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.
After working in a number of Seattle most prominent restaurants, Cam Hanin decided the traditional chef path was not for him. He then set to build Guerrilla Pizza - a pizza centric pop-up found all over Seattle. During the pandemic he has donated his time and delicious pizzas to the Community Kitchen - a group of like minded local chefs who are feeding those in need, free of charge. We asked Cam a few questions about his journey to the food world, and how he is doing his best to navigate the pandemic.
When and where did you learn to cook, and at what point did you realize that food was something you wanted to pursue as a career?
I moved to Seattle when I was 18 to attend art school. I was working two jobs while attending classes, one of which was washing dishes at a sushi restaurant (RIP Red Fin). I dropped out after a year of accruing a silly amount of loans. I was still pursuing art for a bit as I moved up through kitchens taking weekly classes at an academy, but eventually landed at the restaurant Lola here. I don't know, I guess I realized I was kind of a mediocre artist and was kind of directionless and just fell into cooking.I kind of became fully committed to once I made this realization and eventually moved to New York. I worked in fine dining during my time there and kind of thought that was the route I needed to take to build a successful career in this industry. It's only looking back that I kind of realize the farce I was sold, you know? Food for me growing up was always sustenance, never knowing what the next meal would look like. I grew up with a single mother and our diet often mirrored what you see on the table of a lot of poor and low income folks across the US. My mom is from the South and is a scrappy woman and she would always try to cook my sister and I meals when she wasn't too run down from working 2 jobs - fried chicken, biscuits and gravy, scalloped potatoes. It wasn't until I got older, in this career especially, that I realized the foundation of my skills and beliefs she was providing for me. Building a meal out of nothing, peeling and cutting potatoes with her, frying chicken, making a roux, kind of a base knowledge of cooking as well as the importance and privilege of having a full belly.
Can you briefly talk about how you made your way from working in kitchens in the Seattle area, to doing your own thing with Guerrilla Pizza Kitchen?
Yeah, when I moved back from New York I helped open another restaurant for Tom Douglas. Without hoping to offend anyone, the corporate vibe isn't really my style so I left after a year and started working at The Old Sage and eventually Tavern Law. Once that company went under I connected with Mark Fuller and became the chef of Ma'ono. From there I helped expand his group from 1 to 6 restaurants. It wasn't until I was opening Supreme that a light bulb kind of went off in my head - the act of giving someone a slice of pizza for $2.50 on a paper plate kind of brought me full circle to where I was when I was teenager. There is something egalitarian about cooking pizza that I just got high on and it's really the most fun and joy I've gotten from cooking. I mean, fine dining is pretty gross, especially now. When I moved on from working for Fuller I started Guerrilla Pizza Kitchen as a way to reflect where I was in my career at this time - something where I didn't need to hide my politics or beliefs or feel like I needed to play this stacked food game seeking achievements through the chef award circuit.
I'm kind of consumed by this idea of how to use the best possible ingredients I can get my hands on, take extreme pride and care with the product I'm serving, but package it in a way that is accessible to as many people as I can. I use locally milled whole grain flour, our pizza is naturally fermented, hand mixed and unrefrigerated, our produce is organic, I've got a larder full of weird ferments and pickles. It's not cheap! But I can try my hardest to make it affordable for you. The hard part is building that into a sustainable business model so wish me luck.
The strong Seattle food community is something that has come up in a number of conversations with chefs in the area. You’ve done pop-ups with and supported a number of other chefs in the city. What do you think makes the Seattle food scene so tightly knit and supportive?
It's this idea that community supports community, you know? When a lot of us were coming into this industry the ones leading us, our mentors really, are so protective. They don't share. When you are a young chef with limited funds and access, how are you going to open a restaurant? But there's all these restaurants around. Why not share the information I have? If someone comes to me about running a pop up, I'm gonna give them a hard breakdown of sales tax, excise taxes, health permits, etc. Why should cooks and chefs feel like they are on an island? This industry is already so isolating. I think the folks you see collaborating and working together understand that. We share restaurant spaces, we collaborate on menus and ideas, we share information and resources, we feed each other. That only makes our industry stronger, doesn't it? There is this old school and hopefully dying mentality where you just need to look after yourself and your own interests. I feel like I speak for a lot of folks out there when I say I'm more interested in raising all the boats.
COVID has been brutal for restaurants and food adjacent businesses. You, along with Tarik Abdullah and Melissa Miranda, among others, were heavily involved in the Community Kitchen. Can you talk a bit about the inspiration for that?
It happened pretty organically. All of us have met each other at different fundraisers or events over the years. Everyone in the Community Kitchen saw a need, really [to feed the community, free of charge]. There was so much uncertainty, and there still is, but people got to eat. I'm not currently active with the Community Kitchen but Tarik, Melissa and Kristi Brown are all active doing meals. Chera and Guitar are still providing meals for food insecure folks and frontline workers through their own programs. We've all talked about having these programs baked into our operations into the future and I hope to get to a place where Guerrilla Pizza can exist as a community space.
Coming out of the pandemic, the restaurant business is forever changed. How will restaurants adjust? What are you plans for the Guerrilla Pizza Kitchen?
Restaurant folks are creative and resilient people. You've watched the industry adapt and folks change their whole operation, you see a lot of restaurants essentially using their physical space as production kitchens and just rolling out all these new programs like market fronts and expanding online stores and what's available. And that's going to be the future for a while, I don't think it's enough for restaurants to just be these stand alone businesses anymore where people come in and just order food. There has to be a little more creativity to come close to matching pre-COVID numbers for your business. I don't know. It's pretty fucked! You hear a lot right now about saving small businesses but they are the ones who are going to get squeezed out. These big restaurant groups can lay off hundreds of employees, consolidate their assets and survive. The system is broken and has been for a long time, our workers have no protections, undocumented workers are the backbone of the industry but aren't eligible for unemployment, the tipping system is garbage, you see these small businesses that to the public seem highly successful but the operators aren't making money either. There is change coming and I'd encourage the public to pay attention to where your money goes and support the ones who are doing their best to correct this system that we've inherited. I'm going on a rant here now so I'll stop myself.
What's next for GPK? I don't really know honestly. I'm looking ahead for a physical restaurant space but I'm not sure what that timeline looks like right now with the future so uncertain. My reality is my 2 children are homeschooled, my wife is a grade school teacher, and I still work full time while being a primary caretaker in my family. I'm not sure how much time that leaves for pop ups, honestly. I hope to figure it out but I've been cautious of announcing anything, and there is a possibility it just needs to go on hold for a few more months until I'm able to see how everything shakes out. What's one more year? I'll have a little more grey hair in my beard but whatever.
Beyond looking out for your next popup, how can our audience support some of the causes closest to you and your family?
I'd just point to what I said above. There are restaurants and owners and chefs doing some really good things right now for their communities and the industry as a whole right now, find them and support them. Get some teriyaki from your local shop, order noodles in the ID. Don't be an asshole to restaurant workers, stop using Yelp. Be kind, be gentle. Donate to the Northwest Bail Fund, your local food bank and RAICES. Just keep the faith.
Whenever we chat with chefs, we ask them to share a favorite recipe. Something our audience can try for themselves at home. Would you be open to sharing a recipe?
Yeah this is a recipe for Ribolitta - a traditional Italian bean stew. It's super delicious and comforting and you'll see it at our pop ups from time to time. It's vegetarian, like a lot of the food we serve for GPK, but you can easily make it vegan. I learned how to make it from Marco Canora when I worked at Hearth in NYC. Now's not really the time for soup but save it for the fall and winter, for all the parents out there, my kids love it and it's an easy way to get em to eat their veggies. I haven't recipe tested this version yet - I normally make it by adding a little bit of this and a little bit of that - so if you're having trouble or got questions feel free to slide into the DMs and I'll do my best to answer questions.