The culinary inspiration behind a popular new TV series spent the weekend at Captain Whidbey Inn, serving up specialty Italian dishes made with local flair.
Courtney Storer, a chef with an impressive resume and the culinary producer of FX’s 2022 series “The Bear,” is in the midst of a four-day kitchen takeover at the cozy Central Whidbey locale. Since Thursday, she has been preparing and serving her own recipes with a variety of island ingredients.
Honey from Eckholm Farm, mussels from Penn Cove, greens from the Whidbey Island Grown Cooperative, short rib from Bell’s Farm, beef and sausage from Three Sisters Market and pizza dough made with locally grown flour from the Little Red Hen Bakery are all part of Storer’s cuisine.
Though not an island native herself, Whidbey has come to hold a special place in the chef’s heart. Its calm and tranquil energy has afforded her a place to tap into her creativity, she said. Ever since her first visit to the Captain Whidbey Inn four years ago, she knew she wanted to cook in this kitchen. Now, that dream is finally coming to fruition.
“It’s super surreal,” she said. “It’s like a very full circle moment.”
Though Storer has been working in restaurants since she was 15 years old, she didn’t begin her chef career until her late twenties. Storer worked in Italian restaurants in her hometown of Chicago as a teen but went on to study psychology and launched a career in corporate human resources.
Restaurants would remain a part of her life, though; Storer said even during her human resources career, she kept various restaurant positions as a second job. Growing up with a struggling single mom, Storer and her family didn’t have a lot of resources. Restaurants became a place where she could escape and experience a different world, she said.
“It was really a therapeutic, healing thing for me,” she said. “Restaurants gave me family and comfort.”
She was good at multitasking, so she often performed front-of-house roles such as bartending and serving, but she always wanted to be a chef. When she took a job with Whole Foods and moved to Los Angeles, she decided to finally pursue her cooking dreams and enrolled in culinary school.
She took classes at night and worked during the day. Upon completing her schooling, a mentor recommended she move to Europe to launch her career. She knew she needed to take a risk, so she moved to Paris.
“It was a very tough kitchen,” Storer said of the Parisian restaurant where she worked.
Her prestigious career continued when she moved back to Los Angeles, where she became the head chef at Jon and Vinny’s, a job she held for seven years.
Storer said what she enjoyed most about her time in restaurants was how the work facilitated engagement with members of the community. People often come to restaurants for special occasions — birthdays, anniversaries, celebrations, date nights — and she said there was magic in being a part of that.
Captain Whidbey general manager Eric Wright said the joy Storer finds in engaging with others is evident in her work.
“Her enthusiasm and genuine connection with people is perfectly displayed by the food she makes,” he said.
But the restaurant industry had its challenges, too. Storer said that when she first decided to become a chef, she faced some pushback because of her gender.
“Everyone that I would talk to would be like, ‘You don’t want to be a chef, it’s too hard — women don’t do that,’” she said.
There was also burnout to contend with. Working in a restaurant can be intense. High demands, long hours, fast turnover and low pay all contribute to the stress of the field. When the pandemic hit in 2020, Storer decided to take a step back.
She left the restaurant, but a new opportunity soon arose. Her brother, Christopher Storer, brought her onto the team for his FX show, “The Bear.” The series, which follows an esteemed young chef who moves home to Chicago to run his family sandwich shop following the death of his brother, displays the gritty side of food service. Storer said that her brother drew from her experiences in the industry — the ups and the downs — when creating the show.
Storer became the culinary producer for “The Bear.” She assisted with conceptualizing the characters, sharing insights about the food world with the writers, styling the food used in the show and training actors on how to move and behave in a kitchen. Everything from how to call a ticket to when the actors should have aprons on to teaching how to hold a knife fell under her jurisdiction.
Wright said that Storer’s involvement with “The Bear” was a contributing factor to the excitement inn staff felt in anticipation of her visit.
“We’re all big fans of the show,” he said.
The show, which can be streamed on Hulu, saw a successful first season, and Storer said the team is gearing up for season two.
Storer also launched her own catering business, Coco’s To Gogo, in 2020. She said she’s in no rush to expand it, but rather is building it up slowly. The gentler pace allows her to take on other projects, such as this weekend’s brief residency at the Captain Whidbey Inn.
Storer had never really experienced the Pacific Northwest until Brooke Little, her partner since 2018, brought her to Little’s native Seattle. Storer first visited Whidbey Island while exploring the greater Seattle area and immediately developed a connection to the island. She said she hopes her time in the Captain Whidbey kitchen and her incorporation of local ingredients in her menu will help introduce new people to the island.
“People are really excited about us being here,” she said. “It’s just nice to hopefully teach new people about Whidbey that have never been, because it’s such a magical place to go.”