An Evening at On the Boards Studio Supper with Harry's Fine Foods
On Wednesday 3 May 2017, I read in The Stranger’s events calendar that Harry’s Fine Foods was preparing the meal for an On the Boards Studio Supper on Thursday. Fifty guests, a family style meal, theater, and philanthropy. I was curious about the event, and I thought it might make for a good visual story. I sent Harry’s Fine Foods a note asking if I could tag along, take photos, and post about it on my blog. Harry’s Fine Foods said sure, come along. (I should note that I eat at Harry’s Fine Foods fairly often, and I’m a fan. Try the porridge.)
On Thursday afternoon I walked over to Harry’s Fine Foods. I was hoping for some organized kitchen chaos, pots and pans clanging, stovetop flames roaring, and frenzied calls for “olive oil and garlic, stat!” I was in for my only disappointment of the day. Harry’s Fine Foods was the picture of calm. I got there at about 1430. The kitchen crew was tending to the final preparations, seeing to restaurant customers, discussing shift schedules, and comparing weekend plans. Disappointing, but not surprising. Julian Hagood and crew are experienced chefs and caterers; preparing a meal for 50 people apparently does not stress them out.
I took advantage of the calm and grabbed some shots inside. I liked this place the moment I saw it. An old corner market that was renovated and repurposed as a neighborhood restaurant. I think the last things I ever built with my own hands included Legos and an Erector Set. (I fielded an awesome Pinewood Derby Car once, but my father, an aeronautical engineer, had a crucial “advisory” role.) I’ve always admired people who can build things, and the team behind Harry’s Fine Foods put in a lot of work to make their place welcoming and functional, while retaining that neighborhood feel of the previous occupant.
The interior is one of those places that on paper might seem small, but in person, it feels spacious and open, even when busy. There are loads of windows, rustic farmhouse tables, a small bar, and a patio that is surely the envy of other neighborhood restaurants. But it’s the red, vintage refrigerator I like best. I watched as Shannon wrestled briefly with it to secure a latch, but I think that only added to its character. Just a little grumpy. It has earned it.
Julian and Shannon headed over to On the Boards in Lower Queen Anne at about 1600. I walked home, downloaded the first batch of photos, topped off some batteries, narrowly avoided an intense lightning storm, and then went to join them.
It was my first time at On the Boards. The staff, most of whom are volunteers I think, were friendly and laid-back. Given how quickly we’d arranged this, I anticipated having to explain why I was there with a camera. Wrong. “You’re Scott? Good to have you here, Julian and Shannon are back in the kitchen.” I’ve been in Seattle about 9 months now, and I think the Seattle Freeze is exaggerated. (The rain is not.)
For the next couple of hours I watched as Julian, Shannon, and the OTB team prepared for the arrival of the guests. The calm continued. Julian, Shannon, and the OTBers were constantly in motion, but it wasn’t hectic or dramatic. The kitchen area was not big, and I assumed that occasionally I’d see Julian and Shannon stepping over one another or getting at least a little stressed. It just didn’t happen. They chatted, exchanged jokes, shared some non-malicious gossip, caught up with OTB friends, and got to know the volunteers they were meeting for the first time. I’m sure they discussed event-related sequencing or chronology at some point, but I can’t remember them having done so.
I got the sense that Julian and Shannon have been working together for a long time. I was right. They’ve been a team in the Seattle food world for years. For an outside observer who doesn’t know either very well and who marvels at how chefs keep the trains running on time, it seemed like evidence of telepathy.
The pace picked up as the guests started arriving. The OTBers were up to the task and synced well with Julian and Shannon. Sadly, for me, there was still no barking of orders, no dropped plates, no calamities. The most dramatic moment of the evening came when the guests and the staff cooperated in swapping a vegetarian dish for a fish dish.
In between all of the staging and coming and going, the OTBers gathered to thank Julian and Shannon, give them custom t-shirts and a bottle of Jack Daniels, and ask Julian which charity he’d selected as the beneficiary of HFF’s efforts. Planned Parenthood, “Now more than ever.” OTB also asked Chef Julian to come out and address the crowd. I was surprised to see that Julian was hesitant, claiming that public speaking was not his favorite thing. In the kitchen, Julian was gregarious, making jokes, getting to know people, and making sure things stayed low-key. I assumed he was a full on extrovert who loved to be in front of a crowd. Shannon had the line of the night at this point, jokingly warning Julian not to hand it off to her. “When Julian gets in a pickle, he throws me under the bus.”