Whidbey Island, Washington’s Inn at Langley is known for many things — its idyllic setting and stunning views, its well-appointed, comfortable accommodations, and, perhaps most important to those of us who make dinner plans before it’s even lunchtime, its food. Dinners at the Inn at Langley are stuff of Pacific Northwest legend: inventive, seasonal, fresh, always thoughtfully prepared and presented. It’s multi-course dining that is every bit as casual and unpretentious as it is fine and fancy.
That’s why, when I was invited by friends to attend a food and yoga-themed retreat at the Inn later this month, I jumped at the chance to go … and ignored the fact that my prior yoga experience is limited to a few measly attempts ruined by pre-class martinis. This was my chance to finally experience an Inn at Langley dinner! And improve my notoriously shameful flexibility to boot! I signed up right away and asked if I could speak to the man responsible for what we’d be eating.
That man is Matt Costello, the highly acclaimed chef who has a James Beard Award nomination, heaps of national and regional accolades, and decades of “best dinner ever” reviews, reports and happily sated post-meal exclamations under his belt. He’s the guy who has made the Inn at Langley as much a dining destination as a travel one, so I couldn’t wait to get his take on cooking, kitchen essentials, and what inspires him. Here’s what he had to say:
What was the first thing you cooked, professionally or not, where you thought, “nailed it!”?
Easy: searing fish, roasting halibut. First put the dry pan on high on the stove. Go unplug the smoke alarms in your house. Pat the fish with a paper towel, then season, then oil to the pan, slide the fish in. I had this great mentor/friend, Eric Tanaka. He showed me how, and I was king of the world the day it first worked perfectly.
What first drew you to cooking as a career? Ever consider biomechanical engineering or accounting?
Ha! I started out in women’s studies, so if ever you want to debate Camille Paglia, I’m your chef. Art classes were involved in these studies. I was cooking at the college hippy cafeteria and started to see that food can be a multi-medium expression that makes people happy or feel something like traditional art forms do.
What do you love about your job?
Seriously, it’s making people happy. I put a lot of thought into the guest experience. I think some of that is getting lost in fine dining. Or maybe better put, there is a new paradigm in fine dining. I’m not a leader in that by any means, but I see the shift away from stuffy happening.
Your cooking is renowned for its distinct Pacific Northwest-ness and unique take on the seasons. If the Inn at Langley were the Inn at Santa Fe, the Inn at Reykjavík, or the Inn at Detroit, what about your cooking do you think would still be the same?
I would say there are definite roots in the area where you’re cooking, that’s just a given. I think it’s time to have farm-to-table be understood as just part of eating good food. The Nordic hyper-local is great too. A real precious style of cooking. I just like dinner to have interest beyond the standard. Not that everything has to use a hydrocolloid or liquid nitrogen — I like there to be a surprise or two along the way, balanced with enough sophistication so that it makes sense in the setting. So the shift to any of those cities first off would be amazingly fun to try, but the dinner would contain elements that had you left with no question where you were seated. My homework would be to understand the cultures of these places, figure out where a little tongue-in-cheek would really work and where the humor would be lost. Really celebrate the place and make the dinner fun.
How do you stay inspired in the kitchen?
There is an endless supply of things to look at and try to accomplish. Cooking is so far-reaching and so incredibly variant. I am never bored. You asked about the “nailed it” moment— I can get it right, but perfecting it is never-ending.
Any upcoming projects you can tell us about?
I am SO content to have my little 20-person dinner party every night. I don’t need or want a cookbook or to have six restaurants. I think the Food Network is a monster. We’ve talked lately about a little fish shack down at the marina. The Inn has some property down there. Selling oysters and bait. We did a little R&D in Portugal and San Sebastian for this. We’ll see …
What items can we always find in your pantry at home (don’t worry, we won’t actually go looking for them)?
I eat very simply at home. The main things I care about are really good coffee, the right seasoning items — salts, vinegars, heat — and lately it’s been leeks.
How about cookware and tools? What are your essentials?
Food mill or drum sieve, thermal circulator is without measure in the restaurant. Tons of kitchen towels. I go through many each service. I like things to be clean.
Fill in the blank: every cook needs_________
It may seem like a “no sh#*t” answer, but a really good knife. I have one of Bob Kramer’s first knives, big and clunky. I also have a collection of Japanese knives in the western style. Something about the steel, the way it feels as it cuts. I don’t know better.
I’m attending a retreat at the Inn later this month that’s part yoga, part food. I’m told there will be a grand finale meal. What can we expect on the dinner menu when we get off the yoga mat?
It’s an evening with us, so there will be lots to try and a few surprises. I’ll keep it light and strive to engage you all. Nothing heavy, nothing super rich. Traditional flavors presented a little differently.
What advice do you have for people who are just learning how to cook?
First, second and third, TASTE IT, TASTE IT, TASTE IT. Then get in and tear things apart, know what’s happening at different stages of the cooking, how the thing is reacting to whatever you are doing. Learn about it. Lastly, eat the entire dish and see if you get bored at any point. So many places serve these portions that are dead boring halfway through. If it bores you, adjust accordingly.
How about yoga? Any advice there? Seriously, I might need some help…
I can touch my toes and I love Rodney Yee. That’s about it. The folks that we have relationships with at the Inn are true committed practitioners. You’ll be in good company.
Last question and back to food: What’s your idea of a perfect meal?
Outside at our farm, cool and sunny day sitting with my wife and our three grown daughters (not their boyfriends) and our good friend Pam. Languidly served foods of many varieties and flavors. Bread that just finished crackling as it cools. Taking breaks to notice the birds and our flock of animals. For dessert more friends, Rachel makes a cake, maybe the boyfriends (maybe not) and a fire and music. Pretty basic stuff, but I think the most important stuff.
Thanks, Chef! See you soon!
To learn more about Matt Costello and the Inn at Langley, visit innatlangley.com. To check out Via Yoga’s offerings of active vacations and day trips in the Pacific Northwest, Costa Rica and Mexico, visit viayoga.com. I hear there are still a few spots left on the Inn at Langley retreat later this month. Who wants to do some delicious dining and downward dogging with me?