20 Qs with Chef Q About Food That Will Make You Think About Life
Updated: Aug 9, 2020
The other day, Orcas Hotel Chef Quinn Thompson and I went on a secondhand shopping mission at The Exchange.
Everything that can be repurposed or resold is, including ski boots and classic books, funky mugs and fluffy jackets, power tools and porcelain tchotchkes. It became a favorite treasure-shop stop for staff with a quickness.
Thompson came in looking for an end table for his room at Orcas Hotel and a coffee mug. I brought him examples of each—very worthy examples—and he shrugged them off with a gentle mutter and shake of his head.
At least I got an awesome mug for myself. It has a golden retriever on it.
The point is: He knows what he wants. When it comes to the restaurant-to-be at Orcas Hotel, which as I’m writing this just got fresh carpet and paint, he wants “something special.”
He elaborates from there.
“I want something that honors the history of the place, something few and far between, not one of those fine dining places copying one another, but one that [communicates,] ‘This is what we do here and what we’re proud of and you can’t find anywhere else,’” he says. “That starts with a million things, including the hotel and its 120-year history, imagining what they were doing here back then, and then in the ‘40s with the loggers and the limekilns, and so on.
“I want to honor the stewards of this facility and the history that is pretty much forgotten,” he adds. “How do you imagine that, how do you reimagine that? How do you respect it?”
Thompson comes to Orcas after years of award-winning work at destinations like Sierra Mar in Big Sur and il Grillo in Carmel, both in California, where he met the hotel’s owners. And a Kentucky spot called Bobby J’s where a supervising chef mentioned that 19-year-old Quinn had talent to make it a career, and he told himself, “F**k this, I’m not doing this for 16 hours a day for months without a day off.”
Well, hell, here he is now. And I'm happy he is.
Given his penchant for precision, I set out to have a 2020 Q&A-with-Q that included 20 questions and 20 answers of 20 words or less.
But when it came time to talk, after a busy night in the Taco Tuesday kitchen, I just let it flow.
I am among the many eaters who are loving what he’s doing, in collaboration with owner-chefs Julia Felder and John Cox, and their talented team, about whom I'll write more in other posts.
I’ve had every item on the menu and every special that hits the chalkboard. There hasn’t been a single miss.
Same applies for Q's answers that appear here.
Question 1: How did cooking become a calling?
It wasn’t. I wanted to be a musician. But while I was waiting to be a musician or an artist I was cooking—[albeit] without realizing I was creating and nurturing through food. When I did come to realize a blank plate could be my blank canvas, I realized that cooking could be what I do.
2: Where are a few of your favorite places to draw inspiration?
(Long pause.) There are powerful things that come out of regret. My grandmother Peggy Plaskett grew up on the South Coast of Big Sur. One of the things she would always talk about is having an abalone dinner. They’d pull them off the rocks in the '50s; she’d tell me this while I’d eat with her at Denny’s.
My mom grew up with abalone. I’d hear these stories from her too.
My grandma passed away and we never did that abalone dinner together.
That could’ve been a special connection. Maybe some day I prepare a special abalone dinner for someone and we can find that connection.
And it could be a way of redeeming the regret that I never had that abalone dinner with my grandma.
3: When do you feel most alive on the job?
Oh I don’t know. I’m a vampire.
But tonight presented a great example: I’m working on menu for tomorrow’s party, not involved in the line, and watching our staff f***ing kill it, seeing them work together in a way that I want a kitchen to work together.
They were happy to be with each other. Even if they got busy they were supporting each other. I’ve worked in kitchens where workers stab one another in the back, steal one another’s mis en place, make someone feel like shit.
To watch the whole kitchen work in unison without my help felt like—and I can’t take credit for this—we’re doing something right.
4: When do you feel most alive off the job?
Art is real.
I like to do a lot of things with art and music, as long as it’s creating something new.
A lot of people who enjoy creativity feel emptiness—and feel the want to have that emptiness lead to showing someone else a beauty that hasn’t been seen in the same way.
Most artists are redundant and derivative. I like the satisfaction of inventing something new.
I find it much more rewarding to see the joy in someone else enjoying something new that you came up with. To have that with somebody is more important than doing it for yourself.
When you get a blank canvas and have the feeling that what you put on it could be great, it’s powerful—like a farmer with a plot of earth who sees what it can be in the future—to have your own little stamp on the world.
I saw this canvas of John and Julia’s hotel-restaurant project and I want to make it into a memorable thing.
5: How do you know you have a real-deal chef on your hands?
There’s a lot of different aspects. Really good line cooks, who are really organized, can bang things out all day long, and do such a good job, but that doesn’t mean they’re the best creative people.
Then there’s amazing chefs who can write out an amazing menu but eat s*** working on the line.
Conceptually it’s easy to understand line cooking, but doing it for 12 hours can crush someone.
It’s rare that someone does both well.
6: What’s most misunderstood about restaurants? About fine dining?
The prices. People go in and they’re like “$25 for chicken? $35 for steak? We could go somewhere else."
The misconnection is what what care goes into it and what that price should be. There are chefs who aren’t fine dining but care about getting properly sourced vegetables and meats from farms that care about little things.
It’s about supporting a community, and that takes an incredible amount of thought. The early-bird special is not a way for businesses to stay open.
When a person complains about a price, they’re not realizing how much work goes in and how small a profit margin is for the worker, the fisherman, the farmer.
7: You mention canvas as a metaphor for the plate and the creative process. Who's one of your favorite artists?
It’s hard to pick a painter who represents that for me. Maybe it’s [Salvador] Dali.
8: Why are you known as Norbu to some?
Jamyang Norbu was supposed to be my first name. [It’s my middle name.] When I was kid I’d look at this [quilted] painting my mom showed me that was supposed to be me when I was older. I remember looking at it, and there’s me in this three-story house. The incredible thing is that it looks a lot like this [three-story] hotel, with an image on the bottom floor that looks like the walk-in refrigerator.
9: What can you tell us about the theme echoed in specials like Norbu’s Hot Mess (a Philly-leaning pastrami melt on a soft roll) or the Norbu’s Nautical Nightmare (a five star yum fest of crispy wild salmon collar topped with long beans and cured salmon eggs)? In other words, are you nautical?
I did live on a sailboat for several years, in Hawaii, with my mom and stepfather. And my baby brother. And some cats.
I remember getting back from shows, rowing our dinghy to the boat, and trying to sneak back in. It was hard—just stepping on board rocked the boat.
One day on the way to shore a wave smacked us and flipped the dinghy, and we swam to a deserted island like [Blind Island], which we can see from the hotel.
My little baby brother had a life vest. If he didn’t he might’ve drowned.
I lost my CD player. At the time that was a big deal.
I also lost my homework to Davey Jones’ Locker. Truth is, I probably didn’t do my homework. But on that day I had a good reason why I didn’t turn it in.
10: How does music inform your food and food inform your music? Or does it?
(Long pause.) I think with music or food it’s the creativity that excites me.
I don’t want to sound corny, but the drive and the passion is to work so hard on something because it ultimately should bring joy to somebody, and an escape for someone, where you get surprised, they get surprised, and you get forget about your problems.
There are some basic and real needs that emanate out of a pursuit of pleasure, and food is one of them.
If you sit down and enjoy a meal, or a song, and get away from your day or your problems, it’s a small but important thing.
It can be as simple as a “typical” breakfast. There are regulars at the restaurant who get eggs over easy—it’s not on the menu, which may be annoying for our team—but I take pride in that ability to give our island family an oasis in their day.
With music it’s as nourishing for the soul as anything else. That feeling depends on how starved you are; maybe you’re starved for the feelings that a good song or a good meal can give you, or comfort you, or move you forward for the time being.
11: What are you most excited to achieve with the Orcas restaurant when it comes online?
Ideally I would want a guest who came here, got off the ferry and had a similar experience to if I was going to Europe and happened across a place that was extremely special and customized to a region.
You walk in and it’s the only place that is like it in the world.
12. OK—speed round. Even shorter answers are OK now. Favorite kitchen appliance?
Depends. Favorite tool would be a chef’s knife. Appliance? You don’t need much. A knife, a stove, you’re good to go.
13: Number one comfort food?
Used to be fish ’n’ chips. It still could be. Given all the many, many fish ’n’ chips that we're doing in the cafe, I'm questioning that.
But that also could push me to do something new with it.
14: Favorite uncommon ingredient?
Different seaweeds. I use them so much they start to feel common. Sea grapes from Monterey Bay I like a lot.
I’d love to get more familiar with varietals here.
15: Who is your culinary hero?
Anthony Bourdain, not for his cooking, but for his humanity and the way he would tell a story.
16: Your favorite kitchen slang?
"What’s the move?" It’s a cook asking another cook how you get that technique or that kitchen skill down—in essence, "How are you so good at that?" And you share it. Everything is supposed to be so quick. There's a lot of pressure, and you’re failing while someone else is good at it.
So you share: Put more lime in the guacamole, hold the knife at this angle while sharpening it.
17: Favorite music to cook to?
With everything artistic, I think it’s good to change.
One thing about me: I will love something until I hate it and then move on. I will overdo it until I ask myself "How long did that take? Was it really good?”
I like something so much and then later wonder why.
It’s definitely better to have high-energy music. I could listen to the Misfits or The Ramones and have a pretty good day.
They're not what I necessarily listen to now but they are bands that I’ve listened to and stopped at some point, even though I love them.
I think it’s better for everyone to move and grow and change. If you listen to the same stuff and get stagnant, it’s hard to be creative.
18: How do you know so much about precious metals?
I think with silver and spoons in the kitchen they’ll have hallmarks on the back and I learned in different countries, like England, if it’s solid silver, it will have an English hallmark, what's called a passant, of a lion.
It’s kinda like the appreciation of a simple thing like a spoon, if you had the care to get something that’s the best material you can find, that thing can be 100 years old and it looks like it was made yesterday.
It’s craftsmanship. Someone sat down with basic tools and made something you can find at a thrift store and most people don’t give a s***.
19: If you could only take one condiment on a mission to deserted island, what would it be?
Butter. That is a great condiment.
You can dip every little piece of seafood in it.
You can transform it into many things. If you found a gull’s egg, you could make mayonnaise.
20: What question should I have asked that I didn’t?
(Long pause.) I think you nailed it. Maybe, “What time do you have to get up in the morning?”