Spokane has been many things to many people over the years. The capital of the Inland Northwest. The boyhood home of Bing Crosby. The birthplace of Father’s Day. And, thanks to a new generation of chefs, you can add great food town to the list. The popularity of chain restaurants has been fading in the Lilac City for the better part of a decade. And independent chef-owned spots are capturing hearts. Their momentum helped spawn Crave!, a summer celebration of the region’s food, wine and craft beverage scene, a few years ago. And in advance of this year’s festival, which takes place July 15–19, a group of Spokane chefs came to Seattle to preview Crave! at a special pop-up dinner last week. Hosted by the event’s organizers, the pop-up also gave attending media members a chance to experience the region’s culinary energy.

A group of Spokane chefs offers a Crave preview in Seattle on Jan. 21, 2020

[Spokane chefs Chad White, Adam Hegsted, Aaron Fish, John Giles and Travis Dickinson] 

Casual dining, refined

The dishes served during the nine-course meal, paired with wines from Spokane-based Arbor Crest Wine Cellars and locally brewed beers, were each memorable in their own right. But it was equally fascinating to learn about each chef’s creative inspiration.

For example, Travis Dickinson prepared the first course, a chicken liver pâté topped with a pomegranate-apple salsa. The spreadable indulgence was served in a mini jam jar and accompanied by lavender-infused shortbread. It was a well-executed riff on the type of hors d’oeuvre you’d find in a number of modern fine-dining establishments. But one of the things that made it particularly interesting was the fact that Dickinson’s restaurant, Cochinito Taqueria is a pretty casual place. Dickinson, who grew up in Post Falls, Idaho, went to culinary school in Portland, Oregon. As he developed his chef skills in school and in Portland-area restaurants, he explained, he gravitated toward the flavors of Mexican cuisine. When he returned to the Spokane area, he worked at Clover, a popular Spokane fine-dining restaurant, for about three years. Then, in 2018, he and business partner Justin Curtis opened their downtown taqueria.

Cochinito owner Travis Dickinson was among the Spokane chefs to preview Crave in Seattle last week

Dickinson describes Cochinito as a laid-back setting for locally and responsibly sourced foods prepared with fine-dining techniques. He offers dishes such as charred Spanish octopus with dry chorizo. The 20-hour carne asada taco features sous-vide beef tri-tip. The duck confit taco is accompanied by roasted beet, pomegranate salsa, candied cocoa nib and hazelnut gremolata. And house-made corn tortillas bring an extra layer of freshness to tacos and other menu items. To round things out, the bar offers a range of fun potables. In addition to margaritas and palomas, you’ll find creative takes on classics, such as the Bourbon Renewal, with splashes of crème de cassis and lemon juice complementing the base spirit. And the Cochinito Mexican Lager is brewed about a mile away, at Bellwether Brewing Co.

A boomerang effect

Like Dickinson, Chad White, who also prepared dishes for the pop-up, returned to the Spokane area after moving away. In White’s case, the 9/11 attacks inspired him to enlist for military service. In the Navy, he rose through the ranks as a cook, eventually serving as a captain’s cook. While stationed in San Diego, he developed a fondness for coastal Mexican and Latin American flavors, particularly those in ceviche, on trips to Baja California. After his discharge, he spent about 10 years in the San Diego–area restaurant scene. And, as he built a following, his popularity and disposition landed him a spot on season 13 of Bravo’s Top Chef.

Zona Blanca's Chad White was also among the Spokane chefs to preview Crave

White’s Top Chef appearances were airing when he moved back to Spokane in 2015. And since then, he has opened four restaurants. He compares his Zona Blanca, specializing in ceviche, to an indoor food truck. Last year, he opened two locations of his High Tide Lobster Bar, which features Maine lobster rolls. And TT’s Old Iron Brewery & BBQ, which he opened last summer with partner Travis Thosath, features Kansas City– and Texas-inspired barbecue and fresh, house-made brews.

A nourishing community

It’s a good time to be a chef in the Spokane area, says Adam Hegsted, who also cooked at the pop-up, as did his restaurant company’s chef de cuisine, Aaron Fish. Hegsted credits the region’s affordable costs of living, supportive community and desirable quality of life for attracting restaurant professionals. “You’re basically getting paid the same here as you would in Los Angeles or Seattle,” he explains. “But you can afford to live pretty well here on that amount.” And these factors also reduce the financial risks for chefs and investors who open restaurants, compared to the pricier markets.

Hegsted is well known and widely admired throughout the region. But for the unfamiliar: The Spokane-area native returned home after a few years in Seattle, where he attended culinary school and worked in restaurants. His commitment to local ingredients earned him an invitation to the James Beard House in 2012. At the time, he had just redesigned the culinary program at the Coeur d’Alene Casino and Resort, in Worley, Idaho. Since setting out on his own in 2014, his Eat Good Group has grown to encompass eight restaurants in Spokane, Coeur d’Alene, and Ponderay, plus catering companies, food trucks and more. Along the way, he was named a regional semifinalist for a James Beard Award, in 2016.

Adam Hegsted champions locally sourced ingredients at his Wandering Table and other restaurants

Hegsted continues to champion local ingredients, and he describes his cuisine as “foods people like to eat.” The choices at his team’s Incrediburger & Eggs, in downtown Spokane, include hamburgers made with locally sourced beef, house-made American cheese and house-baked brioche buns. Dishes at the Wandering Table (above) in Spokane’s Kendall Yards, can include smoked hoisin tofu with pickled mushrooms; pork belly sliders; or crispy Washington steelhead with ginger glaze, depending on what’s in-season. And Food Network selected his Honey Eatery & Social Club, in Coeur d’Alene, to represent Idaho in its 2019 roundup of the “Best Fried Chicken in Every State.”

Get ready to Crave!

The Grand Tasting at Crave! gives revelers a chance to indulge

Hegsted is also credited for founding Crave! in 2017 and shepherding its growth. New additions to the event this year include sit-down dinners at area restaurants, on Wed., July 15, when local chefs will team with those visiting from out of the area to create special menus. And Hegsted’s team is preparing a family-style fried chicken feast on Sun., July 19. In between, the event features themed walk-around tastings at CenterPlace in Mirabeau Point Park, in Spokane Valley: Seafood Bash (Thurs., July 16, evening); Fire & Smoke (Fri., July 17, evening); the Grand Tasting (Sat. July 18, afternoon); and Foods from Around the World (Sat., July 18, evening).

The evening events put about 15 chefs in each booth with a different winemaker or craft brewer. And each team creates a pairing that fits the theme. The grand tasting will feature about 200 vendors, including chefs, winemakers, brewers, mixologists, coffee roasters and others, with cooking demos and other activities. And each event is accompanied by live music or other entertainment.

Clearly, the fourth edition of Crave! promise five fun-filled days of flavor and good cheer. But there are also many growing reasons to visit the area’s restaurants before then.

[Photos of Crave!, chefs and Wandering Table by Doyle Wheeler, Kinetek Media; Cochinito courtesy of Travis Dickinson; Zona Blanca courtesy of Chad White]