Rockin’ a Hard Place: Chef adds farming to his resume

He’s about to turn 35, so it’s only natural that a creative spirit like Tyler Hansen would feel the urge to try yet another challenge. This time, it’s farming. To understand why, you need to know how it came to be.

He and his wife Sara have been in Coupeville a little over six years; not long after they arrived, they bought Coupeville’s famed Oystercatcher restaurant. As its third owners, they challenged themselves to burnish the long-time gourmet restaurant’s reputation for locally sourcing as much as possible, so they’ve spent a lot of time hunting for reliable local suppliers of everything from cabbage and lettuce to lamb and fish.

A couple years ago, after diners raved about the restaurant’s bread that he made from scratch with his own sourdough starter and asked to buy some to take home, Tyler added a bread subscription business. It took off immediately and he currently has more than 40 subscribers who come by every so often to pick up a loaf or two.

It’s grown so much that he now has three full-time bakers on his staff, and they turn out an amazing 700 loaves a week in the downstairs bakery area to supply both the restaurant and the subscribers. Adding to that, Tyler and Sara opened a tiny retail bakery this spring, named the Little Red Hen, in a space below the restaurant. It’s only open on Saturdays and quickly sells out its supply of bread, scones and pastries baked on site.

For the past several years, the Oystercatcher got many of its fresh vegetables from nearby farms such as Rosehip, Kettle’s Edge, Willowood and others. Farmers would tell Tyler what they were harvesting during a particular week and he, as the chef, would create menus around what was available.

“I’ve had a messy process of developing things for the menu based on what’s there and not always knowing in advance how I was going to use things,” he said. “I have worked with farmers, particularly Linda Bartlett at Rosehip, to try and get ahead, know what was coming and when.”

But the idea dawned on him that if he planned, planted and harvested himself just for the restaurant he would have much greater predictability for his menus – and therefore more creativity as a chef.

“I want to take my cooking to the next level here at the Oystercatcher, and I think putting a seed in a seed tray, growing it in the ground and then harvesting will give me the ability to plan the whole time,” he said. “I will know I’ll have 50 celery roots or other vegetables in a particular week.”

His big opportunity presented itself last winter, when he heard that John Burks, owner of Kettle’s Edge Farm near Coupeville, would not be farming this season. Burks, a retired corporate chemist from Indiana, had become a popular mainstay at local farmers markets and a reliable supplier to Oystercatcher and other restaurants since he started his Whidbey vegetable-growing business in 2011. But this year he decided to take some time off; he wasn’t going to plant anything to sell.

Enter Tyler Hansen with a proposition. Let him plan, plant and harvest on Burks’ rich farmland, helped by a hired hand with Burks pitching in as much as he cared to. The harvest would all go to Oystercatcher. Burks quickly agreed to the unique partnership.

“It keeps Kettles Edge producing and that’s great,” he said.

So how will a chef with a busy, successful restaurant, a growing bread business and a new retail bakery find time to put his hands in the dirt and grow vegetables?

Fortunately for Tyler Hansen, his wife Sara keeps the books and manages the staff at Oystercatcher, and he has trained a number of others to cook his menu creations. And, Wednesdays, when the restaurant is closed, will be the only full day he’ll be down on the farm. At least he says that’s the plan.

On a recent Wednesday, he was at Kettle’s Edge stringing tomato plants and getting ready to plant potatoes. Garlic is already well along, soon to be joined by cabbage, fennel, carrots, beets, turnips, cauliflower, radishes, spinach and lettuce.

Tyler Hansen is basically a self-taught chef, having grown up in Colorado and starting to work in restaurants as a teenager. He worked for a while in Bellingham, where he met his wife, and then they moved around with restaurant jobs in Vail and Lake Tahoe. “We worked with a lot of good chefs, but we always knew that the Pacific Northwest would be our real home,” he said.

They spent a few months cooking at the Captain Whidbey Inn in 2013 and loved Coupeville so much they bought a house here. “We closed escrow and came to the Oystercatcher for dinner to celebrate,” he said. “We talked shop with the couple who owned it and three weeks later they came to the Captain Whidbey, told us they were selling the restaurant and asked us if we wanted it. We were 29 years old when we bought it.”

The restaurant had been successful ever since it was started by Susan Vanderbeek in 1997, but the dramatic increase in Whidbey tourism and the Rock’s growing reputation as a “foodie” destination has spurred the growth of many local restaurants.

“We took over the restaurant in December 2013, and our first winter here was really crickets,” he said. “But the ‘slow season’ gets shorter every year; now the busy time starts on Valentine’s Day and gets busier from there.”

No wonder, then, that Tyler and Sara Hansen’s restaurant now needs an ever-larger supply of fresh, locally grown vegetables and other food.

And also, believe it or not, a supply of locally grown wheat to make flour for bread. When the bread business started to take off, Tyler really wanted to locally source the wheat. Trouble was, most farmers haven’t grown wheat in commercial quantities on Whidbey Island for decades. The Rock’s farms are too small to compete with large, corporately owned wheat producers elsewhere.

Undeterred, a couple years ago Tyler approached Wilbur and Clark Bishop, long-time farmers on Ebey’s Prairie, and asked if they would dedicate an acre or two to growing wheat for bread making. They agreed and last year harvested more than three tons for him. Tyler then hauls it in batches of 600 to 700 pounds to Fairhaven Organic Flour Mill in Burlington, which turns it into the flour used to make the Oystercatcher’s prized “Ebey’s Reserve” wheat bread.

And, this summer, he will team up with Bell’s Farm to add a loaf of Oystercatcher bread to that farm’s “community-supported agriculture” (CSA) boxes of its fresh produce, which will be sold both at the farm on West Beach Road and at the Skagit Farmers Country Store in Oak Harbor.

Tyler Hansen’s latest challenge has a lot of growing parts.