Arts Editor’s note: This is the first installment in a new series for The Beachcomber, where we hear from island chefs, in their own words, about how their restaurants have fared in the era of take-out only, and their ideas and plans for the coming weeks. This week, we asked questions of Chef Lia Lira, of Bramble House, a veteran of Michelin-starred kitchens who brought her cuisine to Vashon in 2016.
What’s on offer at Bramble House now?
Lia Lira: As soon as all of this started getting serious, I began thinking about how we would react. It was important to me to stay open — as long as it felt safe for my staff and our guests — and be part of our community during this stressful time. We started with a three-course prix fixe menu and some a la carte options, as well as “make at home” food like fresh pasta, housemade sauces and harder-to-find ingredients. Since then we’ve been able to add on a Dinner for Two meal that is $60 and changes weekly. If anyone wants to see what we’re offering, we always have the most current menu on our website at bramblevashon.com. While you’re there, sign up for our newsletter!
Tell us about your staff.
Lira: We are super lucky with staff. After a brief break, we have managed to hire almost all our staff back — one person declined for quarantine reasons. So that makes seven of us. Our staff is a great mix of ages and experiences, although I’m by far the oldest, having just turned 41 in April! It’s been great working together during this time. Not only do we love what we do, but it’s also so nice to see each other and talk about all of our experiences during this time.
Tell us more about your free lunches for the community.
Lira: We’re putting up free lunches every day we’re open, which is Wednesday through Sunday, from 11 a.m to 1 p.m. They aren’t fancy, but they are full of food and I’m making homemade chocolate chip cookies for them! I keep the door propped open so it’s safe and clean, no one has to touch anything (except their lunch) or worry about exposure. The idea is that anyone who needs some support with food right now can come in and get whatever they need. There’s no paperwork, no explanation, nothing to do to qualify. If you need lunch, just come and get one. The demand has gone up as people learn about it — currently, I make a whole bunch each day and then make more to order if we run out. I plan to continue as long as possible. In addition to the generous donor who started it all, a handful of other locals have donated to the cause, so we’re still going strong. Food security is such an important issue in the U.S., and it’s only been exacerbated by the pandemic, so I feel really lucky to be able to contribute to an issue I deeply care about, even if it’s only in a small way.
Where do you source your ingredients? Has this changed?
Lira: We source locally when possible, but we also feature some ingredients from outside the Pacific Northwest. Being on Vashon, we’re blessed with an abundance of local farms, so as much as possible we let their fresh sheets inform the Dinner for Two each week. Using our local producers is even more important now that many farmer’s markets have been put on hold, as that’s where they usually do the bulk of their business. Some of the smaller companies I use had to close temporarily, but happily, all of them have reopened, so I’m still able to get responsibly caught seafood and sustainably raised meat. This is so important — not only is it what I’m committed to serving, but it’s also critical to be able to continue supporting the fisherman, foragers and ranchers. Restaurants have definitely been hurt by the pandemic, but there’s a whole ecosystem of suppliers behind the scenes that are suffering too.
What are your own memories of a favorite take-out meal?
Lira: I don’t know if I should give this away because it’s going to be a Dinner for Two soon, but when I lived in Mexico I loved getting a taquiza. Basically, it’s a take-home taco party. You choose a couple of meat options and it comes with all the fixings: tortillas, radish, lime, a few kinds of salsa, pickles…it’s both delicious and fun. I’m trying to figure out how we can do it here; we all need a taco party, right?
What’s your current favorite thing to cook for yourself?
Lira: The sad truth is that I don’t cook much for myself, and when I do it’s defined by the lack of fanciness! There tends to be a lot of toast and cold cereal. But lately, I think I’ve been in need of comfort food, so I’ve been finding different packaged ramen at Uwajimaya when I’m out on errands. My partner and I were in Japan right as this was breaking, so we spent a lot of mornings eating instant ramen (which is really, really good over there!) and obsessively reading news from back home. Now, it’s become a proper obsession. We’ve tried making our own dashi base or using our roasted chicken stock, which makes it hearty and rich. We’ve also been going nuts with the add-ons: fistfuls of local spinach, six-minute soft-boiled eggs, braised shitakes, homemade chili oil and other treats.
What makes you happy when you are cooking?
Lira: Oh, that’s a hard one. I think the very act of cooking makes me happy. The technique and magic of it, the ways different ingredients behave and smell as they move from raw to cooked, the process of taking disparate items and making them into a cohesive dish. Of course, there’s also knowing people want to eat the food; preparing something you know will be exciting and new for them is so rewarding. I guess all of it makes me happy in different ways?
Will you share one secret ingredient or simple cooking tip?
Lira: Make sure you’re seasoning while you cook. For example, when I make our Bolognese sauce, I season the vegetables as I sweat them out to bring out the moisture and enhance their taste, then I season again when I add the cooked meat and white wine and finally when it’s all done reducing, I double-check and add a bit more to bring out all the flavors.
What keeps you going in this era of take-out only?
Lira: When you’re presented with a new situation — one that’s not optional — it seems like the best choice is to address it as an opportunity to try out ideas. We started slowly so we could get the hang of to-go and delivery, but have been experimenting with new ideas as we get more comfortable. There’s the Dinner for Two, and this week we’re launching our “Case by Case” deal, which is a takeaway version of happy hour. From 4 to 6 p.m. every Wednesday through Sunday, guests can order a bottle of our featured wine with small bites for two people for $25. As the name implies, we buy one case and when it’s gone, it’s gone! Each bottle is something we think is really unique and interesting, and then we create a snack that will pair perfectly with it. I’ve been having fun coming up with pairings and think people are really going to enjoy the experience of “going out” in their own home, especially as the weather clears up.
What are your hopes and dreams for Vashon, as the community navigates this time?
Lira: On a personal level, I think we’ve already achieved them, honestly. The island is so good at banding together and helping those in need, both through non-profits and individual action. I’ve felt reassured by how everyone has reacted responsibly to the danger and has made the right choices to protect our community, especially since we have a large number of elderly folks. On a professional level, I think the pandemic has shown how resourceful and resilient our island businesses are, and I’m proud to be part of the team. Without being negative, I don’t believe that we will return to “normal” — but I do know that we will all find a way to navigate this new world and continue innovating and providing critical services as we go. So I encourage all our residents to consider calling us local small businesses when you’re in need – we’ve been here through it all and will continue as long as you’ll have us!
For Bramble House’s current menu, visit bramblevashon.com.