We had the honor of meeting with Signe Quitslund -- chef, artist, horticulturist and as of late, most known for her gorgeous gluten-free sourdough which has been providing comfort to many throughout Seattle in this COVID season. This is the story of a young woman who found life, healing, and community through the act of cooking and feeding others.
Signe grew up just across the water from Seattle, on artsy and picturesque Bainbridge Island. Her mom was a landscape designer and architect who always found her way with plants and her dad a cabinet maker, both homesteaders and artisans. Together, they grew an extensive garden, harvesting and eating often from what they cultivated and nurtured off the land. Her dad was always clamming and crabbing; and while he was the primary cook in the house, her mom’s culinary talents also made an appearance on occasion. This is where Signe took her first notes and lessons as a curious cook.
For as long as she can remember, Signe was interested in food. She would watch PBS cooking shows after school and when she was ten, her grandmother gave her a subscription to Cook's Illustrated magazine. The same year, she made her first creme brulee, dad sending her off into the forest behind their house with a blow torch, to fire her first french custard. Signe explored food freely and fearlessly, with the latitude to create and experiment inside and outside of the kitchen, from mud pies as a toddler to compiling and adjusting recipes until she came up with just the right formula later in her youth.
Signe tinkered with food all through high school and eventually found herself in nursing school, guided by the desire to care for others. In the midst of intense course work and the stresses of school, she developed an eating disorder. For two years, she battled with orthorexia, a disease characterized by a hyperfocus on healthy eating and exercise. While it stemmed from a place of health, it also conflated with a need to control. Through her diagnosis, she began to realize that she needed to redefine her relationship with food and learn how to nourish her body, not limit it. Revisiting cooking began to help to heal her body and provided a much needed cathartic relief from the everyday stresses of nursing school.
Over time, cooking brought healing and restoration. Signe began to reframe food with a humble curiosity which would continue to pull her toward the kitchen. With new eyes and fresh ideas to create and explore, she flourished in the kitchen. In a conversation with her grandmother, a great influencer in her life, she was encouraged to really give thought to her course in life -- was she really living out her gifts and pursuing her dreams? Soon after, confronted with the sudden passing of her grandmother, she decided to take a break from nursing and really pursue food. She started as a host and server at Oddfellows and Tullulah’s, and eventually found her way to the kitchen, providing solace, familiarity, and once again, creativity.
Signe eventually went back to school, shifting her focus to Public Affairs with a specialization in sustainable food systems and nutrition, and took a non-profit job teaching kids at a nearby farm where she would guide them to follow the progression of a crop from seedling to harvest. She would go on to teach cooking classes in their schools and even illustrate botanical drawings for teaching aides. In collaboration with a good friend and talented chef, Justin Khanna (now of The Voyager’s Table), she started doing pop-up dinners on Sundays, based on whatever was available from the farmer’s market that morning. Whenever possible, she could be found cooking dinner on friends’ rooftops and backyards in the glow of Seattle’s summer evenings. She took a job in fashion and horticulture.
As Signe straddled various worlds, she found herself cooking, baking, and fermenting every moment she could spare. The kitchen was her home, her happy place. Signe recounts listening to a podcast late one night where a female business leader was asked what spurred her to leave a comfortable career path and pursue a somewhat risky career in something that had long been a passion. It shook her to the core. The prompting made her realize her next move. With a few sleepless nights spent questioning if it was the right decision, she decided to go all in.
Last year, in 2019, she started cooking at Harry’s Fine Foods and found a mentor in their executive chef, Jesse Barber, who she continues to work alongside. She has found a patient teacher who pushes their team to think critically about purpose and how to create food that is simple yet subtly complex. It is here where she has developed a deeper understanding of good ingredients and the skills to use them like the importance of letting a good ingredient speak for itself and how simple techniques like proper heat control or the use of a unique, yet understated seasoning or garnish can completely transform a dish.
When asked what cooking and food look like to her today she shared,
You can’t ever truly master food. There’s always something to learn. New combinations. Every dish will be slightly different, a result of everyone’s unique touch and perspective.
She continued on...“food never feels like work to me. That’s not to romanticize it or say it isn’t grueling to work in kitchens. But it is the most rewarding work I can do with my hands.”
For Signe, food has been the constant throughline in her life, representing a creative outlet and healer. Where food was once a restrictive and limiting force, it has transformed into a beautiful, nurturing gift, it has become a way to express kindness and gratitude toward herself.
Food is a grounding force in my life. It is a meditation. It is a routine. It is a gift to myself and to others.
- Signe Quitslund