Why Local Chef Greg Atkinson Almost Traded The Pan For The Pen

Feb 10, 2014

In hindsight, Greg Atkinson was destined for a life in and around the kitchen, but he didn’t necessarily predict that for himself.

Throughout his life, he felt conflicted by the lure of the kitchen and his preconceived career goals, but eventually, he found a way to blend the two together.

‘Where I Felt Confident’

Atkinson grew up in suburban Florida, the youngest of six children. His mother tired of making after-school snacks so she stocked the kitchen with supplies and told the children: “There’s a cook book, you know how to read.”

Though the youngest, Atkinson took to the task. “It was one of the few areas of my family life where I felt confident — in the kitchen,” he said.

He impressed his family, which they expressed with good-natured criticism. “They were brutal,” Atkinson laughed. “There was a running joke in the family that something I would make from scratch would be, ‘Gosh, this is almost as good as store-bought.’”

After his early days in the kitchen, Atkinson attended Goddard College and went to work in the kitchen where he learned a valuable lesson from a blind cook: always put your utensils back in the same place so you can be sure and find them quickly when you need them.

From there, he moved to the Northwest to attend Western Washington University. Post college, he was facing a bleak job market in his new hometown of Friday Harbor. He never wanted to cook for a living, but there were no jobs. An opening came up at a new restaurant called Café Bisset. Reluctantly he went back into the kitchen.

“I was pretty adamant that I would not make a career in food. I was going to school to get out of cooking,” Atkinson said. “It’s funny how I fought it.”

He said that one brilliant waitress cleared everything up for him with three simple words: write about food.

Crafting A Cuisine And A Voice

It was an opportune moment to be a chef in the Northwest. Atkinson got drawn into food by seeking out local farmers to provide fresh ingredients for the dishes he was preparing.

By now it was the mid-1980s and along with like-minded chefs, including Kathy Casey and Tom Douglas, Atkinson helped pioneer a new movement in local food. “There was a conscious and deliberate effort by cooks in the Northwest to craft a Pacific Northwest cuisine,” Atkinson said.

At the same time, he began writing about food for a local paper. These columns led to a 1997 collection called “In Season,” which has just been updated and reissued by Sasquatch Press. It included not just recipes, but subjective musings about the touch and feel of food and where it came from.

The tension between work in the kitchen and work with a pen was still a battle for him though. “In my mind I was always afraid that I couldn’t be a real chef if I was also a writer, and I couldn’t be a real writer if I was also a chef,” Atkinson said. “I’m pretty much over that.”

Atkinson continued his dual career as chef and writer. In 2000, he received the MFK Fisher Distinguished Writing Award by the James Beard Foundation for an article he wrote titled, "Diary of a Stagiaire." A stagiaire is a cook who works briefly, for free, in another chef's kitchen. He described his own personal experience apprenticing in New York City restaurants. 

The award was a full-circle moment for him: Readers had pointed out the similarities in his approach to writing about food to the work of MFK Fisher. He had a chance to visit her before her death in 1992 and said she inspired him to write more.

Taking The Risk

Over time, Atkinson accepted the path that his career had taken him, which he had resisted to varying degrees since that first job in a kitchen after graduating college. “I stopped trying to satisfy some imaginary command as a kid to have a white-collar job — after all, chefs wear white too!” he said.

Atkinson was executive chef at Canlis, a Seattle landmark of fine dining, for seven years. He had a distinguished writing career and had worked as chief instructor at the Seattle Culinary Academy of Seattle Central Community College. But there was one food experience he hadn’t tackled yet: open his own restaurant.

Restaurant Marché on Bainbridge Island officially opened its doors on March 17, 2012, with Atkinson at the helm.

He lost 25 pounds during the first three months of operating the restaurant because of the intense physical labor, but he said it restored his youth.

Today, Atkinson said he’s making his sales goals, even if he isn’t yet paying back investors. Critics are taking note, listing the restaurant on top lists and writing favorable reviews.

“We are making our customers very happy,” he said.