Besides being a mother, Ericka Burke is the owner and chef of Volunteer Park Café in Seattle, Washington. She uses locally grown (often from the garden behind the restaurant) and seasonal produce in her beloved pastries, sandwiches and other yummy meals. Once a month VPC holds a Sunday Supper where diners sit together and share a meal family-style. Ericka is all about creating a family-like setting and beautifully embodies the hostess.
Darling Magazine: What is the general vibe of Volunteer Park Cafe?
Ericka: VPC is a homey, community place; a place where you meet your neighbors, where the staff knows you by name. A restaurant where you feel equally comfortable with your kids or having an intimate dinner date.
DM: What would you say are the ingredients for a perfect meal?
Ericka: For MY perfect meal it’s a whole grilled fish with lemon, great olive oil, a loaf of crusty bread, and great company. Oh, and of course, wine.
DM: Was it important for you to have your own garden behind the restaurant?
Ericka: Yes! So important. It’s every chef’s dreams to have a garden to source from. To have the ability to walk to the back garden with my cooks and ask “What’s for dinner tonight?” is such a delight. The answer is always clear; we serve what’s flourishing in the garden. It challenges us to stay simple and rooted. Our cuisine is simple and not over-thought… what’s fresh = what’s delicious.
DM: How are you inspired by seasonal produce? Can you share a recipe involving your favorite in-season ingredient?
Ericka: I’m inspired by the natural and organic shapes of produce and their accompanying proteins… sounds corny, but I look at a beet or root vegetable and think how can I honor its natural shape and integrity and preserve it on the plate to really let the ingredient shine. A little sauce, some acidity to elevate the flavors, and we are good to go. I’ve included my recipe for Brussels Sprout Gratin – it is a cafe favorite! [See below for recipe.]
…I look at a beet or root vegetable and think how can I honor its natural shape and integrity and preserve it on the plate…
DM: Tell us a little about your Sunday Suppers and why you began them.
Ericka: Our Sunday Suppers were inspired by the cafe’s tiny kitchen and my need to bring people together around a table. We started off doing preciously plated wine dinners that were really challenging for our 100-square-foot kitchen. We could manage it and we loved it, but I thought we could bend the rules a bit. What about fun vintage “vessels” of food presented family style? A new way of sharing a meal… I am inspired by this way of dining. Guests get to share with each other, pass large bowls and plates of food, and engage in conversation. The experience is very participatory—and often people leave the dinners with new, unexpected friends. I love it!
DM: A little birdie told us that you started a scholarship for aspiring female culinary students. Can you give us some details?
Ericka: Les Dames d’Escoffier has a scholarship in my name for aspiring women chefs in Seattle. I am very honored that they included me.
DM: Your restaurant features delicious and fresh food – does your home menu reflect your work menu?
Ericka: Yes, fresh ingredients always, but I cook much more simply at home. I have a four year old and he loves “hot meat,” which usually translates to sausage or chicken on the bone with broccoli and carrots. Shellfish and whole fish are also big staples in our household.
Brussels Sprout Gratin
(Makes Six Side Dishes)
For Cheese Sauce:
1cup heavy cream
½ cup fontina, shredded
¼ cup parmesan
½ cup white cheddar
½ cup sour cream
2 teaspoon smoked paprika
Salt and pepper to taste
Directions for Cheese Sauce:
Place cream in a pot and place over medium heat. Add cheese and sour cream. Stir with a whisk to incorporate, and then lower the heat. You will want to stir often for about ten minutes to ensure that the cheese does not stick to the bottom of the pot. The sauce is done when all cheeses have melted and it has a smooth consistency.
Meanwhile, remove stems and halve the Brussels sprouts. Blanch Brussels sprouts in salted boiling water until tender, about three minutes. Strain and set aside.
2 pounds Brussels sprouts
½ cup cooked bacon, chopped
½ cup breadcrumbs
¾ cup smoked jack cheese, shredded (We like Campfire Jack from Mt. Townsend Creamery)
1 recipe Cheese Sauce (recipe follows)
Directions for Gratin:
Preheat oven to 400.
In a casserole dish (either individual or one large dish) ladle a thin layer of cheese sauce. Place the blanched Brussels sprouts, cut side down, in the casserole dish. Top with chopped bacon, smoked jack cheese, and remaining cheese sauce. Place in oven and cook. After 10 minutes pull the gratin out of oven and top with breadcrumbs and place back in the over for an additional two minutes.
Images via Ernie Sapiro and Geoffrey Smith.