Sponsored by FareStart
Altstadt's executive chef Megan Coombes didn't always plan on a career in the kitchen. In fact, before enrolling at The French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center) in New York, Coombes studied international relations and economics and started working in nonprofit development and marketing in 2011. Today, her experience and passion for nonprofits and her love of food make her involvement with FareStart a perfect pairing.
Coombes may be relatively new to the culinary industry after changing the direction of her career, but she boasts loads of impressive experience in Michelin-starred New York kitchens, including internships at Wallse (modern Austrian cuisine), the now closed Jezebel (modern kosher) and the James Beard House. She was also the kitchen manager for Olivier Cheng Catering and Events.
Since moving to Seattle, Coombes has found a home as the executive chef at Altstadt, a German beer hall in Pioneer Square, where she reinvents classic German dishes such as pretzels and bratwurst.
Coombes is also sharing her knowledge of food with the students of FareStart, a nonprofit organization that provides culinary job training to transform the lives of homeless and disadvantaged individuals. Every Thursday, a different local chef works with students to prepare a three-course meal at the FareStart restaurant in downtown Seattle. The graduation of students who have completed the program is a highlight of Guest Chef Night, which has raised more than $4.5 million to support student job training and placement services.
We caught up with Coombes—who will host the March 3 Guest Chef Night from 5:30 to 8 p.m.—to learn more about her history in the kitchen, her passion for cooking and her involvement with FareStart.
Reservations are recommended and can be made here.
What brought you to Seattle?
My boyfriend (also a cook) and I were looking to leave New York City for a better quality of life. He took a position at Spur, which brought us to Seattle. He is now a sous chef at Altstadt.
What is so special about the Pacific Northwest culinary scene?
The access to purveyors and the relationship you can build with the food you serve. Everything at Altstadt is housemade, so it is important for us to know where our ingredients come from. The bounty and access to farmers, fisherman, ranchers, etc. is what drew us here and is what I find most unique.
Tell us about your favorite dish(es) at Altstadt Restaurant.
I love all our sausages. Food is about memory and respecting the culture we represent, which I think all of our sausages highlight.
I also adore our desserts, which is not something many people think about when they come to Altstadt. We always have a seasonal dessert that's a creative cross between traditional German and new American cuisines. Currently that is the Stollen Schnecke: a rum raisin cinnamon roll that [combines] the traditional German Christmas bread stollen and the American favorite.
What is your greatest culinary accomplishment?
So far... Altstadt. It's the kind of place I would want to go and hang out and eat. We make everything (outside of the bread) in-house and I am really proud of the quality of food we put out in an atmosphere that is relaxed and social. Having lived in Germany in both high school and college, I have a true respect for this cuisine and culture that I think Altstadt has come to represent well.
Outside of that? I won the World Risotto Summit New York challenge in 2013!
What one celebrity would you love to have dinner with?
I am not so much into celebrities as I am into chefs who I admire. I would love to have dinner with Alice Waters [owner of famed Chez Panisse in California] or Dominique Crenn [chef/owner at San Francisco's Atelier Crenn] who are both amazing women in this industry and are also true visionaries.
What advice would you give to FareStart graduates and other new or aspiring chefs?
You have to have passion for this career and love what you do. It's not easy, especially going into the industry later in life. The hours can be grueling and the work can be hard. But, if this is what you want to do, there is great opportunity for those who work hard and dedicate themselves to the craft.
Why are you attracted to the FareStart program?
Coming from a nonprofit background, I wanted to find an organization to be involved in that was making a difference. And, as a career changer, FareStart speaks to me. They give the students the foundation they need to be able to pursue a career in this industry and change their lives. I cannot imagine a more personal cause to be involved in.
What is your favorite part about working with FareStart for Guest Chef Night?
It's fun for us to step out of our box a little. Altstadt is an elevated beer hall and brathaus, but I like to use Guest Chef Night to showcase the breadth of German cuisine and as a testing ground for finer dishes such as schwarzwurzel, a braised black salsify with smoked trout, nettle buerre blanc, pickled radish, and lammhaxe, mustard lamb shank with demiglace, peas, bacon and parsley root puree. In doing so, we get to expose the FareStart students to some great ingredients and techniques that they may not otherwise have the opportunity to experience.