Holly Smith is the chef and owner of Cafe Juanita, a restaurant in Kirkland, Washington that specializes in the cuisine of Northern Italy. With an award-winning wine list, Cafe Juanita was nominated for Outstanding Service and Outstanding Restaurant in the United States by the James Beard Foundation. Smith opens up to Filthy Lucre about the inspiration behind her business. 

When did you know you wanted to be a chef?

I went to cooking school to learn more about restaurants in general, not assuming I would be so happy in the kitchen. Once I moved to Seattle and began contributing creatively to a menu and team, I knew I wanted to continue down the path towards chef.

What is your favorite food memory?

Too many happily I think to say. Many are linked with travel and tasting something from where it comes from – close to the source.  Alaskan King crab moments out of fresh Alaskan waters, 30 month aged Parmigiana Reggiano in caves at Guffanti in Italy, D. O.P Balsamico in the Acetaia of a family producing it for 130-plus years….

Where were you trained, and how difficult was your training?

At the end of cooking school I did an externship in Ireland with master chef Peter Timmins. It was a great experience and the foundations he worked from I still draw from today. I strongly believe we learn every day and from everyone around us.

Where do you find inspiration?

Ingredients, travel, hunger.

What is the most essential item in your kitchen?

Team work and perseverance beats out most tangible items!

Photo: Cafe Juanita

What advice would you give an inspiring chef?

It is all about hospitality. Remember that every plate of food is meant to be eaten… that plate of food is not about you.

What was your funniest kitchen mishap?

I saw a cook slip, slide and end up tucked up under a large refrigerator once.  No one was hurt so it was pretty funny. “Kitchen accident” and “funny” don’t typically go hand in hand.

What do you most admire in the culinary world?

Work on food, justice and equity.

What is your favorite food to cook with?

Anything in season.

What food do you think is the most challenging to cook with?

If you start with a mediocre product, it’s hard to get to fabulous. Processed foods freak me out.

What do you like to eat when you are at home?

I eat a lot of big salads, roasted veggies and fish and a fair bit of rice. Sushi, sashimi.

What do you love most about your job?

I have met wonderful people, both guests and staff — the community that can grow around food and the table is very special. I love making people happy.

What would your last meal be if you were on death row?

Tough, since I would want a bit of everything I think. First of all, I would want to enjoy this meal with my son Oliver and friends. The company is very important. I would have to say sushi or sashimi to begin with, to include uni for sure and maybe spit roasted young goat with roasted vegetables and either Barbaresco, Barolo or Burgundy…this could be a very long answer but I will stop there.

Visit cafejuanita.com To learn more about Holly Smith and Cafe Juanita.

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