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Featured Article

Preparation and Preservation

Article by Heija Nunn

Photography by Kara Mercer

Originally published in Kirkland Lifestyle

With a track record of successful restaurants, Jason Wilson, executive chef and culinary visionary at The Lodge at Saint Edward, is a familiar face on the local food scene. He also happens to be one of those fabulously engaging personality types who seems like an old friend well before the end of a first conversation. This past Spring, Colombia Hospitality Group unveiled their careful historic preservation and conversion of the original seminary building tucked within an unexpected, tranquil and verdant, 326 acre State Park. This sparkling old but new again hotel and spa is dotted with food and beverage options, crowned by the airy chic of Cedar + Elm restaurant, a welcome destination for breakfast, brunch, lunch and dinner. Bellevue Lifestyle stopped by for a visit (and maybe just a bite or two) to find out what’s on the mind of the Chef with the never-ending smile.

How has your experience opening Cedar + Elm differed from your past restaurant openings?

Working with Kevin and Mary Daniels (Preservationists of the Lodge at St. Edward State Parks) has been one of the greatest professional pleasures of my past years in the business. They are incredibly authentic and genuine and it’s an honor to support their vision. I came on board at the beginning of March, I wasn’t part of design, concept or the process. I focused my work on creating the food and beverage to have authentic connections with the concept and space, and developing a team to open them.

There’s a meme out there that implies most people did not survive the pandemic without having a baby, getting a puppy or buying an air fryer. You’ve done a lot more than that! Can you describe the highs and lows of building a new restaurant while managing Covid challenges?

Well, we almost got a puppy. It was a very difficult time for all of us, some more than others. I focused on the reality and evidence-based research or facts, I was ready to accept what was happening, worked through things one day at a time and recognized that I couldn’t control everything. I took some courses on nutrition and plant-based foods, did some development work, created some amazing foods, learned a lot….and got married best of all! 

Your own wedding was one of the first events here at The Lodge, congratulations! Will you share a few details about your celebration?

Debbie and I had our wedding June 11, it was the first one at the Lodge and we were delighted. The photos we took were incredible using the artwork and architecture of the halls coupled with the natural light. Kevin Bradford did our flowers and he killed it. We had our ceremony in the grotto which was magical and our dinner in the year round Chef’s Garden, it was a small group, so it worked perfectly. Needless to say, the menu was seasonal and customized. The Lodge has history, there is reverence for its past and the holiness that accompanies it and it is gorgeous. We wanted something special, and it delivered incredibly well. There is a wedding booked for every weekend since. I am biased when I insist this is a top location for events, especially a wedding, but let me be biased!

You’ve been in the restaurant industry for a long time, what changes have you witnessed, and do you think the restaurant culture is where it needs to be?

All industries evolve, we would be foolish to think that anyone or thing is exempt. People evolve, or not, but a society surely evolves. If I look at the question through this lens, then I say the industry will never be where it needs to be and there is always work to be done. I came from a very different era in the culinary world, a world written about in Bourdain’s books. A time where your prowess in the kitchen meant more about your technique and knowledge than your social media following; so you’re right, I have been in the restaurant industry a long time. All kidding aside, as my food has evolved, so too has my approach to leadership, managing people and teams, developing concepts business in general. I am a student of our times, and like any student I cannot claim perfection

Labor shortages and supply chain issues are hitting restaurants hard. What are some of the challenges you face as you open doors to the public in uncertain times? 

Labor shortage is a big challenge however, equally challenging is the labor dynamic; the new workforce is much smaller as many of the experienced members have moved to more secure opportunities. We are faced with retraining as fast as possible. People are still traumatized from the insecurities and loss of the pandemic. Many have not yet recovered. Our industry is populated with people that live check-to-check and the trauma of having the rug ripped out is hard to forget and move past.

Do you have some menu goals moving forward?

We were not able to open with all the distinctive menus and programs I had planned so they will start to populate in the fall. We will be focused on Fall produce, growing leeks, arugula, Delicata squash (to go on scallops), kale and mustard greens. The Fall menu will include tortellini with pumpkin from the garden incorporating, sage, apples and hazelnuts. We are planning separate concept menus for Tonsorium and Heritage bars as well as a high tea program in Cedar & Elm. Some nights we will serve from the wood fired asado grill.

What can customers do to improve their own dining experience at your restaurants and beyond?  

1. Communicate with us, tell us what you want to share, if have a specific request or aversion with your food. We want to make what you want in the end. 2. Please have fun. You can eat in a beautiful place and have a fun time. Come celebrate, come relax, escape, and if you come with expectations, let us know so we can connect with them. 3. Please be safe !

Where do you eat when you’re not at work or home? What’s your quick fix comfort meal for a quiet night at home?

I mainly eat at home or work, if not there then maybe I grab a salad or a bowl at Jujubeet or Sano café. Food at home? Avocado toast, corn soup, my wife Debbie’s game changer chocolate chip cookies are my favorite

Do you have a favorite moment in each day?

Yes I do.

  • Jason and his wife on their wedding day at the Lodge at St. Edwards