Nick Coffey - Ursa Minor

The last six months have decimated the restaurant industry. As Seattleites, we want to share the stories of chefs in the area who have made sacrifices to support the community while simultaneously changing their businesses to survive. These chefs work day and night  in pursuit of their passion, and we celebrate them.

I know you attended art school before eventually making your way into the food world. What was the motivation behind this transition? Where and how did you discover your love of food and cooking? 

I studied photography at a time when photography was changing very rapidly. The industry and art was changing from darkroom to computer labs. I was attracted to the process, the equipment, the technique used to create a finished photograph from film to final print. When we landed in Seattle after school I felt lost in the new digital world of photography. But I found the process of cooking had the same tactile, creative and craft that held my interest in photography. So I transitioned from dark room to kitchen.

                       Photo: Charity Burggraaf

While still in Seattle you worked for Matt Dillon and a couple of the cities most well known restaurants. The strong Seattle food community is something that has come up in a number of conversations with chefs in the area. What do you think makes the Seattle food scene so tightly knit and generally affable? 

During this pandemic the importance of community has been shown. The building of community is ingrained in the restaurant industry. No matter if that be in Seattle, Chicago, or the San Juan Islands. I do miss the community in Seattle. But with the digital age it is becoming easier to stay connected. And we can encourage, support, and collaborate without being in the same city. The last few months have highlighted this, as we all are reinventing ourselves and planning for a better future.

Can you talk a bit about transitioning for working as chef for others, to opening and operating Ursa Minor? 

For me working as a chef for others was always my vision through that establishment's lens. Opening Ursa Minor allowed me to shed the history that established restaurants can carry with them. I could focus on creating the experience and cuisine that I wanted to share with our guests. The transition was made more difficult because of the island location far from my roots in Seattle. I left behind years of building relationships with farms, vendors, coworkers. And operating a business on Island has its own unique challenges I had not anticipated.

                             Photo: Nova Askue

What spurred you to try your new concept on a remote island with a small full time population?  

Lopez Island was always our get away. Any opportunity we had to leave the city we went to Lopez. The inspiration I found on those island trips bled into my work in the city. At every career juncture I looked to opening my own space. I kept an eye on what was available on Lopez. I wanted to be surrounded by the rolling farmland lined by wild roses and blackberries, dotted with wilderness in a sea of possibilities. The influence this place had on my life and my food was inescapable. 

              Photo: Charity Burggraaf

COVID has been brutal for restaurant and food adjacent businesses. You’ve transitioned to offering takeout and grocery goods in place of in-person dining. What does the future of restaurants look like to you? 

In the future we will be continuing many of the new offerings we have been doing. As we transition back to table service (whenever that may be) we know now we need to look outside our doors for more sustainable opportunities. We have been able to pivot our fermentation program into retail sales. This has been successful and we will continue to build on this. The other pantry items, take out, merchandise has expanded our customer base. And we want to continue to engage with these new customers.

Ursa Minor is known for using hyper-local ingredients and sourcing from the island as much as possible. For those of us that have not yet gotten a chance to try Ursa Minor, how would you suggest getting a taste of the San Juan Islands at home? Do you mind sharing a simple recipe that our readers can try for themselves? 

Because of our use of ingredients and flavors of the archipelago we spend a lot of time building our pantry. Drying herbs and spices, pickling and fermenting vegetables, curing and aging meat. This can mean that many of our dishes can take months of preparation. But a simple one we do every summer is "grilled mussels in pepper broth". We take red peppers and grill them until their skins are black. We put them in a container with a lid to trap their juices. After they cool, peel them and save all the juices they drop and then strain. Save the peepers for a different use but the strained liquid will be your pepper broth. Season it with a little vinegar and salt. Steam the mussels until they just pop open. Take them out of their shells and grill them until they begin to brown. Serve them in the pepper broth with fermented gooseberries (any pickled fruit will work, or maybe slices of fresh plums)and pumpkin seed oil.

Beyond trying out Ursa Minor for themselves, how can our audience support some of the causes closest to you and your family? 

Locally we have been busy helping support the island's food security with the Lopez Island Family Resource Center. They are working with farms and food businesses to distribute food bags and meals to those in need. By supporting them, you can help support a whole island's food shed. Beyond our island community we have been urging people to contact their representatives in support of the RESTAURANTS ACT. We feel strongly that without the help this bill would provide many of our favorite independent restaurants will not be around to open their dining rooms again. Also please give to the NW Bail Fund. A donation to them in any amount goes really far and helps combat so many different broken systems.

                         Photo: Nick Coffey