The fog and rains roll off the Puget Sound, pelting an elderly barn where Chef Nick Coffey inspects a local famer’s selection of beets, kohlrabi and daikon greens. The vegetation is intensely fresh––vivid; the final harvest offerings of this year’s growing season.
Coffey sifts through the bounty, his hands turning back the crisp leaves like pages to a book. This morning is as many for Coffey: traveling from farm to farm, stand to stand, shore to shore, gathering and foraging the foods he serves at his restaurant, Ursa Minor. In a far-reaching corner of our country, Lopez Island, Washington.
Lopez Island, roughly 30 square miles, lies centered in the vast San Juan Islands archipelago. It’s a spectacular region; a sublime balance of sea and land with denim-blue Pacific waters meeting towering evergreens and snow-capped peaks of the Cascade and Olympia mountain ranges. Of the 128 named islands, most of these are small and uninhabited, yet home to a complex and vast ecology of marine and wildlife.
The coastlines are a mix of sand and rock beaches, shallow and deep harbors, placid and reef-studded bays. Ochre-colored Pacific Madrone trees blanket much of the shorelines, while stands of fir and pine forests cover large inland swaths. A handful of the larger islands, Orcas Island, Lopez Island, Shaw Island and San Juan Island, are populated with charming villages and have become popular tourist destinations in the summer months.
Car ferry services connect these islands to the mainland, these nostalgic trips a breathtaking passage from an older era.
Coffey, along with his wife and business partner, Nova, came to know the idyllic charm of Lopez Island while often vacationing from their home of Seattle. “What attracted us to the island were the farms,” says Coffey. For this couple with roots in the Midwest, the farms and ethic of Lopez were familiar and embracing. “I was an accomplished chef in Seattle with a following, but we were looking at opportunities to do something on Lopez Island. Finally, we just made the jump. In 2017, we moved at the end of February and by April we were up and running. Ursa Minor was born.”
Each morning at Ursa Minor starts with planning the menu and the unique challenges of sourcing food on an island, but that’s what makes the menu of Ursa so special––it’s intimate proximity to farmers and fishermen. “Building relationships with farmers on Lopez was difficult because unlike Seattle––where I had so many relationships––here, I had to start over and build a new network. From our trips here we knew some growers, but it took time to build the network of producers we now have. Many of them have become friends, with common causes of sustainability and protecting the San Juan’s.”
The intent of Ursa Minor is one of simplicity; impeccably crafted agrarian Northwest cuisine experienced in a welcoming and gracious atmosphere. “People come to Ursa wanting to be surprised… challenged. Visiting the island itself is a different kind of experience, so should be the dining experience,” says Coffey.
90% of the ingredients Coffey cooks with at Ursa Minor come from the island’s fertile lands and waters. It’s more reaching than the farm-to-table––it’s island-to-table. On any given night, over 50 ingredients will be synthesized and transformed into simple, yet delightfully complex and layered tastings.
The kitchen of Ursa Minor is austere and well-organized, that of a workshop. Coffey, along with a talented staff display their craft here, shoulder to shoulder. It’s calm, like Coffey, notably respectful to the craft. Smoke rages off scorching skillets; steam dances off gently boiling baths of water. Days are long with hours of standing, constantly pivoting, like a game of basketball being played. 10,000 steps a day, all within 100 sq. ft.
Shucking a pile of Pacific Blue Mussels, Coffey remembers, “I was always interested in food. When I first moved from the Midwest to Seattle, I got a job at grocery store and that was really my entry into cooking. From there I worked at several of Seattle’s more prominent restaurants, learning and given the opportunity to experiment and grow as a cook.”
The small shared courses served at Ursa Minor are dazzling. Dishes that are defined in contrasts and palettes subtle in character, often changing and experimental: house-cured coppa alongside boiled cider; raw spot prawns with kohlrabi and horseradish; shellfish cooked in whey with greens, shiitakes and kelp; pork belly with roasted koji, offered with daikon and mustard greens; hay ice cream with poached quince.
Coffey’s influence of Asian cuisine and techniques conspicuous, so true to the Pacific Northwest. Artfully presented. All of the spices, seasonings and sauces incorporated into his dishes––shoyus, soys, misos, vinegars––are all handcrafted by Coffey. Aging and fermenting processes that take weeks, if not months.
Afternoon brings a break from the kitchen and Coffey forages a nearby beach in search of fresh kelp. Droplets of mist rest on his flannel as he combs the surf, under a clouded veil of tranquility. “Lopez Island is the muse for the restaurant. We want people to feel like the island experience is part of the experience here. I do this to challenge how people think about food, and the satisfaction that brings. I don’t think of what I do in terms of the happiness it brings me, rather the happiness it brings people.”
To get a taste of Ursa Minor, visit www.ursaminorlopez.com or follow on Instagram at @ursa_minor_lopez.