Kristen Ward has worked in the Seattle culinary scene as a chef, led cooking classes in the Loire Valley, recorded four albums and supported herself as a touring musician. Then, Ward surprised the music world by returning to her hometown of Spokane, Washington, to open a restaurant called The Ivory Table. But food has always been Ward’s love, since she was a child.
Paste Food caught up with her to talk about her two great creative loves.
Paste: Which passion came first, music or food?
Kristen Ward: I’ve always loved to cook, but as far as a passion that grabbed me and made me unable to think of anything else — that was music.
Paste: What is your early history with music?
KW: My mother was an aspiring singer in my teenage years. She went to Nashville and recorded a country album. Right around that time, I learned to play the guitar. I never had any real lessons, just a boy that I would hold hands with on the bus who taught me how to play a few very basic chords. I got a couple of books and started learning John Denver, Joni Mitchell and Carole King songs. I would just play until I couldn’t play my guitar anymore. I remember being obsessed. I would wake up early before school and play, I would play the second I got home, run home from the bus stop and play my guitar.
Then I started writing songs. I was a kid who would journal, and I was used to actually articulating my thoughts and my feelings in writing.
Paste: What drew you to the food world?
KW: Food seemed like a realistic dream for me. I thought, ‘I don’t know if it sounds realistic to try to run off and be a rock star, so I think I’ll go to school and be a chef.’ It was something I loved. Food was creative; it was a tremendous outlet. All through the years of singing, I always cooked. By the time I was seven and eight, I was making full dinners for my family with several dishes.
Right out of high school, I decided I was going to go to culinary school. After school, I got hired at Le Gourmand in Ballard and I worked under a chef named Bruce Naftaly. He is known as the grandfather of Northwest cuisine. This is the first time I ever saw morels, fiddlehead ferns, wild huckleberries, all kinds of incredible produce, and wild food, foraged food, wild sorrel and wild lettuces.
A couple of years in, I got a call from a woman who was looking to hire someone in France. Next thing I knew, I was in an interview with this woman and another month later, I took two planes and three trains and I ended up in Chinon in the Loire Valley.
Paste: What made you decide to give a music career a try?
KW: I was seeing this artist at the time who kind of broke my heart while I was in France and I decided that I was no longer going to chase around any other artist, I was going to be an artist.
I was on a plane back, flying over the Atlantic ocean and I remember thinking ‘I know that this culinary thing is going really well.’ While I was in Europe I was getting job offers, so I wasn’t worried about getting a job in the culinary field. I remember thinking to myself, ‘I’m going to see what it’s like to take a shot at something I don’t know is going to work.’ It sounded like an adventure.
I went back to waiting tables and bartending, which I could do part-time and make enough money in two or three days a week to make a living. I told myself I would put cooking on the back burner and try to be a musician. I didn’t even know what that meant really, to be a professional musician.
I moved into a small basement apartment in Queen Anne in Seattle. I always wanted to be a painter; I just wanted to be an artist. I went to the local art store and I spent $300, which just felt like an absolute fortune. I bought some paints and canvas and I set up this little studio in my apartment and I started painting. I painted 15 paintings, took pictures of them all and took them down to some places on Ballard Avenue. I found a guy that agreed to let me hang them on the wall for a First Friday art opening. I hung them up and in the first night I sold $10,000 worth of work. I couldn’t believe it. I took that money and I said to myself, now I need to make an album.
So I went out to a bar, only a couple nights later, and I ran into a guy who happened to be a music producer, and he recorded my first three albums for me.
I started writing songs. I would lock myself in my apartment for weeks on end and just write and write. I wrote albums worth of material and we whittled it down to what belonged and started recording.
We started out playing little acoustic shows, just me and my guitarist, but it wasn’t long after that it caught some traction and we started getting better shows, and then I had a drummer, then I had another guitar player join and you know, suddenly I had a band.
Once we got the band together it was like all we ever wanted to do. I recorded my first album and then it became very apparent that I had to play shows. I remember just being terrified of getting in front of an audience and performing. But once I started, I was hooked.
Paste: What are some of your highlights from your time in the music world?
KW: I had the opportunity to perform with Roger Daltrey of The Who, I sang at a concert with him where we covered John Lennon songs, that was pretty incredible. I became friends with Ann and Nancy Wilson of Heart, and I was able to write quite a lot of an album in Nancy Wilson’s cabin in Cannon Beach.
I got hired on one time to do an opening show at the Tractor in Ballard and I showed up and stood up on the stage and started my opening thing only to find out that I was opening for Leon Russell. Lucinda Williams, one of my all-time idols, came and watched me sing when I was in LA performing there. I had the great fortune of recording and playing with a man named Andy Stoller, who’s now on tour with Heart, he played for years and years with Tracy Chapman. I’ve performed with Duff McKagan of Guns N’ Roses, recorded twice with Mike McCready of Pearl Jam, just a lot of cool people.
Working with Terry Date was a super career highlight; he was known for his work with White Zombie and all the Soundgarden albums and he’s just a force in the rock and roll world. He recorded an album with me when I was pregnant with my daughter.
Some of these people I worked with were just huge and I the funny thing is I never quite understood how incredible it was until I had some space to get back and look at it, but these moments were just life changing.
Paste: So how did you transition back to food?
KW: Things were going really well, but one thing that I could never quite reckon with is that as an artist, much of your success is based on what people on the outside think of you. That seemed to slowly start to eat me alive.
Social media happened when I was doing music, so when I first started it was like, ‘whoa there’s this weird thing called MySpace.’ It used to be just old-fashioned email campaigns, but then MySpace started and then Facebook started and the next thing I knew you had to be everything to everyone, you had to be a personality and a writer and a dynamic performer and have something relevant to say and be mainstream but also be indie.
The second you become aware of what is going on around you, as an artist, is when you lose what’s going on within you. And what’s going on within you is what captures people. I think somewhere along the way I started to become tired and I needed a change, I wanted something that fed the side of me that was not being fed by the audience, that was not being fed by accolades or the backstage world of rock and roll, the world of music, something was still starving and it was sort of this very nostalgic hunger for something deeper. I ended up falling in love with a farmer, and when I did something shifted in my heart and I decided to take an adventure and I moved to the country and had a baby.
During that time, I decided that I wasn’t dying to be back in front of the audience. I love performing so much, but I decided I wanted to try to feed this other side of myself that really wanted to connect in a different fashion with people that wasn’t always about ‘me me me’ and what they were thinking of me, it was more about what I could give to them and just kind of quietly be behind the scenes and see people have the best date of their life or celebrate a special time or just come in and have a glass of wine and sit down and have something that nourished their soul in a slightly different way than music did.
I had a little one, and things did not work out between her father and I, but I still had this little treasure of a human. I ended up moving out to Spokane, to be close to family. I started poking around and I found a catering company that was for sale here in Spokane, I decided to move back on this belief that I would buy the company. I moved and the whole deal fell through. I was just looking for a new beginning, I was trying to get on my feet again.
I was out and about driving around East Sprague, which is, I shouldn’t say, where dreams go to die, but growing up, that was a part of town you didn’t go to. It was dangerous, overrun by prostitution, drugs. It was just not a part of town that you would ever want to end up in. Not for a nice dinner, not for anything. You didn’t go there unless you were trying to score a hooker or some meth.
It was pouring rain and I pulled up in front of this little cafe, called the Flying Pig, and I see that the bar next door is for lease. I go into the cafe and I say ‘What’s the the deal with the bar next door? Do they have a commercial kitchen?’ These people say ‘We don’t know about that, but will you rent our restaurant?’ I mean, it’s like asking for directions and having someone offer you their business. They said, we’re burnt out, how about you just take this place, and I said ‘Okay, I will.’ The rent was dirt cheap and I thought ‘I’ve already moved here, everything has kind of fallen to bits and I might as well just follow,’ I have a real strong faith in where life tends to lead you. So I suddenly had a restaurant space and I turned it around, I painted it and redesigned it and opened The Ivory Table.
Paste: What was your vision for The Ivory Table?
KW: I remember one time in Chinon, getting caught in a downpour, and ducking into a little cafe on this cobblestone street. It turned out to be a creperie. To this day I don’t remember ordering anything but the woman brought me this huge triangular steaming crepe filled with Normandy butter and sautéed apples with caramel drizzle and salt on it and a hard cider. I sat there and I watched the rain gurgling down, there were all these people who had crammed into a space that was probably 15×15, and I remember being supremely happy in that moment and I thought, what if I could create something like that, where you could be walking in an area that you maybe feel foreign in, you maybe feel lost, much of the feelings I felt when I first got back to Spokane. If I could create a little place that every time you walk into it you feel like it doesn’t matter how unexpected it is, it just feels like home, you feel welcome. That was what I tried to put into the place as I built it and I think it feels that way, it feels that way to me.
I wanted it to be by day a creperie, and a little sandwich shop that had wonderful salads all the time, fresh soup, just a wonderful place to tuck into and enjoy a hard cider or some really great coffee and a big, hot steaming crepe and then by night here and there, throwing special parties, having supper club, having it just be kind of a little gem in this place you wouldn’t expect.
Everyone told me, no one’s going to come to this area and eat this food. No one’s going to eat a crepe on East Sprague, like, are you kidding me, they’re just trying not to step on hypodermic needles.
We’ve been open for two years, when we first opened there was really nothing in there, it was just a little deli case and some tables and chairs. Over the course of the last two years we’ve made it look really pretty inside, it’s grown, but what’s really changed, the biggest thing that’s changed about it is the people that make it what it is, our regular customers, all the people that come down and fill it up everyday for lunch, we fill up everyday and it’s like this wonderful bustling cute little world. It’s like an oasis in an area that’s really awful a lot of the time.
Paste: What do you love about being a chef and restaurant owner?
KW: I can go to sleep at night and know that I’ve created joy in people’s lives and did something creative. Restaurant work is meditative work, it’s a craft and you show up every day. Some days are harder than others, but you just keep showing up. The ritual of it becomes an art and that art is deeply satisfying to the soul, so if you can handle the business, if you can stick with it long enough, it starts to feed the souls of the people that do it.
The other big satisfying thing is the supper club. In a way, it made me remember some of the things about performance that I like: getting a group of people together, sort of like an audience that was willing to accept whatever I felt like serving at the time and leading them through an experience, which is much like performing in a show. No one writes your set list for you, no one tells you how to perform it or what to sing. They show up, they pay the price and they trust you to lead them through an experience. Supper club has felt the closest to what I miss of performing as a musician.
Paste: What is similar about the food and music worlds?
KW: The restaurant world and the music world are all consuming. Maybe that has to do with how I am as an artist, maybe there are people out there who are able to balance, but in my experience, when I’m doing music, it’s all I can think about, and when I’m doing food, it’s all that I can think about. I’ve been in the restaurant industry for 19 years, and I’ve been in the music industry for 13, they’re both hard businesses, they’re not for the faint of heart, they’re not for people who aren’t really willing to take a serious beating and wake up the next morning and keep going.
You can change a person’s life with one song, and you can change a person’s life with one meal. They’re acts of devotion. I don’t really sing or cook because I’m devoted to my audience, that’s not really what it is, but the act of showing up every day and doing things that are hard because you believe in doing them, it shows. It shows and it affects people. I have been affected by incredible songs, and incredible meals, those are the two things that have changed my life.
Paste: What are some of the differences between your creative work as a chef and as a musician?
KW: The act of being creative feels the same. It’s almost like exercise: the act of exercise gives you a certain feeling that you’re looking for, but running is going to be very different than weightlifting.
I think that cooking is a little bit more of a quiet satisfaction. It’s not always, I sing, you applaud, or I pray that you don’t boo, and that’s a nice thing, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss the crowd.
Paste: What does the future look like for you with food and music?
KW: It’s a huge goal of mine to return to performing music. I’ve been writing, and I’ll still play a show here and there, but because the restaurant has been so consuming, I have devoted myself to it for the time being. But there’s not a day that goes by that I don’t miss the stage. There’s absolutely nothing like being a singer, being onstage, singing your music and watching people respond. The closest thing to do it, that has been almost equally satisfying, is being a chef and owning a restaurant. They’re both incredible highs with incredible lows.
I hope to be a restaurant owner for the rest of my life. I hope to own multiple restaurants, I’m in love with the business. It’s hard, gritty, and beautiful, just like the music industry.
Cara Strickland is a former food critic and freelance writer specializing in food and drink. Read more of her work at carastrickland.com.