PENINSULA PROFILE: Chef Aaran Stark
By Diane Urbani de la Paz
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This the rangy guy from Georgia is causing a stir in several places across the North Olympic Peninsula. Stark's full-time job is as executive chef for Jefferson Healthcare, where he's known as the man who uses fresh, local produce — and that Elevated treat — to reinvent hospital food.
And next weekend, Stark will step onto the stage at the Dungeness Crab & Seafood Festival in Port Angeles to serve as chef, demonstrator and master of ceremonies. He'll start the chef's demonstrations with causa, a Peruvian potato dish. It's a simple, flavorful food. Causa is an indigenous Quechua word for sustenance, since potatoes are the bread of life for the people of the Andes — and Stark predicts it will wow the tasting crowd. That first demo is set for noon Saturday on The Gateway pavilion stage. Stark will return Sunday for another dish, a surprise, at 11 a.m.
Stark is well-known around here for his cooking classes at the Jefferson County YMCA, the Port Townsend Farmers Market and the home economics room at Port Townsend High School. He and his wife Micaela Colley have been in Port Townsend nearly seven years now, after meeting in Portland, Ore., in 2005. Stark was the executive chef at the acclaimed novoperuvian Andina Restaurant, but he packed up and moved to Port Townsend happily when Colley was hired to run the Organic Seed Alliance here.
Fires of love
“Sparks flew,” Stark recalls, when he and Colley met. They found they wanted the same things, including a family. Port Townsend looked like the place; their first child, Crenna, was born three and a half years ago.
Stark also found Port Townsend to be a sweet and savory spot for a chef who loves local food. He cooked prix fixe dinners at Sweet Laurette's on Friday and Saturday nights, cultivated relationships with local farmers, did cooking demonstrations around town — and then he and Colley decided to build a commercial kitchen. Along with the Cultivated Palette, Stark's catering company, the kitchen is now open at 1433 Sims Way.
But along the way, as John Lennon would say in his song “Beautiful Boy,” life is what happened while the couple was busy making other plans. The same week the county signed off on the kitchen building, Colley, who was pregnant with their second child, was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Their boy Owyn was born a month early, and then Colley began chemotherapy. Also around this time, Stark took the job of executive chef at Jefferson Healthcare.
“I was fortunate this job came along,” he said. “At the same time, I am really excited about the platform the job offered.”
Stark had spent the past many years cooking high-class food for mostly well-off people. Before Andina, he'd worked at the third-oldest country club in the United States, the Glen Arven in Thomasville, Ga., and at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.
He cut his teeth as a chef's apprentice at top restaurants in Atlanta, his home town. Oh, and then, 15 years into his career, he went to Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Portland to get the piece of paper he needed in order to teach.
At Jefferson Healthcare, Stark said, he's stepped away from the high end and into a new world of possibility. He and his staff are cooking not for the affluent few, but for the whole spectrum of the community. They have the opportunity to introduce people to the pleasures of fresh local produce from six nearby farms and from local food crafters such as Pane d'Amore and Bob's Bagels.
And if a patient can have ice cream, Stark proudly notes, he or she will have the sweet delight from Elevated, the parlor in downtown Port Townsend. This is a chef who believes in treating people as well as humanly possible, even if they are in the hospital.
Smile to their faces
“When you come here, generally, something really bad has happened. So I thought, what sort of food could bring a smile to your face?
“If someone's had a heart attack, we could start giving them the diet they should have had all along,” Stark said. But since this person has just gone through a trauma, imposing a stringent regimen may only add to that.
“I think a portion of ice cream can be far more healing,” Stark said, “by putting a smile on their face.”
Stark emphasized that he and his crew are still working on the patient menus. And beyond those, the chef has bigger-picture ideas.
“My dream is for us to be the first hospital in the nation where we give doctors the tools,” he said, to go beyond the old-standby “eat right and exercise” advice.
Stark envisions health care providers writing prescriptions for cooking classes, for example. So many people never got to learn how to cook kale or winter squash or a low-fat, flavorful chicken dish.
“Imagine if insurance companies covered a cooking class. That,” Stark said, “is a preventative.”
Even as he seeks to re-create Jefferson Healthcare's food service, Stark has been going through a family health crisis. But Colley is recovering — her post-chemo hair has grown back curly, Stark reports with a smile. And their kids, Crenna and 18-month-old Owyn, are keeping them busy.
Colley's cancer journey has taught Mom and Dad something.
“When she was diagnosed, we weren't used to asking for help,” Stark said. And when friends took the initiative and offered help, Stark and Colley weren't accustomed to saying yes.
Asking for and accepting a hand from a friend, the couple has learned, is a good thing for everyone involved. It builds real connections, naturally.
One of the people Stark connected with at this time last year was Graham Kerr, the famed television chef. Kerr, aka the Galloping Gourmet, came to 2011's Dungeness Crab & Seafood Festival — and embarked on an Olympic Peninsula culinary tour that included Stark's kitchen at Jefferson Healthcare.
Connection with Kerr
“We hit it off, right off the bat,” Stark recalled. They talked about gardening, something Stark believes any chef craves, for that “full circle process.” Another thing they have in common: a delight in making good cuisine fun.
“I was put on the Earth to teach people how to cook. But I've got this hammy side of me,” Stark said. “I like to be an entertainer,” not unlike the Galloping Gourmet.
Stark and Kerr connected on a deeper level, too.
“I had just come out of this traumatic experience with my wife,” Stark said. “And he had gone through several of those experiences with his wife,” Treena, who suffered serious health problems during the 1980s, inspiring Kerr to develop his own new frontier of low-fat cooking.
Kerr, who has just committed to returning to Port Angeles for the 2013 Dungeness Crab & Seafood Festival, is one down-to-Earth man, Stark said.
He added that this is not typical of celebrity chefs. There's a one-upmanship behavior that goes on, Stark said, among chefs who've reached a certain level in their careers.
“I call it the white-collar aura. But it's a blue-collar job: You're sweating, you're bleeding, you're crying. You're doing all of those wonderful things.”
On one hand, “it's just food,” Stark said.
Yet it's also “the purest form of art there is. It invokes all of the senses.”
Compare a dish like causa with, say, a painting. You can look at the canvas, and maybe touch it.
But a lovingly prepared Peruvian potato dish has a visual beauty; fragrance; texture and a fusion of flavors that, altogether, make it the chef's masterpiece.
Now, all of this does not mean that when Stark goes home at night, he never wonders, what in the world should I fix for dinner?
Fortunately, Stark has a suggestion for his fellow men and women in the kitchen. Ask your farmer. At the farmers market, inquire: “What do you have an abundance of?”
Whatever is plentiful is likely to be inexpensive, Stark said. And this plenitude is “nature telling us what we should be eating” at this particular time of year.
“He walks the talk as far as using local ingredients,” Nash Huber said of Stark.
Huber, founder of Nash's Organic Produce, added that a lot of people on the Peninsula talk a good game about eating locally, but not all practice it.
Stark is “turning the [Jefferson Healthcare] around,” said Huber. He'd like to see the trend — purchasing local produce rather than the stuff shipped from elsewhere — expand.
“If hospitals and schools spent more money locally,” the farmer said, “it would be good for the local businesses.”
'Soul' of local food ethic
The local-food ethic is something Olympic Peninsula farmers, chefs and others have been pursuing for some 15 years now, added Scott Nagel, director of next weekend's Crabfest.
Stark “is the soul of it,” Nagel added.
“When you talk to him, there's no ego. He's relaxed, he's easygoing — and he's committed to what he's doing,” which is to bring good, local food to the whole community.
Stark, for his part, is happy to spend time talking about his work, but only if his community — local farmers and bakers as well as his kitchen crew — enjoys the spotlight too.
His last words to a reporter who'd just photographed the cooks at Jefferson Healthcare illustrated that.
“Thanks for taking the picture of my staff. That means a million bucks to me,” Stark said before going back to work.
Last modified: October 07. 2012 3:26PM