With faded jeans, an ocean-blue sweater and a warm gap-toothed smile, Maria Hines looks as if she should be hiking in the Cascades, which just happens to a great passion for the pioneering chef who six years ago won a coveted James Beard Award—the culinary equivalent of an Oscar—for her certified-organic Seattle restaurant Tilth. The 42-year-old chef/owner has since opened two more restaurants, Golden Beetle and Agrodolce. A sensuous stainless-steel food mill graces the elegant decor of the latter—sculptural reminder that the handmade pastas do indeed feature locally grown grains milled in house.
Hines cooks and lives by her values. She eats organic at home, so she dishes up organic in her restaurants. She appreciates the bounty of the Northwest and is acutely aware of its vulnerability so she lends her voice, support and culinary talent to the PCC Farmland Trust, Super Chefs Against Superbugs, GMO labeling and the Chef Action Network for a strong, just and healthy food system.
Tell us about the roots of your strongly-lived values.
I did come from a great family that was very nourishing. I grew up being around food all the time and feeling connected to it and wanting to have respect for it. The more you’re around food, the stronger you feel about it. When I started, I thought I could impact the world by cooking. I’ve been doing this for 26 years now, and (the movement of chefs as activists) is really growing in all parts of the world.
Tell us about your early forays into cooking and creativity.
Both my parents worked 16 hours a day. (They owned their own business, a typewriter and computer repair shop, in San Diego.) So we ate canned vegetables, frozen vegetables, spaghetti, pot roast. My mom taught me to make meat loaf and macaroni and cheese from scratch. Those were my favorites. I’ve always loved art. I took any art class I could. Food was the way I decided I would pursue art.
After culinary school, you cooked in kitchens from California to New York City to France. Why did you put down roots and establish your restaurants here in Seattle?
All the bounty we have. All the green space. The fisheries are managed so well. The foraged ingredients. There’s a lot of food that’s coming directly from the land. Washington has five different microclimates, so you have a lot of different food. The ecology is very varied—mountains, river, ocean, forest, a lot of valleys good for agriculture—all in close proximity. The East Coast has access to food, but it’s more abundant in the Northwest.
How did food and politics become intertwined in your life?
Food has always been political for me. Organics. Labeling. Transparency. Not having antibiotics in animal livestock. Knowing where food is coming from. Those are things I’m definitely a proponent of. Living a healthy lifestyle is also an inspiration. I eat organically at home. If I’m going to cook for people at a restaurant, I want them to eat the same food I’m eating at home.
Have you ever considered running for office?
I have a platform that gives me a voice, but I definitely don’t do any work as a legislator. Running three restaurants keeps me pretty busy.
Some say organic, local, sustainable, non-GMO foods are a conceit of rich clientele — and not relevant or affordable for the working class and global poor. Thoughts?
I charge the same prices as my competitors even though organic food is more expensive. It costs more to grow. It takes more land. It’s hard. I can’t say: If you’re low income, you can eat organic anytime you want. The system needs to change. That’s a legislation issue. I’ve tried to help by securing funding and support for Fresh Bucks (a program that doubles the purchasing power for low-income Seattle residents to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at farmer’s markets).
After the first James Beard Foundation’s Chef Boot Camp for Policy and Change, you emerged as a sort of “poster chef” and spearheaded a Seattle salon for chefs and food advocates to heal a “broken” food system. What’s broken?
We need more transparency in food, more and better farmland, to get rid of antibiotics and hormones in livestock. It’s polluting our waterways and affecting people’s health, for sure.
What’s at stake if nothing changes?
Disappearing farmland. Continued climate change. Ocean acidification is already happening. There will be food security issues if we don’t deal with these issues. Food shortages will happen.
Name three things we regular folks can change in our everyday food lives to improve our community.
1. Educate yourself. There are a lot of resources between TED talks, food documentaries, Michael Pollan books.
2. Vote with your dollar. How are you spending your money?
3. Know where your food is coming from. Sourcing awareness. Is it local? Sustainable?
Are you ever unGreen? Do you have a secret unsustainable habit/pleasure/vice you’d like to change (or not)?
Going to have dim sum. Not knowing where their food is procured from. When prices are really low, it’s always a little suspect, especially when it comes to meat and proteins.
Your favorite Northwest foods?
Wild mushrooms, albacore tuna, salmon, of course, huckleberries, different wild lettuces.
What were your inner thoughts when you beat longtime Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto using secret ingredient Pacific cod in a five-dish menu that included sous-vide cod with lemon verbena, fried green tomatoes and tapioca pearls?
It was nerve wracking! Once you start cooking, you’re in your element, in the flow, but you’re very aware of a time crunch.
If you could host an intimate dinner party and invite your personal heroes, who would be on the guest list?
Alice Waters. Ann Cooper. Julia Child. Alice and Ann moved the sustainable food movement forward and Julia Child brought French cuisine to the U.S.
What would you cook?
If I were really cooking for these people who meant so much to me? I wouldn’t want to do something I hadn’t done before and not know how it’s going to turn out! So the best from Tilth, Agrodolce and Golden Beetle; Italian, Mediterranean and American would be really fun. Locally grown red wheat spaghetti, lamb kibbeh meatballs, black cod or albacore tuna. Something chocolate, hmmm, chocolate ganache cake.
You’re a rock climber. Let’s imagine you have a day or two off and a climbing buddy. Describe your fantasy climb.
I’d go climbing somewhere around town. Index. It’s all granite. There’s a river next to it, lots of evergreens. It’s meditative. I wouldn’t call it relaxing, but there’s a high level of focus because you’re connecting your mind and body. It’s not an escape; I love what I do. But you need to create life balance. We’re lucky in the Northwest. We have a lot of green space and access to being out on the water or hiking. Trying to take advantage of that is a good thing. I like running, hiking, Leavenworth, Discovery Park. There’s a lot of stuff off the Denny Creek exit. In the Enchantments, the terrain varies so much within an 18-mile span: alpine lakes, a little bit of snow, steep elevation, loose talus that has a certain sound when you’re walking. It’s relaxing, awesome, very peaceful.
This interview has been edited and condensed.