as opposed to overlapping with what is currently available in West Seattle. “I’m a long-time fan and customer of Husky Deli, so we don’t really want to encroach on their business. What I’m doing will be different.” Reasonable prices and value are important to him too. “We’re committed to serving as close to 100% locally produced meat as possible. But I want to be sure the price is right. Local and high-quality but not super-boutique-expensive.”
Though the Swinery has not produced an ounce of meat for a while now, this author had the opportunity to sample some of Claycamp’s charcuterie last summer. The “coppa” I tasted was made with the same local Berkshire pork that he uses for his bacon. Ringed with a delicate edge of glassy lardo, its flavor profile had a richness that reminded me of some of the finest Iberian hams (a type of Spanish cured, aged ham made with pigs that are fed a diet of mostly acorns), but locally made and at a fraction of the price.
The Swinery will also be a new source for serious cooks and foodies to purchase house-made stocks, soups and glaces. He plans to sell whole lobes of foie gras and may do terrines for the West Seattle Farmers’ Market. And Claycamp plans to offer a selection of cheeses from both local farms and from a new European importer who will offer a range of cheeses that are new to this country and not available anywhere else in Seattle.
During the day a small courtyard outside will offer slow-cooked barbecue-pork sandwiches. A small seating area will preserve an existing window that will soon reveal part of the food prep area at the rear of the shop. “It will be all tiled walls and stainless steel in there. Clean people working in clean spaces.” The new shop will offer a small retail selection of bottled wine. There will even be a popcorn machine dishing out duck-fat or bacon-fat popcorn to those who might just want a quick snack. “We will probably try some breakfast sandwiches too,” he adds, “because the high school is practically right across the street and crowds of people will be getting off the bus right in front of the store.”
First, the building work has to be completed.
“The biggest project as part of the renovation will be our re-build of the door at the back of the property. It is a tiny little opening we call the ‘hobbit’ door. Our walk-ins will be located out back, so we’re obviously going to need a much bigger door if we’re going to be bringing in half a cow.”
Though he’s not certain, Claycamp thinks that the new Swinery may be one of only a few shops left in Seattle that will actually be butchering large sections of meat on the premises. He explained that, until recently, USDA rules required meat to be both slaughtered and wrapped at a certified USDA facility. These requirements added considerably to the retail cost of a cut of meat. But the USDA has recently updated those requirements. Meat will still need to be slaughtered under the watchful eye of the USDA but the wrapping can now be done elsewhere. The new Swinery will have a USDA inspector’s office on site. “King County will certify us so we can purchase large cuts of meat directly from USDA certified houses and then do the rest of the breakdown here.”
Claycamp is planning to incorporate space in the new design to try a bit of dry aging of beef as well and will be collaborating on it with some formidable local talent: “I’ve recently been talking to Chef Kim Smith, who has a huge pedigree from some of the best restaurants here in Seattle and who is currently on the faculty of the Pastry and Specialty Baking program at South Seattle Community College. Kim was telling me about her grandfather who was a butcher back in Finland. They have a system over there for dry-aging meat in cedar boxes. Apparently the cedar has something to do with the way the fat changes and it nicely influences the flavor of the meat. It becomes more tender than it does with our process of dry aging. So we’re looking to do some of that.”
Claycamp also plans to collaborate with Chef Brian O’Connor, who made a name for himself back in 2004 as Chef de Cuisine at the Madison Park Café, before enjoying subsequent acclaim at Sutro’s in San Francisco, and at the former Laurel in San Diego, the only restaurant in town to earn Mobil four-star ratings 2006-2008. “Brian will be coming back to Seattle to be the other half of the culinary team at the Swinery. We’ll be challenging each other and keeping each other enthused culinarily,” Claycamp adds.
A flavor of his previous enterprises will also live on in the new venture. Though his old staff has moved on to pursue new opportunities, Claycamp will be re-purposing a considerable amount of old equipment from his previous commercial kitchen on Beacon Hill. And a computer kiosk will be available at the new Swinery with the complete archive of recipes from the Culinary Communion, the teaching enterprise that Claycamp and his wife Heidi started in West Seattle in 2002 and that closed amidst much controversy last spring.
The old equipment and recipe archive are not the only things left over from the Culinary Communion. If some of the spirit of the previous venture lingers, so do some of the ghosts. The end of the old business resulted $250,000 in remaining debt and a swirl of lawsuits.
Things were much rosier in 2007 when the Culinary Communion decamped from where it had been located since its founding in a house near Morgan Junction. The enterprise relocated to a new space on Beacon Hill that offered expanded capacity for commercial teaching kitchens as well as residential space above for his family. They added to their staff and expanded their roster of classes, including popular foodie trips in the autumn and spring to Italy and the South of France.
Then last year Claycamp announced new ventures, including the first iteration of the Swinery (producing bacon and charcuterie) and a lunch counter at the Beacon Hill facility featuring Swinery-produced cold-cuts. On the side Claycamp had also been the founder of the so-called “secret” underground traveling dinner club known as Gypsy (as well as its companion enterprise called Vagabond), which featured an ever-changing roster of well-respected local chefs. The venture had once incongruously attracted the attention of celebrity Chef Anthony Bourdain, who featured Gypsy on his nationally syndicated television show.
Despite his reputation as a talented chef with a growing family of Culinary Communion students and collaborators, Claycamp also attracted a small but vocal minority of detractors who claimed he was cavalier about health-code regulations by running an unlicensed restaurant without inspections. After years of flying under the radar, Gypsy was abruptly shut down in 2008 when a disgruntled diner apparently dropped a dime on them. Almost simultaneously, the state Liquor Control Board clamped down on the practice of the Culinary Communion dispensing wine during its cooking classes. When Claycamp sought approvals for the Swinery, the City began to throw down a gauntlet of penalty flags, which some speculated might have been retribution for years of flouting the rules in such a high-profile manner.
The on-again, off-again nature of the Swinery plans played out in the press at length until it seemed the City was ultimately satisfied that Claycamp was prepared to turn over a new leaf. But just as the Swinery was fully permitted and approved, Claycamp says, the Fire Department came along and trained a fire hose on the entire operation. During the inspections process, a fire marshal noticed that the rented Swinery prep space did not have a required second exit. Claycamp says he knew nothing about this and referred the complaint to the landlords. Solutions were limited due to the layout of the property and easement issues which would have made a retrofit prohibitively expensive. He says that the landlords assured him that the City could not force them to make the modifications. But their application for a variance was apparently denied. And Claycamp says that when the City took a closer look at the property they determined that the ceilings weren’t high enough and told the owners the floors would need to be torn out as well. When the landlords refused to comply with the City, the building was completely shut down. “So we weren’t going to be able to do April classes. And then there was no cash flow. And all of the employees had to go. It just became a mess.”
Claycamp says that, though the building was forced to close by no fault of his own, he had no choice but to turn off the burners and fold the Culinary Communion and Swinery. As the drama unfolded in the local media and foodie blogs, Claycamp was stung by what he says were personal attacks by a few anonymous posters. “I wish I could say I had a thick-enough skin that it didn’t bother me but it was pretty devastating. It came to a point where my friends were calling me and telling me just not to read it. A good portion of the anonymous posts were all in the same voice so it was pretty clear that it was the work of one or two posters. It is amazing what a couple of people can do on a blog like that. The interesting thing was that the criticism was never about the meat or the Culinary Communion classes. It was just about me. They hated me.”
Several months on, Claycamp is in a much different place. His apron and boning knife have been replaced with work boots and a hammer as he does much of the demolition himself.
As he works amidst the dust and noise, stripping away layers of the past, he says he is already encouraged by the warm, positive reactions he has had so far from people in West Seattle. “It seems like things have calmed down now or people just don’t care any more. The drama is in the past. There is something about this kind of hard work that is cleansing. I’m really looking forward to opening up and inviting the community to their new butcher shop.”
Claycamp says he would love to find a way in the future to reintegrate his love of teaching into the new enterprise. He may do limited classes on curing meat. He also hopes to have space in the back for a chef’s table at which he could host a “Gypsy-style” dinner much like Armandino Batali does at Salumi.
The Swinery rises like a phoenix from the ashes of the Culinary Communion as lawsuits and unpaid debts persist. Claycamp says he is committed to seeing his debtors repaid, including the students who pre-paid for culinary classes that were cancelled. “We used the last of our funds to pay our departing employees. To everyone that is still waiting to be repaid, we’ve offered a 100% refund (in charcuterie credits) at the Swinery deli. It is dollar for dollar and they can draw that out as long as they need to.” Claycamp says that most of his former students have agreed to accept bacon in lieu of currency. In fact, even the architect and contractor for the new store are working for bacon, he says.
The few who are holding out for cash refunds, he says, will have to wait for the outcome of his lawsuit against the landlords which may not have a resolution until next year. But Claycamp seems to have confidence that the matter will be remedied before then. “The thing is, we did and do still like the old landlords. The situation has become vitriolic and ugly but they’re not bad people. I’m confident we can eventually resolve this.”
As to his reputation as an underground restaurateur who flouts the rules, that is apparently in the past as well. When it comes to running his business according to the letter of the law, Claycamp has been born again, hard. “For me personally, now that I’m digging deeper into it and understanding it, it’s not so scary any more. I can follow the rules.” He says in his own defense that in the past it wasn’t always so easy to determine what the rules were, as the answers were often different according to who picked up the telephone on a certain day: “When we first called about a liquor license for the Culinary Communion 8 years ago, the first guy we got on the phone assured us that what we wanted to do was impossible. The second guy we got also told us it wasn’t possible. But on the third call we got a guy who said it wouldn’t be a problem. We learned to not call on things.”
Not only have Claycamp’s recent experiences made him more conversant in the language of playing by the rules, but he has become something of an expert in compliance. He is now the Health Department liaison for a new street food venture that he is spearheading with Skillet’s Josh Henderson, which he says is coming to South Lake Union in early August. “It’s crazy because I go down to the Health Department now and all of the inspectors know me by name. In fact, one of them was telling me the other day how I’m in a position to influence all of the other chefs who aren’t toeing the line by showing them how easy it is.”
Though he and his family put everything they had into the Culinary Communion, sacrificed and lost a lot, he says that it is a surprising relief to be on his own again and not to have a big infrastructure to support. Claycamp grew animated as he showed me a classic piece of kitchen machinery that he bought second-hand and tells me of his plans to use it to make bacon-fat infused hot dogs. “It’s exciting. I can’t wait. This is a new start. It feels good to be in motion again.”
The Swinery’s future location is at 3207 California (map). Online, watch swinerymeats.com. ADDED 12:33 AM: A bit more about Swinery’s role in the forthcoming Street Food Market is revealed in this item published late Sunday night.