The website dictionary.com defines family as follows: “any group of persons closely related by blood, as parents, children, uncles, aunts, and cousins.” It goes on to describe family as “a group of people who are generally not blood relations but who share common attitudes, interests, or goals and, frequently, live together.”
We have the family we are born with and the family that we choose, whether they be people that we have a common interest with, those we have a romantic connection to or those that we choose to spend our time with. For me, both sets of family are an important part of my daily life. Growing up in an Italian-Ukrainian household, a sense of family was important and most evident around the holidays. Food was an important aspect of my upbringing and holidays were the time both sets of family would unite for a big feast.
The thing that I remember most about these meals was that we rarely ate something that you would have at any other point during the year. Most of these meals were cooked by my immediate family and the dishes were elaborate, time consuming and delicious. I would count the days until dad was going to make his seafood salad (and looked forward to going to the fishmonger with him to pick everything up) or helping grandma make the pierogis and the smell in the kitchen when mom was browning the onions for hours for her French Onion soup. The memories are as much about the food as the time spent with those preparing it and those who we shared the meal with.
One of the things that differentiated Brimmer from most other restaurants right from their opening was the inclusion of Family Meal as a nightly special - you eat what the crew eats. It is offered daily at 5 pm until it runs out and is not printed on the menu. You never knew what it might be, well except for Sunday during the cooler months when ramen is offered and now during the summer months when it is cold soba noodles with tuna poke. The story behind Family Meal is one that is much more interesting than just the “special of the day.”
In preparation for writing this piece, I spent a week coming in the restaurant for Family Meal - some days it was enjoying the food as a customer with friends and family, others were the opportunity to see what family meal is from a crew perspective and one day it was getting it to go.
Sunday - Ramen by Mike: a big bowl of house noodles and broth with kimchi, soft egg yolk and pork belly
Monday - Pork Stir Fry with Rice by John: pork shoulder with onions over rice, similar to teriyaki but so much better
Wednesday - Smoked Pork Loin Salad by Dallas: grilled potatoes, pickled carrots, greens and mustard seeds
Thursday - Shepherd’s Pie by Chico: hearty without being too dense, topped with mashed potatoes and roasted cauliflower, giving it an extra layer of depth
Friday - Pork Sopes by Chico: orange braised pork, pinto and black beans, topped with a cabbage slaw and pickled mushrooms. I was skeptical about the mushrooms, but they added a nice acidic brightness and made me want to come back for more
Saturday - Biscuits and Gravy by Kai: a crispy but not overly dense biscuit with some of the best sausage gravy that I have ever had. I want this dish for breakfast every day.
Going into the restaurant to share Family Meal with the crew is a very different experience then going into the restaurant during service. Sure, there is last minute preparation going on but it is quieter, you don’t have the din of multiple tables of conversations taking place; but it really is the calm before the storm - there is always a lot to do and not a ton of time to do it before guests walk in the door.
The cooks take turns making family meal and are usually scheduled to each get one night a week. While the menu here tends to have an Asian tilt to it, the cooks are in no way constrained by that - they are allowed to put out whatever dish they want as long as they feel that the rest of the crew likes it and that, since it is going to be available to the public, it meets the same quality standards of anything else that leaves the kitchen. Because of the freedom that the cooks are given, you will see anything from lasagna to fried chicken or shrimp and grits. Family Meal truly provides three things –give the crew an opportunity to eat something filling to help them through a busy night; give both the front and back of the house a few minutes to relax and joke around right before service and give the culinary team an opportunity to showcase their talent.
The primary source of inspiration is the pantry at Brimmer, but they are in no way limited to that supply. While the cooks have access to a wide range of ingredients, they all seem to have a goal to make their dish from whatever is on hand, sort of like opening up your fridge and deciding to make dinner from what you see there. Once they have taken stock of what they have, they take inspiration from various places. Dallas took his inspiration for the smoked pork salad from the warm weather – he wanted to do something that was wasn’t heavy but was filling at the same time. Chico made a shepherd’s pie because they had recently butchered a side of beef and he decided that he would take the trim and grind it, utilizing leftover potatoes and cauliflower as the topping. Kai made “breakfast for dinner” with her biscuits and gravy.
When I asked John about how he came up with his stir-fry, he told me “You start simple and make it interesting.” It seemed to be a common theme among the cooks. Chico took his simple sopes and elevated it with pickled mushrooms. The rest of the dishes I had that week were elevated versions of familiar and comfortable flavors. Dallas tells me, “You are only as good as your last dish and a lot of thought goes into the process, everyone takes the preparation of family meal seriously.” John echoed those sentiments, adding, “It is a great opportunity to showcase your own take on a dish and some days it is stressful coming up with the dish, other days it is easy.” One thing that the cooks all seem to be in agreement on is that they try not to repeat a dish for Family Meal regardless of how successful it is, staying true to the Brimmer philosophy of not repeating menu items – once they are off, they may come back, but in a different form.
The real challenge for the cooks comes when they serve Family Meal to the rest of the crew. While the few minutes that they share together sitting down and eating involves much joke-cracking and humor, there is also a serious component to it – it is time for the front of the house to become acquainted with the dish and it is an opportunity for the cook who prepared it to get feedback. John tells me “It is a chance to fail, but in a good way.” His stir-fry dish was a good example of the collaboration involved. While the meal was delicious and well-received, John felt that something was missing from the dish. Being able to serve it to the rest of the team lead to a short but constructive conversation about what could be added to round out the plate. For the servers, it lets them know that Brimmer family cares about them and values their input. Miles, one of the bartenders, tells me that the variety offered as Family Meal is important because “you can get sick of eating the same food over and over at other places. It is nice to have a variety of dishes when you are working.” Meredith, one of the servers, echoed the sentiment, adding “You are more likely to push the dish when you really like it.” It is also an opportunity to impress their peers. When I asked the crew on one visit what their favorite family meal was, they almost unanimously told me it was Kai’s Scotch egg.
Family Meal is in most cases a dish that fits in well with the restaurants shareable plate concept and is a nice compliment to order as part of a meal. Sometimes it is a nice starter sized dish – like the smoked pork loin salad. Other times, it is a full blown entrée, like the ramen or the shepherd’s pie and is usually priced accordingly – $7 to $12.
Brimmer fits in with my personal philosophy of trying to support the Ballard community. It is a place that my wife and I frequent for a fun evening out sharing multiple plates of food and a couple local craft beers or some interesting cocktails from the bar. Because of the frequency that we visit Brimmer, we do run into the habit of ordering the same things, even when we try to mix up our choice. Family meal gives us an opportunity to add variety to what we are eating and a chance to try a new take on familiar things.
Family meal has also become part of my Thursday ritual - a night to hang out with friends and enjoy some tasty beverages at the multitude of breweries in Ballard. My friend David and I started going to Brimmer at the end of the night after hitting a few breweries because it gave us the opportunity to have some great food later in the evening. This ritual led to the appreciation of just how talented and creative the cooks at Brimmer can be. Sharing a great meal with good friends is something that I have always enjoyed and felt was an important part of my life. Being able to do it at Brimmer made the place feel less like a restaurant and more like sitting around a kitchen table and having someone’s mother make you food.
Eating Family Meal for a week was an interesting experience – it exposed me to what each member of the kitchen crew is capable of and give me great insight into the story behind what goes into this daily special. The next time that you come in, do yourself a favor and if it’s available, try it regardless of what it is. The cooks work very hard at what they do and really put themselves into what they are making, so take a leap and support them in their endeavor. You can give yourself the opportunity to find out more about the people who are cooking your food and you never know, you may find your new favorite dish and can then beg and plead with the crew to make it again at some point (Please bring back the biscuits and gravy, and the shrimp and grits, and the fried chicken, and the burger….you get the idea).
*Robert and his wife Cheryl are lovely neighbors who take pride in supporting local businesses. You can often find them at the farmers market, volunteering at the Woodland Park Zoo, testing new libations at a local brewery or winery, and cooking with friends.
The entire Brimmer & Heeltap crew would like to thank them for their sincere interest in our team and creations. We hope that you will cross paths with them on your own culinary adventures. You won’t regret it!