Renee Erickson: Award Winning Chef

renee holding kelp

Renee Erickson didn’t mean to become a chef, let alone one of Seattle’s most lauded. Raised in Woodinville, just outside the big city, she earned her bachelor of fine art at the University of Washington with the intention of becoming an art teacher. As she was applying to graduate schools, she went to work part-time as a server at Seattle’s Boat Street Café in the University District, owned by chef Susan Kaplan. Renee soon moved from serving to the kitchen, and Susan began encouraging Renee to buy the restaurant when she sold it.

But Renee was young, and she wanted to travel. She’d spent her university study abroad in Rome, where she woke up to the idea of cuisine and its prominence in other cultures: the joy, everydayness, and seasonality of it. “It was an opportunity to see what I felt like was missing here, and what I wanted to create,” she says. Since she’d returned from Rome, all she wanted
was to find a way to go back.

So she left the restaurant and traveled around Europe for seven months, experiencing culture and cuisine. When she returned, she pivoted from graduate school and bought Boat Street. At just twenty-five years old, with little culinary experience, Renee became a chef and restaurant owner.

“It was a much gentler time in restaurants when you could work and learn without feeling that crazy pressure of social media,” she says. Fast forward twenty-six years, and Renee is now a James Beard Award-winning chef owning and running a family of nine restaurants in the Seattle area under the collective name Sea Creatures.

Europe influenced Renee’s outlook on food. But the bounty of the Pacific Northwest defines it. “I’m proud of the uniqueness of what we can do here,” she says. “It’s maybe not as distinct in style as California cuisine or New Orleans cuisine. We have a more modern intention around our food here, with the hyperlocal aspect, and seasonality, and a sustainability of choices.”

“We’re still uncommon, the restaurant industry is super male-dominated.”

Renee came up in the industry at a time when women were not common in the kitchen. “We’re still uncommon,” she says. “The restaurant industry is super male-dominated.” It still makes her angry when she comes up against those barriers. “But I try not to focus on it, and try instead to do the best I can and hope that warrants the attention it deserves.”

These days, one of Renee’s greatest passions is teaching her teammates and working with them to come up with new creations. Most of her culinary learning came from travel and the experiences that accompanied it—which she recognizes is a much more difficult and expensive
option than it used to be.

renee cooking
renee holding rockfish
“trying to make the best decisions for our guests, and the staff and farmers and fishers— that’s where I find the most joy.”

“Our restaurants classic are in origin and come from the things I’ve brought back that I loved,” she says. “Trying to convey and teach tradition and historical context is really exciting. As is keeping up on what matters: trying to make the best decisions for our guests, and the staff and farmers and fishers—that’s where I find the most joy.”

renee holing bull kelp

Renee Erickson, @chefreneeerickson


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