Chef Holly Smith’s Cafe Juanita, in Kirkland, Washington, has been on the “best list” circuit for more than a dozen years. Esquire claimed it was one of the best new restaurants when it opened, in 2000, and just one year later, Sunset magazine claimed Cafe Juanita was the best reason to fly to Seattle for dinner. Smith, herself a 2008 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef in the Northwest, has put her support of growers and her commitment to sustainability full on into her Northern Italian menu in dishes like squash blossom fritti with goat cheese, and rabbit braised in Arneis with chickpea gnocchi, English peas, porcini, and house-made pancetta.
Smith grew up in Monkton, Maryland, and, after studying political science at Colby College, trained at Baltimore International Culinary College, which included an externship in Ireland, with master chef Peter Timmins. Moving to Seattle in 1993, she landed as sous chef at Tom Douglas’s acclaimed Dahlia Lounge; four years later, she joined the Mediterranean-inspired Brasa as chef de cuisine. Meanwhile, travels to Italy, where Smith reveled in its flavors, kick-started the idea for a place of her own.
Launching Cafe Juanita proved Smith absorbed a lot on those Italian sojourns. She even launched a gelato business, Poco Carretto (literally “little handcart”) at the Fremont Farmers’ Market, with flavors like the classic gianduja (chocolate and hazelnut) and the modern toasted rice (a Smith invention). Along the way Smith gained plenty of mettle to boot. In 2010, she bested chef Cat Cora on Iron Chef America.