SoundBites: An Interview with Abigael Birrell of Doe Bay Café

Doe Bay Fest (DBF) is less than a week away and while many excited ticket-holding folks are plotting every snack and meal they’re gonna cook, I’m looking forward to a little gourmet, too. Barbecue has its charms and jerky is tasty and all, but I’m really not a great camper and when there’s an option for local clams from Buck Bay in a lovely white wine broth… well, let’s just say I may (wait for it–and apologies in advance) shell out. In addition to locally sourced shell/straight-up fish, the Doe Bay Café also features produce from their own garden and other farms on the island. Although there’s no meat (stay with me now/go eat that jerky), the Cafe serves vegetarian sausage at breakfast (normally just that concept would make me hateful, but it’s so good) and the food is made with such care, you don’t feel like you’re missing anything.

Abigael Birrell

Chef Abigael Birrell photo courtesy Doe Bay Resort

On a visit to the Resort in January, I sat down with Chef Abigael Birrell to talk about being a chef on an island, vegetarianism and cooking at the most popular music festival around.

This is the first interview I’ve done for this new series so I’ll just start off with a simple question. How do you see the interaction between food and music in your own experience?
Well, when I was doing orders this morning, I saw something on the Huffington Post about how Heston Blumenthal [of The Fat Duck in England] was studying how sound affects taste. They gave guests mini iPods inside of shells at the table with sea sounds coming from them. The guests reported that the food tasted brinier, more reminiscent of the sea (than usual).

How does this impact your own ideas of integrating music into food?
It would be interesting to do tasting dinners with downloadable soundtracks. Prix fixe would be the easiest way to handle timing and the soundtrack would be more like noises—not like a mixtape. It’s hard to tell how music affects people, if there would be a universal effect in the direction desired. Noises are more easily controllable.

Artists play at the Café on weekends during the year. Are people always excited to have a free concert happening while they’re eating?
Sometimes. But sometimes older couples really just want to eat and focus on the nice meal, so it can be a little awkward. But the music isn’t super loud and I think having artists play here on the weekends is definitely a gift for the island. We also have Monday movies, author readings–it’s much more than just a restaurant.

What about the open mics that happen each week? How does that work out for you?
If someone is playing Van Morrison at open mic, it is like instant death. I just loathe it. There’s not a lot to do on the island. It’s kind of a Cheers environment. You see the same faces. I don’t work that often anymore on open mic nights, but I remember some people were amazing and sometimes it was eight-year-olds singing, like “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.”

What music do you like to listen to?
We listen to music when we prep, but in a closed kitchen it’s a lot easier—I prefer to listen to punk rock, really loudly. Because the Café has an open kitchen, there’s a sadness in that we can’t turn on really nasty hip hop or death metal loudly because families are walking through. My musical tastes are out of line with the staff—they listen to Phish, Grateful Dead… I like Trampled by Turtles okay and can get with the bluegrass. I prefer ‘80s hardcore punk: Guns N’ WankersFugazi is cool; I like gypsy music, like Balkan Beat Box; Taraf de Haidouks has wild abandonment in his music. I hate noodling in music.

Kris Orlowski at Doe Bay Cafe

Kris Orlowski performs at Doe Bay Cafe

What are some of the differences between cooking during the rest of the year and cooking during Doe Bay Fest?
The menu during the Fest is different than it is during the rest of the year. There are completely different dining trends with the people who come up during Doe Bay Fest. Like duck eggs—we sell a ton of them during DBF but we won’t normally sell them to anyone over 35, for the most part.

It’s great that you have a built-in dining crowd during the festival but I’m sure there are lots of challenges with cooking for a thousand. What are some of them?
The Fest is insane. August is already a long day, so having the kind of crowds we get during DBF is intense. We try to keep the attitude that it’s an adventure. It’s hard because the Café is so small and it can never accommodate the crowds that show up during that weekend—people don’t see it at its best during Doe Bay Fest. Most of the time, people come to the Café because of the food. At DBF, it’s not about the food, and that can be slightly challenging.

How has Doe Bay Fest changed crowd-wise over the years?
The first year of the Fest, it was a totally different crowd—it was kind of fratty. But the music has changed over the years and the crowd changed—it became younger, more hipster-ish.

You guys are probably too slammed to break away, but are there any bands you wish you could have seen at the Festival last year?
We usually don’t get to see any of the bands, but it would have been cool to see Sallie Ford & the Sound Outside last year.

The Café serves pescatarian food and you’re a vegetarian. Can you talk a little about that?
Well, I’ve been a vegetarian since I was four. I grew up in Topeka and when I was a kid, I heard a talk from a Professor at University of Kansas about deforestation in South America due to McDonald’s. And even then, something just clicked. I went to school at The Natural Gourmet in New York, which is a vegetarian culinary school.

You came to Orcas Island from New York. How did that happen?
Well, I went to Seattle first but that wasn’t enough of a transition from being in New York. Doe Bay was a raw space when I got here four years ago. I had never worked at a place that wasn’t established.

What is the biggest challenge of living on an island?
You can’t go out to eat all the time. When I go back to visit New York, I eat a lot. The creative process should be a dialogue. To make something great in a remote environment is so much more generous [than cooking in a town full of other great restaurants]. Orcas is not a culinary destination—people on the island don’t eat out as much as people in the city. Another challenge is that you have to pay the prices of local farmers.

You have a pretty small menu but there seem to be options for everyone. How do you choose what to serve?
I order whatever seems interesting and creative. There are obligatory crowd-pleasers on menus at most restaurants, but Doe Bay doesn’t have to do that—it is definitely a niche restaurant. We use simple ingredients here. It seems silly to do overly constructed food. It’s not the vibe of the Resort. I also do a walk through with the head gardener [at the Doe Bay garden] once a week.

Is there a food community in a non-traditional sense on Orcas?
I would say so. I’ve had to create connections on the island because Joe [Brotherton] isn’t on the island full time, which makes people think of him as not an islander. I’ve created connections with regulars, purveyors, community, and I do demos at farmers markets. I’ve had to push for everything because I’m serious about making great food. It’s funny, because when I’m hanging out at parties, people ask me what to buy.

Let’s talk a little about where you like to eat when you’re not on the island.
One of my favorite restaurants is Kabab Café in Queens. The Egyptian chef, Ali, makes corn and tomato crepes, fried kale, stewed eggplants, etc. There is no menu, just beautiful things. In Portland, I like Pok Pok. I like Ethiopian food a lot, too. When I was growing up, I had a lot of Sierra Leonean food nights; I was born in the U.S., but conceived in Sierra Leone.

What chefs and restaurants do you like in Seattle and which ones do you think miss the mark?
I like El Quetzal a lot. I used to live right by there [in the Rainier Valley]. As far as chefs, I like Maria Hines at Tilth. I loved Christina Choi from Nettletown [who passed away unexpectedly last year]; I totally had a culinary crush on her. She wasn’t showy, her food was comforting, quiet and nourishing and good. I was slightly disappointed by The Herbfarm. The service was kind, but it was very touristy. Part way through the meal, they were like “Here’s a bucket. You can go feed the pigs,” which seems so inauthentic to me.

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Word on the street is Chef Abigael will be departing the island come October, so Doe Bay Fest is a great opportunity to taste the simple, perfect food she makes. If you don’t have a ticket for DBF or you want to taste Birrell’s food without a thousand people trying to take your table, here’s the Café schedule. And speaking of crowds, are you gonna finish that?

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