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Holiday memories with Von’s Missy Firnstahl | Islander shares Von’s restaurant and family secrets

Islander Missy Firnstahl adds syrup to Von’s deep dish maple butter cornbread. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
Islander Missy Firnstahl adds syrup to Von’s deep dish maple butter cornbread.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

It is always fun to learn who is the brains behind the brawn, and in this case it is Missy Firnstahl and her father, Tim Firnstahl, the proprietor of Von’s Grand City Cafe in Seattle. The Firnstahls, who live on Mercer Island, are descended from a German family of food vendors who immigrated to the United States as cheesemakers in 1920. Tim was born in Seattle in 1943 and attended the University of Santa Clara. He opened the extremely popular Jack O’Shauhnessy’s Restaurant with his partner, Mick McHugh, in 1975 in Seattle.

What are your family’s holiday traditions?

Firnstahl: “Christmas really centered on food, family and tradition growing up. Every year growing up, we would get our tree as a family and then my mom would always make my sisters and me hot cocoa with peppermint sticks while we trimmed the tree. Another tradition for our family is to collect clothes and toiletries for the homeless. On Christmas Eve, my sisters and cousins always get a bunch of sandwiches from Von’s and go down to the shelter in Seattle and pass out everything we collected over the season.

On Christmas Eve, we traditionally go to 5 p.m. Mass and then gather back at my mom’s house for a big Christmas dinner with my aunt, uncle and cousins. For dinner, we usually eat prime rib or fillets, Yorkshire puddings, rosemary garlic roasted potatoes and fresh lemon and olive oil asparagus, followed by my mom’s assortment of home-baked Christmas cookies. On Christmas morning, my immediate family wakes up to open presents while enjoying mimosas and my bother-in-law’s bakery’s (Sugee’s) famous coffee cake. After presents, we all sit down to an enormous brunch. We eat my mom’s sticky buns, candied bacon, baked eggs, homemade hot chocolate and a huge fruit platter. After that we are usually so tired that we stay in our PJ’s all day and nap.”

How did you get to where you are now?

Firnstahl: “I started as a host at the Kirkland Roaster in the summers in high school. It was there that I was trained as a server and retailer at Von’s on my summers off from college. I then entered business school in San Francisco. After business school, I tried working in retail, but always had an itch to go back to Seattle to work in the family business. My family has been in the food business for four generations; my great-grandpa ran Sunny Jim for 35 years in Colby, Wis.; my dad ran seven of them over the years. Therefore, I always felt the importance of honoring the American legacy in the food business. I called my dad up one day and voiced my interests and ideas shortly after I moved back to Seattle, and became the general manager at 29. I plan to stick with the family business and hopefully raise a family and become the district manager of my dad’s businesses, and grow the franchise.”

Firnstahl plans to keep Von’s business sustainable with the Wagering Wheel, which is spun all day, every day, at any time (Happy Hour runs all day long). It has drink specials that start at $1.50 for a house rum and coke, and $3.50 for a cosmos. Von’s also has the largest collection of spirits in Seattle, which is growing every week.

“Some of the most popular dishes from my parents’ home and Von’s Restaurant are cornbread, garlic mashed potatoes, roasted chicken and simple green beans. They were the best of comfort food,” said Firnstahl. “We are also working on creating a depression comfort food menu, featuring depression prices. Finally, we are emphasizing more that we are the only American roast house in the city of Seattle.”

http://vonsgrandcitycafe.com

VON’S GARLIC MASHED POTATOES

2 lbs. red potatoes

1/2 cup butter

1/4 tsp. garlic

Salt and pepper for seasoning

Bring water to a boil and add potatoes. Cook for 30 minutes or until tender. While potatoes are cooking, heat butter and milk in a saucepan over low heat until butter melts. Strain products and place in a mixing bowl. Add melted butter mixture, salt, white pepper and garlic to potatoes. Mix on medium speed for 2 minutes or until smooth. Goal: smooth potatoes with no lumps and not larger than 1/4 inch.

“A lot of dishes are very complicated for our roasting process, but my dad and I have thought of three dishes that are fabulous and are easy to make at home, such as roasted chicken, cornbread or garlic mashed potatoes,” Firnstahl said.

VON’S FAMOUS $3.50 MANHATTEN

2 shots of bourbon

Splash of sweet vermouth

A drop of bitters

Cherry

Shake (never stir) the bourbon and sweet vermouth. Drop the bitters into a chilled martini glass and pour bourbon into the glass. Garnish with a cherry.

VON’S TWO-DAY HERB CHICKEN

Selecting a fresh chicken is not unlike selecting fresh fish. It should “squeak” when rubbed and should have a pleasant, clean aroma — never “poultry-like.”

Fresh lemon juice, 1 lemon — do not use reconstituted lemon juice. Squeeze your own.

Rind of 1 lemon — reserve the lemon rind after squeezing. This goes into the chicken cavity where the lemon oil from the skin is released during roasting.

¼ cup olive oil — do not use extra virgin. It is too expensive and you want plenty of olive oil flavors, which less expensive oil has.

Fresh garlic, 8 cloves

2 tsps. whole basil — prized for its clean flavor and licorice overtones.

2 tsps. whole thyme

1 tsp. Diamond kosher salt

1 tsp. brown sugar — this adds a hint of molasses and serves as a palate counterpoint to the lemon juice.

1/8 tsp. fresh ground pepper

Plastic produce bag

Smoker/barbecue — Use a Weber and any BBQ that has a lid. A large habachi with a lid is ideal.

1 bag charcoal

1/2 cup Grand Roaster fruitwood chips — fruitwood imparts the most delicious and attractive flavor to poultry.

1 cup water — mixed with fruitwood chips, it causes them to smoke when burned, thus producing their rich, full flavor.

Garlic powder and onion powder, 1 tsp. each

DAY ONE: Mix chips, water, garlic powder and onion powder. Cover and let sit. Combine the lemon juice, olive juice, garlic, basil, thyme, brown sugar, salt and pepper in a blender and blend until the mixture is smooth, about one minute. Brush the chicken liberally, including the cavity. Put the reserved lemon rind in the cavity. Then put the seasoned chicken into the plastic produce bag, tie the end and refrigerate.

DAY TWO: Light charcoal. Just before cooking, drain the fruitwood chips and place on well-lit coals. Remove the chicken from the bag. Squeeze out from bag, pastry style, any remaining herb seasoning and brush this over the chicken. Roast the chicken at 350 to 400 degrees on smoker/BBQ with lid on for 1 to 1 1/2 hours or until the hip joints reach 165 degrees.

One fresh chicken: 1 tsp. each of garlic and onion seasoning; plate with garlic mashed potatoes, cornbread and green beans.

In the style of world-class barbecue artists, adding onion and garlic to the smoking fuel imparts to the chicken. Try this method in all your barbecuing and enjoy its delicious results.

DEEP DISH MAPLE BUTTER CORNBREAD

1 box Krusteaz Honey Cornbread (15 oz. box)

1/2 cup genuine maple syrup

1/2 cup melted butter

1/2 cup corn

1 egg

1/2 cup buttermilk

Grind of nutmeg

Mix all ingredients together (do not overmix). Lumps are OK. Bake at 375 for 30 minutes in a floured 8-by-8-inch pan.

Eileen Mintz can be reached by calling 232-1984 or by e-mail at eileenmintz@comcast.net.

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