Interview with Holly Smith, Chef and Owner of Café Juanita

The following interview was made possible by the NW Tastemaker, a culinary travel publication forthcoming from Northwest Travel Magazine. To read more interviews with the best chefs in the Pacific Northwest, visit Northwest Travel Magazine and

Holly Smith, Chef and Owner of Café Juanita

Hailing from a food-loving family in Monkton, Maryland, Holly Smith is the chef and owner of Kirkland’s Café Juanita. Smith studied in Ireland under the tutelage of a Master Chef Peter Timmins at the Baltimore International Culinary College, and after moving to Seattle in 1993, she began working with Tom Douglas at the Dahlia Lounge. She was employed as the sous chef of the Dahlia Lounge for four years, and in 1999, fellow Seattle chef Tamara Murphy invited her to take part in the opening of Brasa.

Smith opened Cafe Juanita in Kirkland in April of 2000. Inspired by Northern Italian cuisine, she created a menu using seasonal, fresh artisan products from Italy and the Pacific Northwest. In 2008, Chef Smith won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest, and chef Smith and Café Juanita were nominated for the James Beard Award for Outstanding Chef and Outstanding Restaurant in 2011.

In a recent bold move, Smith briefly turned Café Juanita into a popup in Capital Hill. In July, she reopened the remodeled Café Juanita with a more contemporary decor, a new private dining room that seats 40, and an upper deck that seats eight.
1. How do you describe Northwest cuisine?

I think the Hallmark of Northwest Cuisine for me is the depth of the community's commitment to and access to local ingredients, from both small and mid-sized farmers, artisans and companies. The network that is in place here is very special and, I think, rare in the U.S. I think the Northwest is an omnivore's paradise. Of course, we do have a strong Korean, Thai and Vietnamese presence in our restaurants, given our Pacific Rim culture... What I like are people who love this place and who travel and get inspiration and then bring that worldview back to the Northwest. I think that has the potential to help us grow as a world-class food region.

2. Who are six of your favorite purveyors that you regularly work with?
We love them all! I enjoy working with Oxbow Farms, Foraged and Found Edibles, Steel Wheels Farms, Full Circle Farms, Palouse Pastured Poultry, and SweetGrass Wagyu.

3. When you go out for a nice meal, what are two or three of your favorite spots?
I must say sushi is my go-to, and I am always very happy at Kisaku and Sushi Kappo Tamura.

4. Who are two other Northwest chefs that you admire?
I admire all of the hard working chefs and cooks here. I always prefer to look at the scene as a whole and support it rather than call out one or two, when so many people are working so hard and with such passion.

5. In your opinion, is there an area of Northwest cooking that doesn't receive enough attention?
Well, I think that in general the media focuses on a "Best New" model that means that readers are constantly shown the hot new thing... It's great for us all as we open to be included, but is that the real best on any of those lists… doubtful. Of course, I say that after spending a long time working to improve and refine both food and service at one place. I know from experience as a guest, as well as a worker bee, that experience yields results. My last meal at Le Bernidan was the best ever! I think that a wider net could certainly be cast to find delicious food.

6. Looking toward the future, what are you most excited to do in the kitchen?
I think that our guests are becoming increasingly savvy and open to trying new things. I love that, because it means chefs are cooking from their hearts rather than from a formula. 

I am in the beginning stages of a very big remodel of my restaurant, and I am so excited to find out if all of the improvements we have made on paper will really translate as I foresee in service and experience! I am, of course, also excited to be operating a Pop Up in Seattle on Capitol Hill. It's fun to play with a tasting-menu-only pop up on the Seattle side after 14 + years of driving to Kirkland.

Café Juanita
9702 NE 120th Pl
 Kirkland, WA 98034


Popular Posts