Washington Lamb: Succulent flavors, on island farms and at urban gems
written by Corinne Whiting | photography by Cameron Zegers
Chef David Hatfield, the owner of Pink Tractor Farm and frequent host of elaborate farm-to-table dinners, lives by an important credo: “If I can’t raise or grow it myself, I won’t serve it.” This applies to chicken, duck, geese—and his delicious lamb creations, too.
Five years ago, Hatfield and his wife made a significant life leap. After buying acreage on Vashon, they relocated to the island, began farming and discovered how much they loved this new way of life. They sell their goods at a local farmers market that runs between April and November, a relatively new online farmers market and at their year-round farm store (think eggs, chicken, beef, pork and so on). When it comes to lamb, the farm can hardly keep up with the demand.
Hatfield admits the learning curve has involved some trial by fire, in addition to required reading and chats with fellow farmers. Having previously cooked at Seattle’s Hotel Sorrento, owned and run a restaurant in Bend, Oregon, and then served as executive chef at Kimpton Alexis Hotel, he has found in this new role plenty of challenges and plenty of joy.
“If you look at the map, you’ll see that 4 to 5 million people live just a stone’s throw away. It’s amazing in the summer the amount of [visitors] that take the twenty-minute ferry over to escape the city for a bit,” he said, referring to his new home, a “magical” island in the middle of Puget Sound. “There’s no other place like it in Washington.”
Pink Tractor rents out island restaurants and inspiring alfresco spaces at wineries and cideries to cater popular events like eight-course dinners that come “100 percent off the land.” This spring and summer, the farm will collaborate with the Lodges on Vashon for a series of special meals. “We have some pretty amazing resources here on the island,” Hatfield said.
Washington Lamb: a culinary phenomenon
In our country, more than 80,000 family farmers and ranchers care for more than 6 million sheep. Lamb is produced in every state, meaning fresh, local lamb is available year-round. The American Lamb Industry declares that “sustainability makes perfect sense. After all, stewardship of our land, animals and community is also our livelihood.” Sheep recycle vital nutrients back into the soil, improving the quality of the pasture and rangeland while minimizing erosion and encouraging native plant growth.
Hatfield explains that, of the two types of sheep one can breed, he raises the meat breed since they’re bigger and don’t need to be sheared. They graze on pastures, and Hatfield deems them “relatively easy to raise.” However, having lost three sheep to coyotes last year, the farm keeps a few livestock-guarding dogs on hand as protectors. The lamb butchering takes place in the springtime, and ground lamb is used in a variety of recipes. Hatfield then uses the legs to make prosciutto, which takes six months to cure and dry out, and makes sausage that gets consumed later that winter.
“I think chefs and home cooks and foodies love cooking with lamb because it is flavorful, unique and versatile with an upscale image that makes any meal feel special,” executive director of the American Lamb Board Megan Wortman said. “Lamb adds adventurous flavor to any dish and is a staple in many global cuisines.”
Chef-Partner Eric A. Truglas of Bellingham’s EAT Restaurant & Bar offers lamb specials on a regular basis, sourced from Whatcom County’s Sage & Sky Farm. “I love lamb,” he said. “I usually buy the whole animal and use every part. Lamb is a great source of protein, not too fatty, and can be cooked in many different ways.”
Executive Chef Emran Chowdhury of Seattle’s Mercato Stellina sources from Lopez Island’s Jones Family Farms. “I enjoy cooking lamb because of its unique texture and rich and succulent flavors,” he said. “You have to be very precise in handling lamb during the cooking process or it can easily overcook and become tough and chewy. It’s a perfect dish for the dark, cold winter months here in Seattle because lamb is definitely a comfort food, and the savory flavors of the meat pair wonderfully with the warm winter spices.”
When asked why he loves what he does, Hatfield replied, “It’s not great money and it’s hard work, but it’s really rewarding.” He loves watching people taste his food while realizing there’s a “totally different world” beyond what they’ve previously known.
“Being a chef, I love cooking and being able to raise [ingredients] from scratch—whether it’s lamb or carrots—serving them to customers and seeing their expression say, ‘Wow, this has such great flavor!’” he said. “It’s like an education for a diner, and it’s really exciting for me to teach.”