A story playing out today in Seattle’s foodie world has a West Seattle hook — which we would never have known, if not for WSB contributor Christopher Boffoli, who not only sent the above photo to illustrate the point of worlds that may exist outside your normal field of view, but also sent his story of the West Seattle link to Gypsy, the “famous/secret/underground/traveling/televised restaurant” that just closed:
By Christopher Boffoli
West Seattle Blog contributing journalist
Until recently, one of Seattle’s most interesting venues for culinary exploration could be found in a small private residence hidden on a nondescript street just blocks from West Seattle’s Morgan Junction.
I had lived in Seattle for years before I knew about it. And those had been productive, attentive years spent scouring Seattle with a close-knit group of foodie friends who sought the most sensual food experiences the city had to offer. We were the kind of people who had lived in various places around the world and who had been fortunate enough to pray at the altars of some of the most sacred shrines to food from New York to Paris, Morocco to Florence and Shanghai. We understood acutely how blessed we were to now live in the Pacific Northwest with its access to incredible local seafood, the farms and world-class vineyards of Eastern Washington, the mushrooms and game of local forests, and the unique nexus that informed Seattle cuisine: Nordic, Northwestern, Asian, Native American, local, organic, fresh. We read voraciously about local restaurants and chefs. We kept spreadsheets to track our data: what we had tried, what we had yet to try, where we had been impressed, and ultimately where we had experienced nothing but hyperbole and provencal dumbing down. Seattle unfortunately had some of the latter. But for people so serious about food, we were often rewarded for our troubles, finding local gems that were right up there with the very best food experiences we had known.
I suppose I was destined to discover that little house in West Seattle, despite how challenging it was to find. But then, in a world in which just about everything conforms to our expectations, sometimes the most valuable experiences emanate from the things we have to seek out and actually work to discover. The place was on the down low for a good reason. A local chef, I’ll call him “Chef G,” and his wife had converted their own house to a school, adding to its center a large commercial kitchen and teaching space that could accommodate about a dozen people, operating this endeavor discretely in the middle of their neighborhood. Obviously, their passion for food transcended such minor details as residential zoning restrictions and their caution had plainly paid off as they conducted their business in this manner for several years without running afoul of their neighbors.
The night we first attended a class there we almost couldn’t find the place and were only seconds from giving up the search before we saw a staff member in chef’s whites beckoning us in. The class, a primer on foie gras, had begun without us so we divested ourselves of our coats and quietly took our seats around a communal table.
It is always somewhat awkward when you approach new experiences, especially in the Pacific Northwest where people can be a bit insular. But it only took ten minutes and one glass of wine until we realized that the people gathered around the table that night were unapologetic uber-foodies just like us. Many of them were veterans of that chef’s culinary class. Some had attended dozens of classes, with an ardor for the experience just under the point at which they had to be medicated for it. They were genuinely passionate about being there to celebrate the incredible diversity of local food. There was a spirit of enthusiasm that made it easy to get to know everyone. And the class was instantly engaging. Within minutes we had all donned aprons and spread out in the kitchen, working at various stations on our share of the ten different dishes that we prepared using foie gras that night, including even desserts made of the infamous gavage-fattened goose liver.
Chef G. was a charming host and affable teacher, in addition to being an accomplished chef with years of experience at restaurants on both coasts, he was also a registered sommelier and a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America. Despite the size and breadth of the restaurant scene in Seattle, it was still a fairly close-knit place and Chef G. seemed to know just about anyone in town who, like him, was doing something truly interesting with food. Some of those who staffed his classes were sous chefs at local restaurants who enriched the classes with the wealth of their talents and experience. Together they offered a range of classes on all subjects, from culinary basics to masters classes and regional cuisines.
Chef G often took his classes on the road, hitting Tuscany and Provence during the right seasons. There were even opportunities to experience food on a more visceral level, like demonstrations of the sectioning of a whole pig first into its constituent parts and then to the artisan processing of those parts into bacon, prosciutto and the other products from snout to tail.
Spontaneous conversations broke out during the course of the class that evening and at one point I found myself comparing notes with the others about what I perceived as perhaps the most singular culinary experience of my life: a four-hour tasting menu dinner at Thomas Keller’s French Laundry in Yountville, California. I am convinced that it was this story that drew Chef G’s attention to me, both for the absurdity of that meal (an inquiry regarding the type of salt on the table elicited a straight-faced explanation that the sea salt at The French Laundry had been carbon dated to the Cretaceous Epoch) as well as the talent required to gain entry to The French Laundry. I suspect it is easier to gain admittance to certain Ivy League schools than it is to score one of the few tables at Mr. Keller’s tiny restaurant in Napa. I was carefully dicing chunks of house-cured bacon when Chef G. came over to inspect the quality of my brunoise. It was then that he drew my attention with a conspiratorial gaze, slid up the sleeve of his chef’s whites and revealed an elaborately scrolled letter “G” tattooed on his arm. He then leaned in and in sotto voce asked me if I had ever heard of Gypsy, Seattle’s secret underground restaurant. Indeed I had. Maverick author and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain had visited the Pacific Northwest with his national television show “No Reservations” only months before and, in addition to making an obligatory stop to genuflect and kiss the ring of Salumi’s Armandino Batali, he devoted an entire segment of the show to Gypsy.
The notion of a secret, underground restaurant immediately brought to mind memories of the 1990 film “The Freshman” starring Marlon Brando and Matthew Broderick. In a irreverent send-up of his signature role as The Godfather, Brando played an organized crime boss who runs a restaurant that caters to high-roller clients who wish to pay six-figure sums in order to illegally dine on the meat of endangered species. In truth, after displaying the live animals for the benefit of his patrons, the animals were safely escorted out the kitchen door while the chefs served the unsuspecting, boorish diners cleverly-prepared chicken.
Gypsy was admittedly a bit different. The first rule of Gypsy was to never talk about Gypsy. The second rule of Gypsy was to never point out the fact that the founder of said secret, underground restaurant had solicited Gypsy to the nationally televised cable show of a world-famous celebrity chef.
The way it worked was that, once selected to join, you paid a small membership fee and you were added to a closed e-mail list. The dates, themes and menus of Gypsy dinners would be circulated among members. Seats were available on a first-come, first-served basis. Chef G generally served as the evening’s emcee, in a manner even more engaging than Fantasy Island’s Mr. Roarke, while the guest chef presided over the menu and the execution of the multiple courses of both food and wine. A dinner theme might be the Seven Deadly Sins, for instance, in which each of the courses was meant to articulate a separate sin to the extent of which a spicy lobster claw can represent wrath. Musicians would serenade diners while they ate. Wine flowed liberally.
As one would expect of a traveling, underground restaurant, the location was ever-changing. Sometimes Gypsy members would be asked to offer up their deluxe Seattle houses to serve as venues for the evening. More significantly, the venue would be made known only to those who were attending that night, and even then only at the last minute. Arrival times were staggered so that a large group of people would not be seen arriving at the same time. People were cautioned to park as far away from the venue as possible so as not to attract undue attention. There were no bills for the elaborate meals and credit cards could not be accepted. Instead, diners would offer a “donation” to defray the cost of the food and wine. A supplemental sum would be thrown in the kitty for the musicians.
For all the appeal of an exclusive membership to an underground restaurant with the intrigue of a Prohibition-era speakeasy, one was not in Gypsy for very long until it became clear that it was neither all that exclusive nor was it secret. There was even a Gypsy website. There was nothing worse than trying to impress your friends by whispering hints about Gypsy, only to have them casually bellow they had been members for years and had attended many dinners with a vast array of people. I heard rumors that the appearance of Gypsy on Chef Bourdain’s show had elicited an avalanche of inquiries about membership from Seattle and beyond but that most had been turned away.
Still, the exclusive membership felt decidedly inclusive. The level of secrecy promulgated by Chef G seemed to be designed more to provide a smokescreen from those other restauranteurs in Seattle who were apparently less than thrilled with the fact that an unlicensed restaurant was operating under the radar and, through its pseudo mysteriousness and panache, was thumbing its nose at those who were perhaps sore they did not first conceive the idea themselves.
I cajoled three friends into becoming Gypsy members with me. After all of the jumping through hoops, the extensive theme menus, the last-minute venue reveals, the quality of the experience was distilled in the actual experience of the food. It was interesting. It was occasionally innovative. It dabbled a bit in over-the-top molecular gastronomy. It took risks. Some of it wasn’t well executed and fell short of expectations. It was too much food. We left at the end of the night feeling over-stuffed and somewhat overstimulated. It was not the feeling of having experienced a delightful pageant of technical perfection in the realm of Eric Rippert or Thomas Keller, or even being dazzled closer to home by the understated multi-course excellence that one might find every single night at Chef Carsberg’s Lampreia or at Bruce and Sarah Naftaly’s Le Gourmand. Perhaps the basis of Gypsy’s true appeal was Chef G himself and his engaging, conspiratorial nature. No other chef in Seattle seemed to have as much fun with his diners as they ate.
In the interest of full disclosure, our only experience with Gypsy was that one night. And true restaurant fans know it is in poor taste to harshly criticize a restaurant on its opening night. In the case of Gypsy, every night was opening and closing night. So perhaps its just evaluation lies within a matrix of unique determination. At its very essence, Gypsy was the end product of people who harbor a phenomenal affection for food and who manufactured a compelling and accessible way to market it in a world too often dominated by spirit-crushing factory food, by over-the-top frou-frou nonsense and the vast field of mediocrity in between.
Though I was game to have another Gypsy experience one of these days, I received the surprising recent news that, after nearly four years of existence, Gypsy is no more. Apparently, some killjoy dropped a dime on the operation and they were shut down. Shortly after the announcement of Gypsy’s demise, alumni of the cooking classes were informed separately by e-mail that the Washington State Liquor Control Board has forced the end of a six-year tradition of offering wine with their cooking classes. The courses are no longer held in the Chef’s private home in West Seattle but were relocated last summer to a new commercial kitchen and instruction space in Beacon Hill. Surely, the additional dose of harsh regulation must be related to whomever betrayed the group. At least Chef G and his wife will no longer have to worry about blowing their cover to the neighbors.
An oblique e-mail from Chef G. blamed a seditious traitor from within the ranks of the Gypsy membership. Perhaps one of its jealous rival restaurants decided to finally take it out. For all of the kindness and charm of the organization’s forearm-inked founder, my bet is that, with television exposure, websites and the kind of press all over town that made me wonder if this young star chef had his own PR team working overtime, maybe Chef G. flew a little too close to the sun. I hardly expect today’s announcement spells the end for Chef G. and his talented band of co-conspirators. He has already been lined up to cater a VIP event for an upcoming lecture by Anthony Bourdain when he returns to Seattle in a couple of months. And his culinary classes will no doubt continue to engage and delight local foodies while he busily plans his next deeper-underground restaurant (pending laser surgery to amend his tattoo) named “Phoenix.”