Luke Kolpin’s culinary career has taken some wild twists and turns, yet he wouldn’t change a thing. After nearly nine years working at what’s considered the world’s most famous gastronomic destination in Copenhagen, he decided it was time to come back home to Seattle. That’s thrilling news for diners in the Pacific Northwest.
Chef Kolpin didn’t have a clue what he was going to do with his life at age 19. “I was sitting on the couch with my best friend talking about how we were going nowhere. I had a lot of learning disabilities growing up and school was never fun for me. He reminded me that my friends used to call me lunchbox because I was always eating and some of it was pretty interesting. He said why don’t you become a cook?”
So, he enrolled at Seattle Central Community College, which is known for its culinary program and something just clicked. After graduating, “I got myself a job at McCormick & Schmick’s on Lake Union. It was high volume and a little cookie cutter, but I learned a lot. A friend kept asking me to come to work with him across the lake at Joey’s, but I wanted to honor my commitment, so I said no.”
Later, when that persistent friend landed a gig at the iconic Canlis, Kolpin finally said yes. He worked there for a year before moving onto another restaurant. During that time, someone gifted him the Noma cookbook. “I instantly saw the correlation between ingredients there and here in the Northwest. I decided I needed to go there.”
The road to Copenhagen
While he was soaking up founding Noma chef René Redzepi’s wisdom on those gorgeously illustrated pages, someone Kolpin met had a connection at the lauded restaurant and made the introduction that helped him land an internship. On day two at Noma, he screwed up the courage to approach executive chef Matt Orlando. “I really wanted to talk with him, tell him about my love of food. He let me talk and patiently listened. Then he said, we’ve got no openings and we’re not looking to fill any positions.”
Kolpin was crushed: “I thought I just failed and I have more than a month and a half left.” Oh, and he told everyone back home that he was going to Noma for a job tryout, not to work as a stage.
He felt awful the rest of the day but then had an epiphany. He decided to double down and do what he does best: “I decided I was just going to be more myself, to give them more of the kind of energy I’ve got.”
That hustle got him a job offer and he stayed for nearly nine years, distinguishing himself as an instructor to the steady stream of interns.
Then, a conversation with his father set him on a different course. “I was home for a vacation and he casually mentioned that he thought he had maybe one more trip left in him to the summit of Cochise Head in the Chiricahua Mountains in Southeast Arizona near where he grew up. I teared up. I thought I’d be really upset with myself if I missed spending time with my family. I went back to work and gave them nine months notice.”
The day after his going away party, he woke up to an email from his father telling him about the first death from COVID-19 just outside Seattle. “I ended up not being able to get home for four months.”
He used that time to bone up baking skills, working with renowned baker Richard Hart at Hart Bageri. Oh, and when he got back to the U.S., there was also a stint on the culinary competition juggernaut known as Top Chef.
Moving forward in a surprising setting
Kolpin stepped into the kitchen at the Lodge at St. Edward Park last spring chomping at the bit to make big changes, but ran into some challenges. The resort-style hotel — beautifully updated from its historic past as a Catholic seminary — opened in May 2021 and had already seen two chefs come and go. Much of the kitchen staff exited when the last chef left.
The reality of staffing up slowed the chef’s roll for a hot minute, but that didn’t stop him from bringing some Noma influences onto the menu. The first awww-inspiring move was to add a slightly savory dish to the dessert menu. Hello, caramel tart finished with a shiitake mushroom cream. Truly spectacular.
On the dinner menu at Cedar + Elm, the hearth roasted black cod finished in a ethereal herb cream, the ricotta gnudi with crispy speck and a spot-on schnitzel are among the current standouts. And, don’t miss the pan drippings when you order the flatbread.
“I want to showcase what I’ve learned, sharing that with the team, but that takes time. We don’t want to do anything before we can properly execute it,” he said.
Eventually, he plans to shine a spotlight on the chefs he’s working alongside in the kitchen, giving their creations a featured spot on the menu in one of the two bars.
And, he’ll also manage to get in a hike or two with his dad. “We’re still hoping to get up to Mount Rainier this year,” he said. Very cool.