Not Interested in Resting on their Laurels

Kirkland Lifestyle talks with Chef Holly Smith about Cafe Juanita: Past, present, and future.

Holly Smith has been running Cafe Juanita as the owner and chef for 23 years. Previously, she’d worked at the Dahlia Lounge and Brasa in Seattle, and gone down the “French part” of her creative path before settling on a regionally specific Italian specialization. Tom Douglas himself was the one who suggested Smith purchase Cafe Juanita. Given that her first cooking job was in a house, the restaurant was especially appealing as a free-standing building with garden space. By the time she bought it, the restaurant had already been operating under the name Cafe Juanita for twenty years. Smith says she kept the name to be pragmatic, understanding that locals would keep calling it Cafe Juanita regardless. 

Operating as a female restaurateur in a field that can feel male-dominated, Smith cites Tamara Murphy of Terra Plata, Maria Hines - formerly of Tilth and Agrodolce, and Lisa Dupar of Lisa Dupar Catering and Pomegranate Bistro as other notables. Of awards bestowed on female chefs Smith says, “I’m conflicted. It’s not weight-lifting…there are no gender-based differences in how the job is done.” Smith notes that many restaurants affiliated with female chefs and/or owners have closed in the last ten years.  

Of her own establishment. Smith remarks that “The pandemic changed our DNA. We are in a new normal - forever changed. Our supply chain, work-life balance, and staffing are all different.” Even now, Cafe Juanita still sees guests who are coming out to dinner for the first time since COVID. “I’m grateful, and I know the team feels proud that people trust us with their health, and we keep improved safety measures in place.” The restaurant came back after the pandemic with a tasting menu only, but Smith emphasizes that substitutions are available as well as à la carte menu items. 

Smith says one of the hardest struggles in running a restaurant is finding experienced people in the hospitality industry with stability in their profession. “The labor thing is getting harder and harder. This is an area that’s hard to afford to live in, and that makes running a business challenging; you need a community of workers and consistency is key in food and hospitality.” 

Asked about what inspires Cafe Juanita’s menu, Smith says “Hunger is at the forefront of menu development.” Seasonal flavors like nectarines, squash blossoms, asparagus, etc. lend a sense of timeliness to the food. Each dish is ingredient-driven, and the vegan, vegetarian, and omnivore options are all in the same vein. Smith maps out menus, engages in tasting and tweaking, and experiments to see how each dish should be plated. The restaurant is closed on Thursdays, and Smith calls those “R&D days” for menu development, when the staff makes and tastes new recipes, or even just talks about them. 

As for the future of Cafe Juanita, Smith says “I can imagine getting to a place where there are a few less tables,” to keep menu flows consistent, they’ve controlled for volume since before the pandemic. She asks, “What are we going to have left to cook in ten years?” conscious of the impacts of climate change and the sustainability of certain ingredients in the supply chain. The menu is more vegetable-driven than in previous years, and Smith mentions that Cafe Juanita serves little salmon, as it’s a precious resource that’s prone to being overfished. “The most important thing to me is that Cafe Juanita always feels modern and continues to evolve. Our team is not interested in resting on our laurels.”

“The pandemic changed our DNA. We are in a new normal - forever changed. Our supply chain, work-life balance, and staffing are all different.”

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