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Small But Mighty

Small But Mighty

Maria Hines made a name for herself as executive chef at Earth & Ocean in Seattle's W Hotel, but it wasn't until she opened her own restaurant in 2006 that she was able to shape a menu totally in tune with her personal philosophy. At the cozy Tilth, 40 seats set in a Craftsman home in Seattle' s Wallingford neighborhood, she dreams up New American-style dishes inspired by seasonal local, wild and organic ingredients. And the world has taken notice. Tilth was cited as one of 10 “restaurants that count” last year by the New York Times' Frank Bruni; this spring, Hines won a James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest. The 35-year-old petite powerhouse briefly rested her chef's knife to talk about food and fame.

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RH: Was food important in your home when you were growing up? How so?

Hines: It was, because meals were the time that the family sat together and connected.

RH: When did you first start thinking about becoming a chef?

Hines: When I was 17, at my first kitchen job, I worked in the pantry. I loved the fast pace.

RH: What's your favorite junk food, where do you eat it, and what do you wash it down with?

Hines: Popcorn at the movies; plain old water.

RH: Do you have a favorite new ingredient or food-related obsession?

Hines: Espelette; it's a French Basque hot pepper, and I buy it dried. I'll put it in a corn flan or use it as a nice little accent for chicken.

RH: What do you consider your most indispensable kitchen tool these days?

Hines: An immersion circulator (commonly used to prepare sous vide dishes). It brings out the purity in food — it makes corn taste like corn and peppers taste like peppers, not like the flavor has been boiled out. I use it for vegetables and fish, sometimes meat.

RH: What's the last cookbook you read?

Hines: Inside Le Meurice: An Ode to a Superstar Paris Chef. It's about Yannick Alleno, a Michelin three-star chef.

RH: Who are your role models, and what makes them role models?

Hines: Alice Waters, Nora Pouillon and Ann Cooper — they're all passionate about local/sustainable/organic foods.

SEASONED: Eating at Tilth is like being a guest in someone's home—someone who really knows how to cook.

RH: Over the years have you developed any work-related pet peeves?

Hines: Being dirty: a dirty apron, station, chef's coat, shoes, etc.

RH: Did you ever experiment with a dish and surprise yourself?

Hines: Sure, tomato ice cream. I was working on a recipe for the New York Times, and I thought “this is really good.” It's been on our menu as a special.

RH: How do you keep your menu fresh, and what inspires you?

Hines: It's simple: We change the menu once a month. I'm inspired by whatever is in season.

RH: Seattle is at the heart of the locavore movement, but even there, is it a challenge to stay committed to organic ingredients?

Hines: It's a lot of work at first, but then it's easy. You start looking for all the vendors. You have to research, go online, phone, ask friends, poke around. But after you've found them, you're all set. It's just like running any restaurant.

RH: Tilth works with a “forager” for wild ingredients. How do you find someone like that, and how does it work?

Hines: They show up at your back door randomly! Actually, a lot of it is word of mouth. Another chef might say “go see Maria, she might want that.”

RH: If you were to open a fast-food place, what would it be like?

Hines: An organic burger joint. But I wouldn't actually do it. I have my hands full with one restaurant.

RH: Can you recall a few of your most memorable meals, and what made them memorable?

Hines: One was at Campton Place in San Francisco, where Daniel Humm prepared a tasting menu with wines. Another was at L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon in Las Vegas. Both were tasting menus with wine pairings. They were really thoughtful, the flavors were clean, the food was very minimalistic on the plate, everything was executed and seasoned perfectly and the presentation was beautiful.

RH: Speaking of famous chefs, how has business been at Tilth since your turn in the limelight?

Hines: The New York Times article kept us busy for about 10 months; after the Beard award, we got busier for about a month.