The last time I saw Duskie Estes, I was visiting Seattle to catch up with old friends. Though Duskie had cooked for me in her apartment and I’d enjoyed her food at potlucks,—beautiful dishes that were on a separate plane from the artichoke dips and three bean salads—I’d never seen her in action before. So I was a bit stunned when I got a chance to watch her command the open kitchen of Seattle’s top flight Palace Kitchen. It was like finding out that one of your friends who said she could play okay tennis was really Venus Williams.
A diminutive woman with a pixie haircut and a mellow California disposition—she uses the word “dude” more than the rest of my friends combined—Duskie is no rough-edged Anthony Bourdain. She’s a sweetheart, a feminist, and a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who isn’t into the barking-at-underlings style often associated with top chefs. That doesn’t mean she isn’t in her element in a restaurant kitchen. Seeing her at work is to glimpse a woman in full creative flow.
That night, sitting at the bar nursing a Washington state Pinot, I appreciated her every move. She heaved alderwood logs, tracked the moves of her large staff, checked plates before they went out, wielded dangerous looking knives, and reigned in the flames of an open fire. Duskie made it all look easy.
Many recent food fans, enamored by Food Network productions, have no clue as to how physically demanding restaurant cooking is. Sore feet and sweaty brows are only the half of it. Scarred arms, sliced fingers, and aching backs are also part of the professional bargain. Frequent abuse of uppers and downers—even in their legal, liquid forms—to deal with the oddball hours doesn’t help either.
That night in Seattle, one of the most impressive aspects of Duskie’s wizardry was the fact that she was in the first trimester of pregnancy, exhausted and nauseous. None of her staff had a clue. Restaurants may be one of the most hierarchical workplaces, outside of the military, and pregnant women certainly aren’t in the pecking order, much less toward its top, so it’s not surprising that she was nervous to make her news public.
“Women are expected to do pastry and pantry,” says Duskie, who started cooking in 1988 as a student at Brown University. “When I was starting out, nobody wanted to put a girl on the hotline then. I basically had to lie to get there.”
Duskie is small and really nice, but she has a pronounced stubborn streak; it’s indicative that she served as the coxswain on Brown’s men’s rowing team. Determined to work her way to a top post, she quit her job at one restaurant, and applied elsewhere, giving false assurance to the new chef that she had worked sauté before. “For a week I did nothing but stay home and practice flipping slices of bread and rice in a pan,” she recalls.
In the years since, Duskie has worked at an impressive array of restaurants on both coasts (though never for a woman chef). When she married John Stewart, a fellow chef, in 2000, she was heading up the Palace Kitchen, one of chef Tom Douglas’ celebrated eateries, while also co-authoring a cookbook with him. She and John wanted kids right away; they also wanted a restaurant of their own.
Whether they were delusional or impatient, it’s hard to say now, but they decided to do both at the same time and to throw in a move just for a higher degree of difficulty. In March 2001, their daughter Brydie was born. In July, they moved to Sonoma County, California. On August 1, they picked up the keys to their new restaurant, and two weeks later, they opened the doors of Zazu.
Although Duskie wishes she had more compatriot chef-moms, the job has been ideal for parenting young children. During her first year, Brydie sat in a play saucer in Zazu’s kitchen while her parents prepped for dinner. Once she was old enough to dislodge wine bottles from their shelves, Duskie stayed home with Brydie during the day and then went to work at 4:00 pm, the schedule she’s had ever since. A second daughter, MacKenzie, was born in 2003.
“I figure I see my kids more than many working moms,” she says, commenting that the time away from them is during dinner and sleeping. As Brydie enters school, however, it’s becoming harder to find time together.
When I ask how her daughters have inspired her cooking, she smart alecks, “Child labor.” The girls often help her pick berries and herbs on the family’s two-and-a-half acre farm or in the restaurant’s garden. While her older daughter is a gourmand who has eaten pig’s belly, truffles, and any stinky cheese put before her, little McKenzie can barely stand peanut butter. “Sometimes I try to invent things she’ll eat,” says Duskie, “but at the moment, she’s pretty obstinate.”
More important is the ethics she promotes to her daughters. “I want to raise children who are respectful of hard work and of where things come from. We walk the fields together and talk about our food. We don’t use high dollar, top trendy equipment in the kitchen. I want to care for people with my cooking; foams and tall foods aren’t about nourishing people.”
Duskie believes there are masculine and feminine forms of cooking. Although she’s always been drawn to the latter, being a mother has only heightened that instinct. When she recently took part in a macaroni and cheese competition, she made a silky variation, served inside of an artichoke with a spoon. “I like soft foods, round shapes, eating out of bowls,” she says.
As a kid, Duskie grew up painting and surrounded by art. She believes she found the most creative form of all in cooking. “It involves every sense. When I’m imagining a potential dish, I think of how to balance all the flavors. I think about how it will feel in your mouth—crunchy or soft. What are the colors and the shapes that will be on the plate? What about the smells and the temperature? There’s nothing with as many layers as cooking.”
As any artist knows, one has to recharge the senses in order to stay fresh. Pre-kids, Duskie ate out all of the time and poured over every cookbook she could get her hands on—her personal library is immense. But now when she has a day off, she just wants to spend it with her daughters. With a farm full of chickens, sheep, various fruit trees, and a small vineyard, there’s plenty of inspiration close at hand.
“It’s not what’s urban or hip—I hire younger chefs to provide that,” she says, laughing self-deferentially. “Instead it’s about walking outside and seeing what looks good. It’s very old school.” Old school, perhaps, but it sounds mighty nourishing.
Related Story: “Mothers of Invention: Tipping The Scales Toward Balance”
Picture: Duskie Estes and her daughter Brydie search for truffles on a recent trip to Italy.