Updated Wednesday, May 2, 2012 at 11:16 AM
Michael Natkin's first professional specialty: Computer graphics. The next: Animation.
Then there's the third specialty, now his primary job: Bold, intensely flavored recipes like paella cakes with manchego and marmalade, or spicy tamarind-glazed potatoes, or mango puffs with lemongrass-coconut pudding and black sesame.
After 12 years as a software engineer at Adobe, Natkin recently quit the tech world to focus full-time on food. He's currently on a national tour for his first cookbook, a beautifully designed hardcover titled "Herbivoracious" with 150 recipes and his own photographs (Harvard Common Press, $24.95). His next plan is to open his own small, innovative restaurant in Seattle spotlighting the sort of original, punchy dishes he creates on the blog he's operated since 2007.
Leaving his steady paycheck for the notoriously unstable restaurant world sounds risky, but Natkin's hardly a novice. He's spent years with cooking as his full-fledged obsession, building his blog readership and even taking leave time to train in professional kitchens like Cafe Flora and Canlis and New York's Dirty Candy. His cookbook recipes range from everyday to ambitious, but his clear and straightforward instructions strip the intimidation from dishes with titles like Peppery Absorption-Cooked Red-Wine Capellini. They're no trickier in the end than his take on mac 'n cheese or berry buckle.
The cookbook is vegetarian, as Natkin has been since he was a teenager, taking over the family cooking when his mother was dying of breast cancer and wanted to try a macrobiotic diet. (The book is dedicated to her.) But he'd like people to see his cooking as simply good and interesting food, not as dishes restricted to vegetarians-only. We spoke with Natkin before his book tour began; here's an edited, condensed version of our conversation. He'll be signing books and doing a demonstration at 6:30 p.m. June 19 at the Book Larder, 4252 Fremont Ave. N.
Q: Tell us about turning a cooking hobby into a vocation, after a career that includes helping "make dinosaurs and Terminators come to life at George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic":
A: "I've been a programmer for 30 years, and I'm only 45..."
"I've had this in mind for a long time. There have many times over the last 15, 20 years where I've said I should just give it all up and open a restaurant. My wife (Sarina) and I just agreed I was going to take two years to try to make a career in food work."
Q: How did you come to "stage" in restaurants to gain professional skills, working full-time in exchange for on-the-job training?
A: "It was such a great experience. I was discussing with Sarina that I wanted to open a restaurant. One of her concerns was, 'Do you know what the heck you're doing?' Obviously the answer was, 'I don't, but I need to learn.'..
"In my first foray I took six months off and spent four of them working at Cafe Flora, where I just threw myself at the chef's feet and said 'Just let me in your kitchen. I'll wash dishes, I don't care, just let me work there.' Flora was such a fantastic place to start cooking in restaurants. It's upscale enough that there's a lot of good food, and not so upscale that I couldn't get on the line and start cooking. I was running the cold station my second night I was there...
"Then I got to work at Canlis... There was no way (chef) Jason Franey was putting me on the hot line, but he was happy to let me plate the amuse bouches,to take a whole crate of kumquats and put them through the mandoline. There I got to see a lot of precision and how a high-end restaurant works and how his thought processes were."
Q: What led you to start the Herbivoracious blog?
A: "I was sitting on my couch in 2007, in the summer. I'd cooked a good meal, I was happy, but frustrated not to be doing this (food as a career). I started looking at other people's food blogs, and thought 'This is something I could literally start overnight."
Q: What made you stick with it, when so many of these things go by the wayside?
A: "I just seem to be one of those people that never does anything halfway. I don't seem to have a lot of control over that. And you're so woefully naive when you start a blog. I was trying to put ads on it the first week... I was trying to do everything, restaurant reviews, event postings, product reviews. Now basically I just do two things, all my recipes and then the occasional little philosophical post."
Q: The book's recipes are so global -- they range from Southeast Asian to Indian to Ethiopian to Middle Eastern -- but it doesn't present itself as a cookbook that's about cooking from different cultures.
A: "I don't feel any more at home with quote American cooking than Indian or Thai or Italian. Those are all equally comfort food for me, and comfort zones for cooking. It wasn't any conscious effort to be global, it's just how I eat. I think a lot of it has to do with the vegetarian thing; there is no worse cuisine for eating vegetarian than the standard American diet."
Q: What's one of your favorite recipes from the book?
A: "One I've really been enjoying lately is a Sicilian spaghetti (recipe below), just because when people think of pasta, I think they get stuck in red sauce or cream sauce or pesto and that's kind of it. This one has a combination of flavors that is second nature to Sicilian cooks, but I don't think has been super-well understood here yet. There's orange zest, pine nuts, parsley and raisins, oh, and capers. Siciliy is so interesting because it's near North Africa, and they tend to bring in flavor combinations that would seem completely inappropriately in Tuscany, for example."
Q: How do you develop recipes?
A: "I tend to just come up with recipes out of my own head, but I'm constantly immersed. I'm always reading cookbooks and reading food books... it's all going into the melting pot and coming out with my own spin on it."
Q: You have a long explanation on your blog for why you eat a vegetarian diet. Can you summarize it?
A: "I absolutely don't judge anybody else about what they eat, but for me it's just not right, there's no interest for me in killing an animal or having someone else kill an animal and eat it...And as it turns out, we've all learned there are a lot of good reasons to eat less meat whether or not you go vegetarian.
"(For the book), I don't want people to say "Here's a vegetarian cookbook!"...it's just not important. It's great food, hopefully, and we wanted to provide options for people to eat less meat, whether they want to be vegetarians, or want just to pull a good side dish out and serve it with roast beef...I'm definitely going to have a vegetarian restaurant, and I think it would be the same thing. I don't think I'd make a big deal about that."
With any luck, he said, people will find good things on the menu, get through their entrees, and only then notice they haven't had any meat.
Sicilian Spaghetti with Pan-Roasted Cauliflower
Makes 4 servings
1 head cauliflower, broken into large florets
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil + more for garnish
4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1/2 teaspoon chile flakes
zest and juice of 1 orange (zest divided)
juice of 1/2 lemon
3 tablespoons capers
1/4 cup raisins, plumped in hot water
1 pound spaghetti
1/3 cup pine nuts, toasted
fresh ground black pepper
flat leaf parsley, for garnish
grated fresh Parmesan cheese, for garnish (omit for vegan)
Bring a very large pot of well-salted water to a rolling boil and set your serving bowls to warm. Boil the cauliflower for 5 minutes, then remove with a slotted spoon into a colander (leave the water on to use for the spaghetti). It will not be fully tender at this point. Allow the cauliflower to drain for a few minutes.
Heat a large skillet (preferably cast iron) over a high flame. When it is hot, add the olive oil, garlic, fennel seeds, and chile flakes. Fry for about 20 seconds and then add the drained cauliflower and about 3/4 teaspoon of salt, and toss to coat with the oil. Cook, tossing occasionally, until tender and developing deep brown caramelized spots. The way to get this to happen is to keep the heat high, and not toss too often, so that the surfaces on the bottom of the pan brown. When it is nearly done, mix in the orange juice and half of the orange zest, the lemon juice, and the capers and raisins. Turn off heat.
Boil the pasta until al dente; immediately drain, reserving a cup of the pasta water, and toss the spaghetti with a little extra-virgin olive oil.
Add the pasta to the cauliflower, set heat to medium, and toss everything together; tongs work well for this. If it seems a little dry, add a ladle or two of the pasta water. Cook on high for about 1 more minute. Taste and adjust seasoning.
To serve, divide the pasta among four bowls. The cauliflower will not mix in well, so you will probably need to distribute it with tongs. Garnish with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil, the remaining orange zest, the pine nuts, fresh ground black pepper, parsley, and freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
Recipe from "Herbivoracious" (Harvard Common Press, $24.95)
Photo of Michael Natkin by Alan Berner/The Seattle Times