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Friday, March 17, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Pacific Northwest Magazine

Putting The "Fine" In Dining

CHEF, EVER FOND of a perfect plate of pâté, is just as taken with the audacious sport of "ultimate fighting."

What's ultimate fighting?

An explainer, and Chef's meditations on the sport:

Two men, in shorts and gloves only, face off inside an octagon. This is neo-combat, a corporal tapestry of martial arts — jiu-jitsu, judo, karate — woven with boxing, kickboxing and wrestling.

"You have strikers and grabbers, and there's a strategy involved. To a certain extent, these guys are brave and noble.

"It's great competition, and there's something about being put to the test that I like because I think people don't get the opportunity to find out what they're made of.

"You have to manage your emotions. This ability to focus, and have that energy, and be calm at the same time, kind of fascinates me.

"I like that sense of awareness in what otherwise appears to be chaos."

Executive chef Daisley Gordon presides over the diamond-and-pearl of Seattle's restaurant scene: Campagne restaurant and its cozier cousin, Café Campagne. Which means that whenever Gordon's doing one of the gazillion things executive chefs must do — schedule, order, clean, plate, judge, instruct, knead, tweak, sauté, and sometimes simply acquiesce — a majority of people get his attention by hollering Chef! It's the culinary way, a formality in step with a system dictating who gets to wear the double-breasted white jacket. And lest it confuse those of you intimately familiar with the restaurant, those of you who happen to know that another manager there is named Gordon, too, we'll dispense, for purposes of this story, with referring to Daisley by his surname.

Here, he's Chef.

It's a Wednesday evening at Pike Place Market. The fish, fruit and flower vendors have packed up their stalls. Human activity meanders to assorted eateries, including those in Post Alley, which is where Campagne and Café Campagne sit, one tucked underneath the other.

Upstairs in the restaurant, 44 enthusiasts have assembled to appreciate 14 wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape and to eat a six-course French meal. The dining experience at the restaurant — apricot walls, votive lights, mohair upholstery — is typically elegant, generous and kind, which is why Campagne has long been a favorite for those wanting a Special Night Out. Tonight just happens to be a much larger "special" event, taking up all the white linen-covered tables in the one small dining room; walk-ins are ushered to one of the tables out by the bar. The "wine dinner" also costs each of the guests $195 (service non compris), portending, if not guaranteeing, a very fine time.

It's dinnertime, and what elevates a restaurant like Campagne above your average place is the ability to transform something so routine, like eating green beans, into something memorable. And like most things that appear effortless, there's a back story, this one unfolding nightly in the "back of the house" where it's hot, oily, bloody (sometimes), nutsy and noisy (always).

The show starts once the servers tap out meal orders, triggering printers to rrttts-ttsss-spit out "tickets." Then it's a clamorous flurry, everything timed so, say, the couscous isn't stuck waiting too long for the lamb. Chef orchestrates it all, sleeves rolled up, a pair of hand towels tucked at each side of his ankle-length apron — although those towels inevitably get misplaced. He is a stout man, 5 foot 10 with thick arms and legs that hint of weight-lifting workouts years ago. Chef's exercise these days is more likely to be a stride around Green Lake plugged into his iPod or a quick walk up to nearby J. Gilbert, a store devoted to one of his greatest weaknesses: shoes.

He is 41, round face marked by a scar above his lip (a childhood accident), the smallest of soul patches (because his father's chin has long carried one), angular eyeglasses. He wears his hair, veering toward gray, extra extra short. The look on Chef's face generally falls into one of three categories: pensive (cheeks filled with air); focused (tongue slightly stuck out) or amused (wide grin accompanied, at times, with robust chortle).

It's unlikely that at any of the times when some appreciative guest has called him into the dining room Chef has chortled at the look of surprise on their face. Most guests read "Chef Daisley Gordon" at the bottom of their menus and assume Chef is a woman. They never expect Chef to be a black man.

It's wine dinnertime, and no matter the interruptions — a guy from nearby Etta's who needs some scallops; a walk-in customer who's requested foie gras but that's not on tonight's menu; the arrival of the mushroom vendor followed by the fish monger — a staff of five cooks (and a dishwasher) churn forth six courses. Celeriac Rémoulade with Poached Quail Egg, Gnocchi à la Champignons Sauvages, Tartare de Boeuf, Pigeonneau (squab), Gigot d'Agneau Rôti (lamb) and Fromage, preceded by appetizers of Coquilles (scallops) St. Jacques and Ris de Veau (sweetbread chips).

Oh wait. There's a vegetarian and a vegan in the group. Eyes roll. Chef deviates. He's all business now, rapt, cool, resolute.

"No beef broth in this one plate." "Yes, no dairy here."

"Hot food!"

The servers set the pace — more sets of eyes for Chef, who can't see the two people dallying with their salads.

And in order to be heard above the grill, the fan, the printer, the dishwasher, the jingle of silverware and the rattle of plates being stacked, Chef hollers, "Let's go!"

"They should have a little bounce!" Chef instructs, telling his cooks how the poached quail eggs ought to feel.

"Five gnocchi on the plate!"

Mind the butter on the stove . . . Take a swig of Diet Coke.

"Let's boogie!"

Chef's eyes dart there and there and there, and when his hands aren't pointing at the grill, or sautéeing mushrooms, or positioning quenelles of Tartare de Boeuf at 6 o'clock, or chopping celeriac or weighing fresh monkfish or finding an intact doily for one of his vegetarian dishes or, even, grabbing a camera to shoot video of lamb sizzling because, yes, there are lulls juxtaposed with allegro, Chef's hands wipe down the rims of each white plate of food before it's carried out.

"So that it appears like it just floated out of heaven," he explains later about the wiping down and about why, if he needs just two plates, he'll pull out six identical ones, scrutinize them all and then pick out the prettiest, most deserving pair.

No, Chef says, food isn't art. But it's craft. And there's nothing Chef prizes more than well-executed, best quality, straightforward, precise, planned-out craft.

FOR TWO DECADES now, since the restaurant first opened in an apartment building on Capitol Hill before migrating to the Pike Place Market, Campagne ("country" in French) has been proving that a French restaurant could be exquisite but not necessarily a Freak-Out-About-What-Fork-To-Use place. Critics have found the service smooth and the Provençal menu captivating. Locals, as well as out-of-towners, have been faithful to Campagne ever since.

Which also means that whoever's at the helm of a proven place like Campagne inherits some fame. A Campagne chef could write his own ticket, if you will. Cookbooks, cookware, cutlery, spice rubs, a 40-seat restaurant named after your kid serving roasted lamb the way mother cooks it.

Chef is celebrated, but he is not a celebrity. He's not out mingling nightly with guests, although he's affable, comfortable in his own skin but not overpowering. He's not out promoting a cookbook or a recipe or just himself, although he's telegenic, articulate and has cultivated an élan for an array of non-food subjects: architecture, photography, Matisse, movies, good tailoring, that ultimate fighting stuff and the groovy, happy music from the late 1960s and early '70s.

What he's reading now: a book tracing the history of that institution known as the company.

If you had your way, you'd ask Chef to cook you some scallops and then you'd sit him down to chat.

Daisley Constantine Gordon was born in Linstead, Jamaica, and moved to Louisville, Ky., when he was 7. His parents, Florence and Eustace, lived and breathed that classic immigrant hymn: Work hard, never call in sick and you'll advance in all things. Early on, when Father felt school wasn't challenging enough, he'd park the four youngsters (Yvonne, Lenworth, Daisley and his twin brother, Audley) in the living room after school and, with the help of a chalkboard, he'd teach them some more. Mother was, and still is, a practical woman who didn't want her children to be all-thumbs. So around the time Daisley was a high schooler, the Gordon children were responsible for cooking the family dinner one night a week.

"It was kind of a kick," he says now about those early kitchen forays.

"He wasn't bad," older brother Lenworth recalls. "But he did not stand out."

At Western Kentucky University, Chef concentrated on speech communications and religious studies, and for a time, even figured his vocation would be something religious. But after graduation, when jobs selling men's clothing and then ads for the Yellow Pages were unsatisfying, a friend's connection led him to a local Greek family restaurant. Chef had always had an interest in cooking. "I used to watch all sorts of TV shows. 'We're Cooking Now' with Franco Palumbo. He did everything with a chef's knife. At the beginning of the show he'd use some sort of gadget, but then he'd throw it away to use his knife."

After two years at the restaurant, Chef enrolled at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. The formality, the rigor, the discipline of French cooking. All of it was him.

Chef was 28 when he entered culinary school, experienced in life if not yet fully capable in a professional kitchen. He had high expectations of himself. He was dead set on becoming an executive chef, entitled to wear that big white hat, and running his own place: "Chez Constantine."

He aimed high, opting to work at the best places, with the best people wherever he lived.

While still a culinary student, he spent 3 ½ months in Dallas working for Victor Gielisse at his Actuelle restaurant for $6.50 an hour. He was garde manger: cold food. And while the experience helped hone various culinary skills, one of Chef's most vivid recollections is how Gielisse taught him to 1) always maintain a strong work ethic and 2) never think too highly of himself.

"In the front of his restaurant there were all these plaques and awards and magazine articles," Chef recalls. "And I made some comments to him, and he said something like, 'Whatever.' "

After the CIA, Chef took jobs at the Brown Hotel and Azalea back in Louisville, with a brief stint working at UPS to pay the bills. But he had already fallen in love at the CIA with a fellow student, Shelley Grant, a beauty from Seattle, and the long distance gnawed at the pair. Chef moved here in 1995 and landed as acclaimed Northwest chef Tom Douglas was opening his second restaurant, Etta's, in the Market.

"I still shuck oysters the same way he taught me," Chef says.

Northwest cuisine, however, wasn't about to consume Chef the way French cooking already had. And so one month later, he journeyed just around the corner to Campagne, hired as its No. 3. His boss: Tamara Murphy, another highly lauded chef and the consummate artiste.

"I was a pretty hard chef,'' says Murphy, described by a former colleague as "a creative hurricane." "I was on people. And what was great about Daisley is it didn't phase him. He was good, a solid human being. He was serious about working."

In an industry that's enormously fluid — servers become full-time metal sculptors and line cooks rotate out to become sous chefs or restaurateurs elsewhere — Chef stopped flirting with any other venue, real or imagined. He married Grant. They moved into her childhood house in Madrona. And he coveted the top job at Campagne.

That job became his six years ago, after Murphy left to open Brasa; after her successor, Jim Drohman, left to open Le Pichet. The local economy had pitched. "Fine dining" options had swelled, and the restaurant and café, which opened in 1994, changed ownership, from the hands of a Seattleite to an architect/developer/restaurateur living in San Francisco.

Chef has been the constant, and while any restaurant's success is owed to the work of a vast, committed cast, those who know him salute the way he's tended to guest, server, line cook, the menu and, always, the restaurant's pocketbook, day in and day out.

The restaurant celebrated its most profitable year last year. Restaurant reviews have remained sumptuous.

Which begs the question: Is it enough?

Chef's too engaged, he says, too energized to even contemplate a chez anything anytime soon. His immediate, principal focus is Campagne and the cafe.

Have the baguettes been bagged?. . . Would the blood sausages make a good ravioli?

"The times I learned the most was when I was doing things over and over, and I could evaluate and see the progress," he says, recalling his early years in the kitchen but really, that's his hymn now.

"What I enjoy about French cooking is getting good greens, proteins, wine and not doing too much to ruin it," he explains.

"People think French cooking is too restrictive, but if you look at the country itself, how it borders Germany, Spain, Italy, and it's full of North Africans, there's a lot of room to play around."

And so, on he plays, out of view mostly, fussing about everything, treating food well.

"There's a simplicity to his style," says longtime server Philip Pichette. "I wasn't really sure you could ever interest me in a chickpea until Daisley cooked one."

Florangela Davila is a Seattle Times staff writer. John Lok is a Times staff photographer.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company

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