Chef de cuisine Nick Novello of Seattle’s Skillet Diner was a vegetarian for nine years. Skillet, the meat-braising, fried chicken-sporting Americana diner, doesn’t often come to mind as Seattle’s solution to animal-free provisions. Novello’s previous meatless life was courtesy of his practicing as a collegiate wrestler at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, California. After college, Novello traveled up the coastline to Alaska, ran out of money, ran into kitchens and learned to cook his way down to Seattle.
From humble culinary beginnings (like an Olive Garden in Federal Way), Novello, who runs the kitchen at both Skillet Diner locations in Capitol Hill and Ballard, ditched vegetarianism to become a “serious chef” but says he strives not to make “chef food.” “I want to make something still approachable, I don’t want to have a direction book on how to eat your food,” he says. “I want you to be able to stick your fork in it.”
And you can. Although an elevated example of comfort food (like in their signature fennel seed crusted fried chicken sammy that is laid out on potato bread and topped with pickled and charred jalapeno aioli, kale and optional bacon), Novello’s past life comes through in fresh and innovative greenery and meatless options (like in the pickled pear and cranberry arugula salad which also includes pomegranate, cranberries, a brie and walnut crumble and optional crispy pork belly). Make sure to order anything the chef is braising that day (ranging from lamb and pork to beef and goat) and request a side of his corn grits, a hot sauce-laced, crunchy rendition that Novello says he makes “like a New Orleans grandmother. Like an edible hug.”
The “optionals” are always “musts” for this particular diner and Skillet always offers to put a pig on it. When chef and restauranteur Josh Henderson first opened Skillet in 2007, it was one of the first on the street for food trucks, focused heavily on bacon. Out of a vintage Airstream trailer, Henderson’s “legit Americana” street food quickly led to the opening of his Capitol Hill brick-and-mortar restaurant, with Seattle Center and Ballard locations opening as of late, alongside several food trucks, catering and a line of products based off of their famous bacon jam (Skillet Bacon Jam & Food Products). His restaurant group, Huxley Wallace with partner and design director Matthew Parker, emphases “handcrafted food, spaces and experiences” that are unique to the area.
The drinks to match Henderson’s first-born brainchild and Novello’s adopted toddler are seasonally-inspired and socially appropriate to the Skillet community. Sip on The Cornel Parker, a vanilla Snoqualmie Ice Cream boozy shake spiked with bourbon, peanut butter and maple syrup or the New Fashioned, a rye classic with an Austrian herbal liqueur twist. Beer is hyper-local with some international love while wine is more bang for the buck, looking mostly overseas for the selection.
“Josh downloaded his vision and future vision for Skillet with me and his team, I refer to that vision all the time,” says Novello. “If I can wrap it up in an Americana blanket, I’m going to do it. Keep it fresh, new and different. I don’t want it to get stagnant but I want people to come here three days a week. I want to be your destination but your regular spot too.”
Novello says what defines Skillet is “what’s coming out of the ground and what’s fresh.” The brawny and bearded chef is an avid forager and dedicated braise-aholic, committed to plating what’s sustainable. “If I could have all the ideas in the world, but if there’s not sustainable [options] available or responsibly-raised [meat], I’m not going to use them. I want to give the best I can give my customers at a value.”
One of Novello’s best ideas are his cake donuts—a three month process of perfection (that he notes he is still working on). “They are my favorite thing I have ever made,” Novello says of the heavily powdered-sugared, precisely fried, densely cakey seraphic orbs that are dropped in a bowl three at a time. If not eating alone, make sure to order two.
“I want to bring something to your table that’s familiar to you and approachable but also in the same bite brings something new and exciting to you,” Novello says. “I want to kidnap people’s mouths with flavor.”
Skillet Diner || 1400 East Union Street, Seattle and 2034 NW 56th Street, Seattle || skilletstreetfood.com
Follow on Facebook: Skillet Street Food
Track on Twitter: @skilletstfood