Chef Garrett Doherty talks about his experience cooking Sichuan cuisine at Lionhead.

By Tiffany Ran
March 27, 2018

Chef Garrett Doherty devoted a portion of his early career to fine dining working at the W Hotel and acting as the head chef of private dining club The Ruins. He made his mark in the local food scene with pan-Asian comforts like Kraken Congee which grew quickly from prolific pop ups to brick and mortar after the founding members won a restaurant partnership with Chef Tim Love on CNBC’s Restaurant Startup.

When Kraken Congee closed last August, Seattle mourned the loss Garrett Doherty’s congee and pan-Asian bar snacks. More recently, Doherty landed at Chef Jerry Traunfeld’s Lionhead, the Capitol Hill sister restaurant to nearby Poppy. At Lionhead, Doherty is diving deep into the cuisine of China’s Sichuan province.

Garrett Doherty. Photo courtesy of Sam Le.

How has taking up Szechuan cuisine been different from what you’ve known or done before?

I have a small background on Chinese cooking, but it was more of a mixed Asian background so focusing exclusively on Szechuan cooking is new to me. The techniques in the kitchen are similar so picking those up and working more on the wok helps with being able to break down dishes so that I could put different things on the menu. I’m also learning about different ingredients like dou ban jian (chili bean sauce), chili oils, mature vinegars that I didn’t have access to before. Learning these new flavors is really cool.

Have you encountered anything surprising about Szechuan cuisine that you did not know or expect?

The amount of dou ban jiang that goes into everything, the spice level, and the numbness too. When I had any Szechuan prior to this experience, it has always been in a Chinese restaurant that serves everything. It might not necessarily be the most authentic restaurant dish. Being able to have more authentic dishes and being able to taste the levels of flavors with the spice, the numbness paired with the earthiness of the food, has been a great experience.

What is the process like in developing new dishes and what have you introduced to the menu since you started?

We’ve added traditional things like steamed trout and rice cake dishes. I have a rice cake dish on the menu more similar to ones I’ve seen during my research. Right now, I’m putting on more things that I like. Things like offal that I’ve always played with prior to this. I put on a pig ear terrine on the menu that I thought was pretty cool. We had crab for Christmas and we played with different dumplings. My sous chef Michael Massaro came up with a smoked bamboo dumpling and I thought it was pretty good.

I go to Dong Hing three times a week now. That’s one thing that’s different. I walk around there, find something, bring it back to the restaurant and I play with it. It’s allowing my kitchen staff to go through something they’re not used to. I’d say we’re doing a really good job of representing what Jerry wants and representing Szechuan cooking. I know that there are stigmas and negative discussions about ethnic food and who is cooking it, but I feel like we’re representing it well.

Photo courtesy of Sam Le.

Any new dishes in the back of your mind that hasn’t made it onto the menu yet?

Have you been to Szechuan Fish? [He references the local restaurant’s signature dish, a spicy bubbling fish hot pot covered in chilies.] My team and I went there and it was great. The presentation was awesome. I want to do one of those at the table! I thought that would be a great idea, even if we just do it one night. We got Chinese donuts. There were all these different things. Seeing that as a chef, or at least for me, that immediately sparked ideas.

I used to see your family around Kraken often. How do they feel about eating Chinese food more often now?

My daughter, eating noodles and dumplings is her deal. They order the wontons and the dumplings every time they come. My wife loves the MaPo tofu. That’s actually the dish I used to make her when we first met. That was the dish I used to impress her. It’s funny now that seventeen years later I’m making it every day at work.

Kraken Congee’s closing came as a surprise to many of us. Do you plan to revisit Kraken at some point in the future and do you have other pop ups in the works?

I am no longer part of what was Kraken Congee, however, that is not to say that I’m not interested in pursuing other avenues and pop-ups. I have a simple congee dish on the menu at Lionhead and I hope to launch a new pop-up series called Recess: A Pop-Up sometime in early Spring. I’m also still interested in highlighting Filipino flavors and food, so that may come back to life in the pop-ups as well.