Lifestyle

Keeping it real (and real tasty) in the woods

Ca’ buni chef Jess Dowdell works on the presentation of some baked items recently at her café kitchen at Mukilteo Coffee Roasters in the woods of Langley.   - Willa Kaveta photo
Ca’ buni chef Jess Dowdell works on the presentation of some baked items recently at her café kitchen at Mukilteo Coffee Roasters in the woods of Langley.
— image credit: Willa Kaveta photo

LANGLEY — She’s a bit like a sprightly Gretel of organic culinary delights.

But instead of dropping tasteless white-flour breadcrumbs on her way into the woods off Crawford Road, chef Jess Dowdell might be foraging the forest for Whidbey Island nettles or mushrooms to use in her usually locally sprouted, always organically-raised, farm-to-table cuisine.

Depending upon the season, of course.

Her destination, Mukilteo Coffee Roasters and Ca’ buni (ka-boo-nee), which literally means “house in the woods” — it’s nothing like the witch’s refined sugar-soaked hovel where Gretel almost gets cooked. No, it’s the café-in-the-woods of Langley, where Dowdell presides over the culinary calisthenics of her smiling kitchen staff.

Café owners and longtime coffee-bean roasters Gary and Beth Smith have given Dowdell one of the best gifts any chef would covet: freedom.

“I feel like an artist who has been given a studio with all the materials I could ever want and the freedom to just create,” Dowdell said.

Ca’ buni is a bustling, welcoming place of color and light, with swirls of counters that define the open kitchen and an opposite coffee, wine and beer bar.

Vibrantly painted canvases adorn the walls of the dining area under banners of more color that lead the eye outward toward the patio café and the brush of fields beyond.

“Isn’t it great out there,” Dowdell said. “In the summer, the hops are all grown around it, and we harvest it for the some local home-brewers.”

In just over a year, Dowdell has helped to turn the little restaurant in the woods into the go-to place for food for which at least one guy will fly in to get.

“One day I looked out the window and said, ‘Why’s French toast guy running through the woods?’ Well, it was almost 11 a.m. and he knows we stop serving breakfast then,” Dowdell said.

“French toast guy” is one of her loyal followers. A man who takes advantage of the small airport that sits next to the café and flies his small plane from Port Townsend just for Dowdell’s sourdough French toast topped with a seasonal fruit compote and organic maple syrup.

“I told him he can have French toast any time he wants,” she said with a laugh.

It’s not hard to imagine Dowdell giving in to a food fan’s pleas for her cooking. She may be small of stature, but her passion for feeding the community is large-hearted and earthwise.

Formerly the chef at Hedgebrook, Dowdell has been working in the restaurant industry since age 14. The signature of her work is the pains she takes to cook food that is grown as close to home as possible. She works closely with many local farmers to use local and organic ingredients, including products that hail from Quails Run Farm, the Raven and the Spade, Willowood Farm, Whidbey Island Winery, Three Sisters Cattle Company, Shipki Farm, Whidbey Green Goods, Bur Oak Acres and High Seas Tuna Company, among others.

But even if she can’t get something on the island, it comes from within Washington, and it’s got to be organic.

“You can taste the difference in a plant that has been nurtured and raised naturally, working with the cycles of the earth, not genetically modified and drowned in pesticides and herbicides,” Dowdell said.

“If it’s not tomato season, I just don’t use tomatoes; I’ll use tomatillos instead,” she said.

The organic and sustainable aspect of her food is important to Dowdell. For her, the food not only tastes noticeably better, it also promotes a philosophy that speaks to the health of the land, the health of the community who eats the food and the farmers who depend on the community to want them to grow it.

“It’s a return to a simpler, more sustainable way of living,” she said.

But beyond that philosophy is taste, and Dowdell is one of those artists who gets excited by creating something special.

Making food reveals a kind of elegant continuum to Dowdell, and she speaks of feeding people as a poet would of love.

“I get to cook with passion the food grown with passion so people can eat with passion,” she said.

Her face lit up when she described what she has in store for the St. Patrick’s Day feast, which will include organic, hand-corned beef braised in beer (minus the red dyes) which she will serve with a homemade horseradish cream sauce and porter mustard. March 17 also happens to fall on a Wednesday, which is the café’s “Wednesday in the Woods” night, when the usually just-breakfast-and-lunch spot stays open until 8 p.m. for dinner and until 9 p.m. for a family night of fun and games.

What Dowdell is doing at Ca’ buni is not easy. It’s sort of like changing the planet one meal at a time.

The tagline on the Web site, click here, is “Taste the passion ... from sprout to finish,” and although putting good, healthful food on everyone’s table takes a lot of effort, Dowdell praised the Smiths for giving her the freedom and the means to realize her passion.

She oozed respect for the owners who model the kind of work ethic that makes everybody in the place work harder, Dowdell said.

“With Beth and Gary it’s not like you’re working for them, but with them. They get right in there and do everything. They’re here before everyone else in the morning, already working hard.”

Going organic and reducing the miles between food and table is a passion that goes hand-in-hand with the Smiths’ philosophy to roast excellent coffee. In fact, all the beans roasted at Mukilteo Coffee Roasters are direct from the farms of about

10 countries, thanks to Gary Smith’s new import license.

With 50 years between them in the coffee business, and the vision to create a popular performance venue in the roasting room and hire the talented Dowdell, it’s no wonder their 6,000-square-foot roasting, packaging and shipping facility next to the café is on the verge of expansion. After six years of roasting in the woods, they are getting ready to build another facility next door which will accommodate several 30-foot silos for coffee-bean storage and another roaster.

Just as Dowdell is passionate about well-grown ingredients and their effects on one’s palate, so the Smiths believe roasting beans is a craft that can’t be rushed. By sight-roasting small batches of coffee in a 90-kilo vintage roaster, they are able to control the quality and consistency of each batch of beans.

The smell of roasting beans in the facility is pervasive and aromatically seductive.

Gary Smith was roasting a batch for an Asian client who he said likes a lighter roast. He was watching it carefully.

“I sell about 40,000 to 80,000 pounds of beans a month,” he said.

Forty percent of the business is done out of the country, with sales being made in Hong Kong, Bejiing, Shanghai, Singapore, Tokyo and Malaysia. He travels to farms all over South America, getting beans directly from the larger plantations that can provide the consistency of sustainable estate coffee and also a pleasant business atmosphere.

“The farmers entertain you. It’s nice to be on the farms, to sit down and eat with the families,” he said.

He might consider repaying the farmers’ hospitality by bringing them a little taste of heaven from Dowdell’s ever-changing seasonable menu.

The heady aroma of the beans blends with whatever magic she creates in the kitchen.

“We try to work with everyone’s diet needs, but also make it taste good,” Dowdell.

In other words, no matter what wheat-free, gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan or hearty meat dish she creates, Chef Jess has found a way to make it taste good, even if it happens to also be good for you.

Ca’ buni is open for breakfast and lunch from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Saturday, with Wednesdays in the Woods open until 9 p.m. It’s closed on Sunday.

The roasting room hosts regular performances and benefits by both local and national artists, with acoustic blues great Rory Block coming up April 17.

On Wednesday, March 10, the evening will include a delectable Indian-food dinner served between 5 and 8 p.m. and the first Ca’ buni-hosted Whidbey Island Arts Council Poetry Slam with Jim Freeman conducting the fun at 7 p.m. Call Chef Jess at 321-5270 or Freeman at 331-2617 for further information about the slam.

Catering on and off site is also available from Chef Jess’ kitchen, and Ca’ buni hosts private dinner parties, and in-the-field dinners including those being planned at the Raven and the Spade in Freeland for a midsummer’s evening, one at Whidbey Island Winery on Aug. 14 and the annual Farm Tour dinner fundraiser planned for Sept. 11. Check the Web site for details.Click here.

Ca’ buni is at 3228 Lake Leo Way in Langley. For the Mukilteo Coffee Roasters’ Web site, click here.

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