Chef embraces ‘slow food’ philosophy

Brian Bligh, a Mercer Island native, is a chef in Berkeley, Calif. where he works at Chez Panisse, a top restaurant. - Contributed photo
Brian Bligh, a Mercer Island native, is a chef in Berkeley, Calif. where he works at Chez Panisse, a top restaurant.
— image credit: Contributed photo

When Brian Bligh graduated from Boston College with a degree in finance in 2003, something didn’t feel right.

So he took off for Sun Valley, Idaho, moving in with some college buddies for three years to ski. Yet he found his new passion.

“I was working at a really busy restaurant bartending and serving,” Bligh said. “That got the bug into me.”

Now he works at Chez Panisse in Berkeley, CA., winner of a Lifetime Achievement Award, Restaurant magazine’s World’s 50 Best Restaurant list in 2007, the 2006 Force for Nature Award, Natural Resources Defense Council, 2004 and Best Restaurant in America, Gourmet magazine, 2001 to name a few.

But this certainly didn’t happen overnight. After Sun Valley, he returned to Seattle to try to put his finance degree to work, while helping out a “really good” catering chef.

“I did a lot of reflection, I reevaluated my life, and I went back to Sun Valley to follow my passion of cooking, and got my first line cooking job,” Bligh said.

In 2007 at age 25, he was accepted at the Culinary Institute of America in New York, the number one cooking school in America, graduating top of his class. Meeting the right people along the way who were into the slow food movement, developed by Alice Waters, the owner of Chez Panisse, Brian was able to get an internship at the restaurant.

“I love getting people together,” Bligh said. “Everything (at Chez Panisse) revolves around sharing and enjoying honest food. I really hit it off there.”

Water’s restaurant is famous for its organic, locally-grown ingredients and for pioneering California cuisine. As Bligh put it, everything is fresh from the garden. He holds high-esteem for Waters, who opened the restaurant in 1971 and is one of the most influential figures in food in the past 50 years, referred to as the mother of American food.

She is a pioneer in the organic food movement, and has been a proponent of organics for over 40 years. She is currently one of the most visible supporters of the organic food movement.

During his internship at Chez Panisse he mentored under Jean Pierre Moulee. Bligh then spent some time cooking in France with Moulee, before heading off to the American Academy in Rome, a fine arts and humanities school founded in 1894. Bligh was sent to cook under a program developed by Waters along with two other chefs from Chez Panisse. It seems the food was dreadful for such a fine institution, so the chefs from Chez Panisse turned it around to a healthy, palatable menu.

“I was never paid in Europe, but that was part of the sacrifice to get noticed” Bligh said.

He also worked with a butcher in Florence, Italy where he learned to butcher whole animals. All told, he learned much during his year and a half in Europe, and toward the end he got word that he’d been hired for real at Chez Panisse in spring of 2010.

“I’m the grill chef,” he said. “For the path for me, it’s perfect. We don’t use recipes, we let our palate guide us. Ingredients are always seasonal, local, organic, fair and honest. Alice created this movement – things are rustic.”

Still single, humble and now 30, Bligh considers himself a cook, not a chef. Best of all, Seattle is on his radar someday to open his own restaurant.


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