Tamara Murphy is the owner and head chef of Terra Plata, a restaurant on Capitol Hill with what has to be the city's most beautiful rooftop patio and garden, and also its pointiest, perched in the very tip of the triangular Melrose Market building. In the past, you may have tasted Tamara's James Beard and Food & Wine award-winning cooking at Campagne or Brasa. She's also the founder of Burning Beast, an annual summertime cookout ("the world's meatiest") benefit for Smoke Farm with some of the best chefs in town, culminating in the incineration of a gigantic wooden beast. In the fall, she orchestrates the Incredible Feast, which brings 20 great Seattle chefs plus 20 great local farmers together under one enormous tent, complete with chandeliers, for, yes, an incredible feast—this year, it's October 5, and it's a benefit for Seattle farmers markets, and you should go. (Get your tickets soon—it always sells out—seattlefarmersmarkets.org/programs-events/incredible-feast.) Oh, and she also runs the cafe at Elliott Bay Book Company. She's pretty busy.
Tell me about your first cooking job. It was in Charlotte, North Carolina. I was living on my own at 15. There was an Italian restaurant a couple blocks from where I lived called Mangione's. One day, I jumped into their delivery truck and took a couple of turkey breasts. The owner, Roberto Mangione, was watching from the window—he came running out and tackled me to the ground. His wife came running, yelling things in Italian. She slapped him around a bit. He was quite red-faced and angry. She dragged me into the kitchen, asked me a bunch of questions, then she brought me a bowl of pasta and asked if I wanted to bus tables. I said yes. One night the cook didn't show up, and she dragged me into the kitchen. That was 37 years ago, and I never left!
You ran a little bar called Ing on Bellevue about a decade ago. What was that place like? What are the most striking changes you've noticed in the neighborhood since then? That was a lifetime ago! My partner Brian Hill and I were managing Ing. It was fun. It was a dark, dingy little bar with homespun food. The area has grown and morphed into this amazing little food neighborhood. I've seen it go from a handful of independently run restaurants to what it is today.
What are your favorite places to eat and drink in town? There are too many! I'm a Gemini, so I need lots of different types of stimulation... Sushi Kappo Tamura for sushi. I've been enjoying the Whale Wins for lunch... I don't really go out and drink at bars—I feel so boring when I say that. But I really enjoy Le Caviste, that's a great little spot... I go to this little Mexican market near my house for tacos—La Conasupo. They make all kinds of great Mexican food.
Which cooking ingredient are you currently fascinated with? Currently fascinated with? I don't think there's anything new under the sun. I'm really into fresh garbanzo beans in the pod.
I don't even know what the pods look like. They look a bit like edamame. We're used to them brown, in hummus; these are green and fresh. I'm fascinated with food in general. I have so much appreciation for great ingredients. Like our beautiful shellfish, and geoducks! Geoducks are god's sense of humor [laughs].
Yes, they are. What's your favorite condiment? My favorite condiment is our chimichurri. It's like our ketchup. It's chili-based—chili, olive oil, and cumin.
Do you eat anything you consider a guilty pleasure or anything people would be surprised to know you enjoy? For instance, I once ate a whole container of Play-Doh. You ate a container of Play-Doh?
I was a kid, but yes. [Laughs] I love hand-dipped corn dogs. There's a little corn-dog place in the Market I love. At Burning Beast this summer, the guy who won Best of Beast made a hand-dipped rabbit corn dog, fried in duck fat.
God, I love corn dogs. What was the most novel meat-preparation method you witnessed at Burning Beast? The whole experience was novel. The chefs do an amazing job with their installations—I have a hard time picking just one. I really liked Miles James's little stone smoker. Last year we had Aaron Matson from the Copper Hog—he had bison on a bicycle. It turned because of the bicycle.
Like a bicycle spit? Yes! There's so much ingenuity.
Can you list every food-industry job you've had? Mangione's, a place in North Carolina called Moxie's, Cornelia Street Cafe in New York, Extra Extra in the Daily News building in midtown Manhattan. I worked at Triplets in New York, and Margaritas in New York, and Dominique's Place in Seattle. My first chef job was at Campagne. Of course, there was Ing, and Brasa, and Terra Plata. Oh, and Elliott Bay Cafe.
What was your worst kitchen disaster ever? It's actually in a book called Don't Try This at Home. My first restaurant in Seattle was Dominique's Place. We had a wedding party that wanted pheasant for their main course. It was early in my career, I was a sous chef, and I burnt the pheasants to a crisp. I went to Thierry at Rover's, but he didn't have pheasants, he had chickens. So I took the chickens, and the guests said it was the best pheasant they'd ever had. That's the mark of a chef up and coming—you have to think on your feet.
This is part of a series of interviews with great Seattle chefs.