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Sunday, August 26, 1990 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Taste

John Sarich -- The Prodigal Son Returns To Ste. Michelle As Executive Chef

Fifteen years ago, John Sarich, fresh from college and looking for a job, happened to go on a picnic at the then-new Woodinville winery, Chateau Ste. Michelle. During the afternoon he took a tour, and decided then and there that the place was for him.

``It sure beat doing substitute teaching,'' Sarich says. ``So I applied for a job as a tour guide.''

Sarich attacked the job with such enthusiasm that he was soon promoted to sales - a job he kept for several years before leaving to begin a career as a chef.

Sarich, of course, went on to become one of Seattle's best-known chefs, and co-owner of Adriatica restaurant. It was at that restaurant, which Sarich owned with longtime friend Jim Malevitsis, and later at his own Pike Place Market restaurant, Dalmacija, that Sarich set the tone many restaurants would follow. Drawing on his Croatian background (both sides of his family came from the Dalmatian coast of Yugoslovia, on the Adriatic Sea), he created dishes that were simple yet intensely flavorful.

Whenever anyone feasts on oft-copied deep-fried calamari rings with pungent and garlicky skordalia sauce, for example, they can thank Sarich. He virtually invented the fried calamari rings. His other dishes gained equal fame, including tender, flavorful lamb and grilled local seafood.

``John set a different approach in what became established in Seattle,'' says Saleh Joudeh, owner/chef at Saleh Al Lago. ``No doubt he is a great chef, with lots of imagination. And he has worked hard to gain his reputation.''

When Sarich returned to Ste. Michelle this summer, he set a precedent by becoming the first full-time chef at a Northwest winery. Having a chef has become an important marketing tool throughout the California wine industry.

In his new position, Sarich will create and prepare luncheons and dinners for special events at the winery, orchestrate elaborate feasts around festivals, take to the road to give demonstrations, and generally define Northwest cuisine with wine. Ste. Michelle has just poured $26,000 into a new kitchen in a portion of the barrel room of the winery to keep its new chef happy.

``I feel like a kid locked in a candy store,'' says the always-smiling Sarich. ``They give me some wines and I get to create a menu around them. I couldn't have designed a better job for myself.''

He is a fervent believer in cooking with both local and seasonal products, refusing to cook with any substitute.

``Actually there is a great deal of similarity between the Northwest and the Dalmatian Coast,'' he says. ``They are seasonal cooks there. You cook with what is available at the moment and enjoy it for its freshness.''

At his first luncheon at the winery, a six-course meal, he was pleased to tell the guests that everything, except the olive oil and lemons, had come from Washington.

Fresh herbs play a key role in his cuisine and will continue to do so as he matches wines with various flavors. (``When I work on a recipe I like to use one specific herb that enhances both the food and wine,'' he says.) Blossom thyme and fume blanc are something he thinks works. And he's playing around with a reduction of Walla Walla Sweet onions and chardonnay.

``I taste the wine first,'' he says. ``Then my mouth just starts to water when I think of what I want to cook with it.'' (Two of Sarich's latest recipes are included here today.)

Generous with his recipes, he is quick to point out how simple something is, such as the deep-fried calamari. When the tasty appetizer was introduced at Adriatica, restaurant patrons played guessing games as to the exotic batter used. As it turned out, the ``batter'' was merely flour (mixed with a bit of paprika and herbs).

``The secret,'' he says, ``is keeping the calamari in ice water until you dredge it in the flour. Then cook it in very hot peanut oil, maybe 30 seconds.''

Sarich, despite his Croatian background and ethnic slant, is a Seattle native. He attended Ballard High School and Seattle University, where he graduated with a bachelor's in education. He spent several years in sales with Ste. Michelle and eventually was sent to California, where he scored what he still thinks was his greatest coup: He sold Washington wine to a Napa Valley wine shop.

After selling his half of Adriatica to partner Malevitsis, he opened Dalmacija in 1985, only to close 14 months later because of tenant/lease problems. It was a heartbreaking point in his life. He worked for a while as a consultant and started a meat-and-spice company in Seattle. Plans for new restaurants were started and abandoned. When the Ste. Michelle offer came, he was ready.

Today, Sarich couldn't be more pleased with his life. When he isn't cooking or on the road, he is at home in Madrona with his wife, Nina Merendino, and their sons Biagio, 7, and Domic, 10 months. He rises each morning at 4:30 to allow two hours to run, lift weights or work out at a health club before going to work. ``Who says a chef has to be fat?'' asks Sarich, a trim 142 pounds. He eats one meal a day, at home, one he cooks.

Here are two recipes that might be served around the Sarich home. The first is a new one Sarich developed using Washington onions, potatoes and cheese. It is an excellent accompaniment to lamb, the chef says.

CHATEAU AU GRATIN

6 servings

4 large Washington russet potatoes, peeled and thinly

sliced

3 large Walla Walla Sweet onions (or other sweet onions), peeled and thinly sliced

1 1/2 pounds Yakima gouda cheese, grated

Black pepper, freshly cracked

2 cups whole milk

In a buttered 8-by-13-inch casserole dish, layer the sliced potatoes, onions, cheese and black pepper. Top with a sprinkling of cheese. (Fresh herbs such as sorrel, oregano or thyme may be sprinkled between the layers, if desired.) Heat the milk to scalding and pour over the potato mixture. Bake in a preheated 375-degree oven for 1 1/2 hours or until golden.

LAMB LOIN

4 servings

1/2 cup olive oil

1 cup Washington merlot

4 cloves garlic, minced

2 tablespoons chopped rosemary

2 tablespoons chopped parsley

3 tablespoons Dijon mustard

Bread crumbs to bind the mixture

Salt

Black pepper

2 to 3 lamb loins (about 2 1/2 pounds)

1. Combine the olive oil, merlot, garlic, rosemary, parsley, mustard, bread crumbs, salt and pepper, and rub over the lamb. Let the lamb stand in the refrigerator at least one hour.

2. Broil the lamb (reserving the marinade) over coals until rare to medium rare.

3. Meanwhile, reduce the marinade over medium heat to about one half, and spoon over the sliced loin.

TOM STOCKLEY, A FORMER PACIFIC STAFFER, IS NOW A FREE-LANCE WRITER AND TIMES WINE COLUMNIST.

Copyright (c) 1990 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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