For chef Robin Leventhal, being invited to teach a series of classes at the Sun Valley Culinary Institute in Ketchum was no ordinary assignment—it was a homecoming.
Leventhal—who’s earned her stripes in the kitchen at venues across the Northwest, including her own restaurant in Seattle—grew up in Sun Valley, from age 7 until she graduated from the private Sun Valley Community School in 1984. She was an avid skier and competed in organized races. She immersed herself in the outdoors, where she started to notice she was a “hands-on” person.
“I’ve always had my hands on things,” she said in an interview between teaching classes Wednesday in Ketchum. “I always knew that life was a journey.”
The foundation for that journey was her hometown, she said, the little enclave in the Idaho mountains.
“It couldn’t have been a more formative playground,” she said.
For Leventhal, it all started with art. She went on to higher education, eventually pursuing a master’s degree in Fine Arts at the University of Michigan. She loved working with clay and ceramics, a medium that kept her hands busy. During her studies, she was offered a summer job in catering, and that’s when it all changed. She started to learn the basic skills of cooking for others.
“I immediately knew my heart was in the kitchen,” she said. “Everything art did for me, cooking did on steroids.”
With no formal training, Leventhal jumped right into the restaurant world, not knowing at first that—especially in those days—it was a “man’s industry.” After she finished her master’s degree, she moved to Seattle, where she eventually got an audition to cook—she was asked to demonstrate how to cut an onion. The man she interviewed with—a Grateful Dead fan named Tony—became her first restaurant boss. They became friends, and even did some traveling together to go to rock concerts.
“From that point on, I knew the camaraderie that comes on that level doesn’t happen in most industries,” Leventhal said.
Becoming a chef
As she learned the trade, Leventhal developed her own style in the kitchen. It became a “very personal” endeavor, she said, a mission to connect with other people through food.
“We know people need to eat,” she said. “Cooking allows me to connect with people in a primal way. … It’s sustenance for the soul.”
Leventhal worked in several chef positions in Seattle, further honing her own style with every new role. Eventually, she learned of a vacant performing arts building in the Capitol Hill area that had the bones of a restaurant. She leased it, remodeled it, and installed tables and 26 seats. That’s when Crave was born.
Crave was a “neighborhood place,” Leventhal said, a bistro where she served classy comfort food at an affordable price. There was no fried chicken on the menu. Instead, on a cold, drizzly night, patrons could enjoy dishes such as duck confit, goat cheese gnocchi, shiitake macaroni and cheese, braised lamb shank, coriander-crusted rack of lamb or one of Leventhal’s famous steaks.
“I turned vegetarians into meat eaters with my steaks,” she said. “It’s all about the quality of the protein.”
Much of what Leventhal cooked can be classified as “slow food,” cuisine that promotes local food cultures and traditions. Eating in-season, local asparagus is a completely different experience from eating asparagus imported from South America in the winter, Leventhal said. And what could compare to eating a fresh oyster from Washington state waters that can’t be found anywhere else in the world? Or, consider those steaks from local ranches. She sourced local ingredients and gave them her personal touch.
“My hands were on every piece of that business,” she said.
A touch of celebrity
In 2009, after the lease on the restaurant fell through and Leventhal found herself unemployed, a twist of fate changed her life again. She was encouraged to audition for “Top Chef,” a reality cable television show that pits chefs against one another to cook challenging dishes for discerning judges. It started out with a group interview and her personality stood out. She was called three hours later to be scheduled for a video casting session. She made it onto the show and successfully moved through the early rounds, including one competition in Los Angeles. It culminated in Las Vegas, where she ultimately came in fifth place.
“I am competitive,” she said. “I think some of it comes from ski racing. … I want to be a survivor.”
Indeed, Leventhal is a survivor. In 2004, she was diagnosed with two different types of lymphoma, a cancer in the body’s lymphatic system. She has been through numerous rounds of treatment and several clinical trials to battle the disease. Last fall, she was told that she was in remission. But that does not mean the fight is over.
In Seattle, she was invited to assist the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, one of the world’s leading organizations working to prevent, diagnose and treat cancer. Through serving on the organization’s Premier Chefs Advisory Board and cooking at an annual charity dinner, she has helped the organization raise millions of dollars for cancer research.
“If I didn’t raise money for cancer [research], then what am I doing with my life?” she said.
Leventhal has also volunteered time to help the nonprofit organization Slow Food Seattle.
In fighting cancer, Leventhal has gained appreciation for being able to do what she loves.
“Every day is a gift,” she said.
In the kitchen
In stamping her personal touch on everything she cooks—and unbound by some of the constraints of formal training—Leventhal likes to work with cuisine influences from all over the world. One way to put it, she said, is “fusion without confusion.” At sold-out classes this week at the Sun Valley Culinary Institute, she taught students how to make Asian dumplings and bao, a type of bun from Korea.
Currently, Leventhal lives in the bucolic wine country of Walla Walla, Wash. There, she works as a chef instructor for the Wine Country Culinary Institute, where she teaches students a variety of techniques and culinary visions. She said she likes to “push them on creativity” and persuade them to “personalize” the food they are cooking.
She recently got married and lives on a property where she raises chickens and tends a garden. Life has come full circle, she said, and she has reconnected with the land and the outdoors.
Returning to the Sun Valley area, she said, has fostered her appreciation of teaching others how to impress in the kitchen.
“It’s a beautiful thing to come back and share my cooking,” she said. “I want my students to try new thing. You can’t get bao in Sun Valley.”