TAKE two men and a passion for cooking south-east Asian food, and you will find yourself in the Seattle kitchen of Wild Ginger. This is not pan-Asian cooking, this is fully-fledged Asian cooking at its best.
Riding on a wave of green Thai curries, Singaporean noodles and laksa, many a restaurant has opened identifying itself as pan-Asian or Pacific Rim. But, in the far north-west of pioneering America, restaurant owner Rick Yoder and his chef Jim Han Lock - 1997 winner of the James Beard Foundation Award for best chef of the north-west region - have been brandishing their woks in a jet flame-fuelled kitchen since Wild Ginger opened in 1989.
The menu is a mix of Vietnamese, Thai, Burmese, Singaporean, Indonesian and Chinese dishes, with seafood recurring as a natural favourite. Duck, pork, chicken and beef also feature in coconut and spice-rich curries, spiced salads and lemon grass skewers of satay.
"Here in Seattle, we are pioneers in this style of restaurant," explains Yoder. "We don't want to bastardise the true recipes for the sake of being in fashion. We try to keep things as authentic as possible."
Yoder and his wife Ann opened their restaurant nine years ago after a seven-month post-graduation tour of south-east Asia. While travelling, they researched and collected a core of recipes that have been used alongside dishes suggested by their Asian chefs.
"When I came back, I found it hard to find real Asian food. But then I ate at a restaurant used by Thai Airways' crew and I found the flavours and the freshness. I started cooking at home and then wondered: 'What if I merged the Asian quality and recipes with a Western style of restaurant and ambience?'. Here we are, nine years later."
Wild Ginger was an instant success, serving 520 covers an evening from the kitchen and satay bar.
The restaurant is sited on Western Avenue at the bottom of the stairs that lead down from Union Street and the city's well-known Pike Place Market. It is housed in an old maritime union hall, which, in a previous life, was used as an immigration centre for Chinese settlers arriving in the USA via Seattle's port.
Now, it's a modern and open restaurant with clean wooden lines and adorned with white orchids. A bar is situated on the left of the restaurant, while a horseshoe-shaped satay bar is at the back.
The restaurant is furnished with simple, US-style wooden chairs and plain square wooden tables. A fork, pair of chopsticks, paper napkin and plain white plate are set at each place. A central night light completes the tables, to give a simple and stylish ambience.
Han Lock has been cooking at the restaurant since it first opened its doors in 1989, and rules the kitchen with an astute eye for quality. Originally from Canton, he grew up in San Francisco and cooked in California and Hawaii before being drawn to Seattle.
"San Francisco was my first home town, but I've been up here for 35 years," he says.
He is enthralled by the local ingredients. "Locally reared salmon, asparagus, tomatoes, razor clamsÉ whatever is available, we'll grab them," says Han Lock. "The only difference between the way we cook our recipes and those in south-east Asia is that we upgrade the quality of our ingredients."
Yoder interjects: "It's the freshest. Food turns over really quickly. That's why I like to keep it affordable, so the place is busy all the time and products don't sit around. That's the key. We cook everything to order."
Twenty-seven kitchen staff use woks fuelled by turbo-jet gas, which heats to a temperature of 525ºC. Dishes are stir-fried or finished in the wok at such a high temperature that they are cooked in 35 seconds. Han Lock's two sous chefs work with him to develop the menus, which change every three to four months.
"We don't buy anything off the shelf, except basics like soy and oyster," says Yoder. "We make curry pastes from scratch every two to three days and, in one night, 80lb of fresh noodles are consumed."
The noodles are bought from a local supplier, as are the won ton skins for the hand-made vegetarian dumplings of jicama (also known as yam bean or sweet turnip), black mushrooms, carrots and shallots, which float in an amber-coloured, rich vegetable stock. Each day 40lb of double-strength fish stock and 60lb of chicken stock are prepared.
The cooking at this restaurant is of the highest standard and is extremely labour-intensive. Both are indications of Yoder's ambitions: "See what we have here now? We're going to the next level; we will do things that we can't do here."
He intends his second restaurant to have a greater kitchen and restaurant capacity. "You see, at the moment we buy in our won ton skins, but with a larger kitchen, we can make from scratch."
Hand-crimped dumplings are already on the menu, but it looks like Yoder would like to take on Chinatown with his own versions. Maybe this will become their new signature dish, a position currently held by Wild Ginger fragrant duck. Many a Seattle diner will tell you this dish is the reason they come again and again to the restaurant.
Han Lock is proud of this highly acclaimed Long Island duck with a fragrant skin spiced with cinnamon and star anise. "It's marinated for 24 hours with Szechwan peppercorns, kosher salt, wine, ginger and scallions." The wine penetrates the duck and creates a mellow flavour which, when fried, helps make the crispest skin.
"Once it has been marinated, it's steamed on a stainless-steel rack over a wok filled with water. All the fat will drip out of the duck and into the water. When it is cooked through and tender, it is finished off by deep-frying until the skin is crisp. Chopped in half, it is boned and served with steamed buns, Szechwan peppercorns and sweet plum sauce."
Seafood is Han Lock's speciality. A live tank in the back of the kitchen keeps seafood fresh until the moment the order is placed. "Whatever is seasonally available is held in the tank for three to four days," he says. When crab is in season, for example, he will buy in two or three dozen crabs every day.
"We follow the Asian ethos of buying daily and using the freshest and local ingredients," says Yoder. The cold, coastal waters of the north-west USA supply the Seattle chef with a bountiful supply of shellfish and fish, a great bonus for anyone cooking authentic Asian food.
"In the Seattle area, we have a big Asian community. We have the biggest Cambodian population outside of Cambodia, lots of Vietnamese, Thai and lots of Chinese," says Yoder.
And wherever there is a community, home-grown ingredients will follow. "We are in a real bountiful area here, lots of great products. We have a very thriving business because of it." n
Wild Ginger, 1400 Western Avenue, Seattle, Washington 98101, USA. Tel: 00 1 206 623 4450