Reign FC Legend: Holly Smith

The Legends Campaign is a partnership between Seattle Reign FC and Avanade honoring women for their extraordinary contributions in the Pacific Northwest and beyond. Prior to our August 5 match against the Washington Spirit, we will recognize Holly Smith as a Seattle Reign FC Legend.

Holly Smith is a nationally renowned chef and the founder of Café Juanita in Kirkland. Since opening Café Juanita in 2000, Smith was named the James Beard Best Chef Northwest in 2008, and has received rave reviews from the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer. In 2010, Smith won an episode of Iron Chef, helping her and the restaurant gain national notoriety. Today, Smith lives in North Seattle with her son Oliver.

Q: What was your inspiration for becoming a chef, or what drew you initially to that profession?

A: I was a political science major who ended up working in restaurants. I loved the chaos of the evening, and the resolution of that chaos in one evening’s time. I’d been taking drawing courses in school and really loved them. I remember thinking I couldn’t get a job as an artist. I like organizational theory and conflict resolution, and I like art, so restaurants were a place where I could find all of that.

Q: When did you start to notice the similarities between cooking and art?

A: Cooking is really wide open creatively. It’s one of the most open, no parameters kind of places you can imagine. I started to see my point of view and perspective come through. Hospitality is a big draw for me, probably equal to the creative part. I don’t know that it would have been a profession for me in the long-term if I hadn’t had a creative outlook.

Q: How did you end up in the Seattle area?

A: I got married to a guy who was going to graduate school at the University of Washington. The West Coast sounded like fun. I started looking for restaurant work right away. It wasn’t the same climate as it is now. I remember when Food Network started filming. I went to cooking school and did all that, but I was still hunting my way. I couldn’t have told you back then what I’d be doing in five or ten years. But I’ve had people tell me subsequently, “I remember you saying you were going to open a restaurant when you were 23.” I wasn’t trying to be anything other than a cook when I first moved here.

Q: What is the most rewarding part about being a chef and creating food for a community?

A: It’s facilitating, and just getting food to the table. It’s making space for you that is not only delicious but inviting. I hope people let go of their day for a little bit. I wanted to create space that I would want to go to. When I connect with guests, it can be happy times or sad times. At Café Juanita, I’ve had people get married, and seen funerals and births and all sorts of things. Helping them celebrate those moments feels great. If the food’s also delicious and beautiful that’s great. But the more I do it, the more it’s about creating space.

Q: Can you describe the relationship between a restaurant and a community, and how those things often go hand-in-hand?

A: It depends on the style of restaurant; every style has its place. What I have found with Café Juanita is that old adage, you meet people where they are. We get so much back from the community. I’ve seen their arc for 18 years, and they’ve seen my arc for 18 years. They’re not only rooting for us while we’re caring for them, but it’s a support system in both ways. It’s such a surprising bonus to owning a business.

I have a soon-to-be 14-year-old son who’s done so many events with me. How fortunate for him to see philanthropy and charity and ways to be a helpful piece of that, even if it’s just sweat equity you’re putting into it. There are people who are passionate about local business around here. Because of that, they really support us.

Q: Do you have any experience with soccer? Did you play growing up?

A: I was a lacrosse and field hockey player. I remember one of the camps I went to, they brought a soccer ball, and we were like, “What is this crazy thing?” I’ve never been a soccer player, but I like to watch it very much, and I’ve been to a lot of games and think they’re best. The ball control that people have when they play soccer is miraculous.

Q: What advice would you offer to women entering the workforce, whether in the restaurant industry or otherwise?

A: Be yourself. Take chances. Be honest. Be open-minded, but firm in who you are and what you believe.