Rediscovering Vashon’s restaurants, reinvented

Food is life. It took 71 days for me to learn that, fully.

Elizabeth Shepherd

Elizabeth Shepherd

And then there was the time I didn’t eat restaurant food for 71 days.

During this same time period, I also did not take a ferry, socialize with friends, or go to the office. For the first time in my life, I was on unemployment.

But out of all these things, one of the most strange was not going to restaurants. I can’t remember a time that I haven’t — not once but several times a week — eaten food cooked by professionals.

And then I did, and it tasted like a dream.

Let me backtrack, to the first days of March, when I sat down in a booth near the bar with my husband and friend at an island bistro, beautifully named The Ruby Brink, and we ordered drinks and dinner.

I wish I could remember what I ate, but so much has happened since then.

It might have been a pork sausage tucked inside a perfect bun. It was not the Meat and Noodle soup — my friend had that, and I didn’t ask for a taste of it. We were all feeling nervous by then and sharing food seemed suddenly and completely out of the question.

In any case, the meal was top-notch, because The Ruby Brink is an excellent restaurant. And then we walked out of the place, into the future.

My husband and I started cooking at home every night. Like so many others, he learned to bake bread. He also upped his Kombucha-making game, just to prove a point.

Then shopping became more difficult, and every meal started feeling more like a feast after a dangerous hunt. We prowled farm stands, made masked strikes on Minglement and Harbor Mercantile, learned how to manage curbside pickup at the IGA and foraged nettles in our own backyard.

Cheesy lasagnas were made, garden burgers were grilled, big fat potatoes were baked, and bean soup bubbled. It went on and on.

My 21-year-old twins, who are quarantined together in Kalamazoo, Michigan, have been cooking, too. Nightly, we text each other photos of our plates. We snap the photos before each meal, like a prayer.

And then last week, my friend — the same one I’d gone to Ruby Brink with on that long-ago night and only seen once more after that — called me on the phone. I love phone calls now, don’t you?

She told me that over the weekend, she wanted to bring us a take-out meal from Gravy, another great island restaurant. The menu? Chef Aaron Willis, of The Generous Chef, was collaborating with the eatery to offer up a Balinese fried chicken dinner.

Fried chicken! We’ve eaten chicken twice in all this time, hearty but slightly odd dishes concocted by me from boneless, skinless breasts that were stashed in a corner of our freezer. Now, we were suddenly headed to Bali to eat a much better bird.

And like any addict, I suddenly couldn’t wait any longer. The day before our dinner from Gravy, I drove to Snapdragon and picked up a box of pastries made by master baker Adam Cone.

When I walked in the door of Snapdragon, I burst into tears.

And when I opened the pink bakery box, back at home, I thought the ridiculously oversized cookie, the sugar-topped blueberry muffin, the flaky Danish, the rhubarb-studded scone and the sticky cinnamon bun inside would last forever. They were almost gone by the time my friend pulled up the next day, with the boxed food from Gravy.

What a masterpiece that meal was. Between bites, I tried to imagine the careful preparations that had gone into the delicately spiced, crispy-skinned chicken, tomato and carrot-laced coleslaw and perfect yellow rice. The meal had three dipping sauces — three! — each more flavorful than the next. Oh! And there were savory rice cakes on the side, one pink, one green, one dotted with seeds and the color of perfect toast.

After the meal, I called Pepa Brower, who co-owns Gravy with her husband, Dre Neeley, the restaurant’s celebrated chef. I raved about the food. And then Pepa told me that Dre has an autoimmune condition that puts him at extremely high risk for the coronavirus. And so, because of his need for continued quarantine, Gravy is moving to a co-op model, but with Dre still exerting complete curatorial control over the food created by chefs like Willis. He is still the man behind the curtain of each delicious meal. He just can’t be around people right now.

Knowing the courage, tenacity and collaborative spirit behind the fact that Gravy is open for take-out again — just on the weekends for now — made me tear up again when I hung up the phone.

Returning now to The Beachcomber, I commit to covering the culinary arts, profiling the endlessly creative people inside our local eateries. We start this week, because food is life. It took 71 days for me to learn that, fully.

— For a complete directory of places to find food and beverages to go, visit vashonevents.org/togo.


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