SkyCity at the Space Needle is a culinary icon boasting sweeping panoramic views from Seattle’s paramount point of interest. It’s also one of our biggest restaurant partners. SkyCity’s Executive Chef Jeff Maxfield is on a mission to revitalize the restaurant’s reputation. He shares with us about his culinary upbringing, quick rise to the top, and philosophy behind some fresh changes to the menu.
Executive Chef Jeff Maxfield
Image: SkyCity Restaurant
What is your earliest memory of cooking?
My earliest memory was in my grandmother’s kitchen making fresh egg noodles. We would spend all morning making the dough, rolling and cutting it into strips. We would then use every bit of space in the kitchen to hang it to dry.
When did you know you wanted to be a chef?
Growing up, food was always a big part of our family. My mother is an excellent cook and was a home economics teacher for several years. She was always experimenting with new recipes. My grandmother was of French descent and was an incredible baker. I knew I wanted to be a chef around the age of eight. I gave up the toy boats in the bathtub and grabbed the egg beater, measuring cups, pots, and pans to play with. I used to play restaurant on the weekends, taking my mother’s order while she was in bed and going to the kitchen to cook.
You worked in some notable restaurants early in your career. Do you have a favorite experience?
Hands down, my experience at Canlis would have to be my favorite. I started there in the late 90s as a line cook when Rocky Toguchi was the chef and Greg Atkinson had started as the executive chef, charged with giving the restaurant a facelift and updating the recipes and how things were done. Mr. and Mrs. Canlis still ran the day-to-day operations and really made me feel part of the family. I was promoted to sous chef at the age of 20 – the youngest manager in the history of the restaurant – and helped organize the Millennium dinner on [New Year’s Eve] 1999, raising $1 million for the YWCA in a single night. Mr. Canlis treated me as a son, often giving me life lessons and advice. Chef Greg ignited the passion in the way I cook, thinking local, responsible, and sustainable.
You started at SkyCity in 2004 as sous chef and then left for a spell. Why did you decide to come back?
I left the Space Needle in January of 2007 and moved to Scottsdale, Arizona, with my wife to be closer to her family. I had just completed opening three restaurants and hosting ESPN for Super Bowl week when I was called by the Space Needle about the executive chef position. It was a no-brainer. The Needle has always held a special place in my heart, the people that work here, the family that owns it, and it being the most recognizable building in my hometown. The new general manager that was hired had told me during the interview process that he was challenged with the rebuilding of the service, food, and overall experience of the Needle. I was totally excited about being on the team that could change the reputation of the restaurant and providing the level of experience that I knew it was capable of having.
What makes Seattle customers unique?
Seattle diners are so aware of their surroundings, whether it be sustainably-caught fish, responsibly-farmed produce, or a palate for award-winning wines. We are so lucky to live in this area of the world and have so many unique products in our backyard. Seattle’s laidback feel is one that I embrace. We moved away from the fine dining environment where there was a dress code to something quite the opposite. Even though we are a special occasion/celebration restaurant, Seattle doesn’t really support such a stuffy experience.
What is your favorite thing on the menu at SkyCity?
Tough question. One of my signature dishes here is Mocha Braised Short Ribs. The Washington-grown beef is brined in coffee and cardamom for 24 hours then braised with chocolate, red wine, and veal stock. It’s a dish my wife and I came up with one night years ago when we were broke and didn’t have much in the house other than some sample beef I got from a vendor, leftover coffee from the morning, and some Nestlé Toll House chocolate chips. It went on the menu and hasn’t come off since.
What inspired you to incorporate Macrina products into the menu?
During my time at Canlis, we always served Macrina’s potato rolls. I would have to get up every morning at 4:30 and call in my orders to all of our vendors, Macrina included. Back then it was usually Leslie [Mackie] who answered the phone. I lived on Alki Beach back then, so at the end of service I would take some of the leftovers to “feed the seagulls” – that wasn’t entirely the case; I usually ate them myself. Macrina has always been my favorite bakery in Seattle, sharing in a lot of the same philosophies I have in our operation: quality product, service, and being a partner rather than an account.
How have your customers responded to Macrina products and other local ingredients on your menu?
Our bread program has really evolved over the last five years. When I started, we had rolls on the table. It was easy for the staff, easy to store, and cost effective, but not really that great tasting. Over the course of the next two years, [Macrina Wholesale Sales Manager] Rebecca Early and I ran into each other at a bunch of events, and she always asked when I was ready to make the switch. My response was always, “We’re not quite there yet.” Once I had my ducks in a row, we made the switch and our guests (and staff) haven’t been happier. One of our most asked questions is, “Where can I buy this bread?”
Other than your own restaurant, where’s your favorite place to eat?
Another tough question! I have a lot of “go to” restaurants on the eastside where I live, but I would say that Piroshky Piroshky, Uli’s Bierstube, or Tat’s Deli would be my “crave” food. Honestly, on a spring day, low tide, sitting on the beach with fresh oysters and clams, a bottle of Cholula, and a cold beer is pretty awesome.
If you could choose, what would be your last meal on Earth?
Lots of stuff: my grandma’s pickled salmon on wheat thins, beluga caviar (too bad you can’t get it anymore) with Taittinger Champagne, the roasted shiitake mushroom from [Chef] Blaine Wetzel at The Willows Inn, a big pile of Dungeness crab, and a steamed artichoke with aioli.