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A Chef Creates Culinary Alchemy in His Exotic Garden

Jerry Traunfeld learned to cook in the 70's, when the superego of science had eclipsed art in the American kitchen. Back then, recipes were king, with their exact measurements holding cruel reign over the cooking instinct and tyrannizing culinary experimentation. "My mother kept all her powders and flakes in jars that were alphabetically arranged," the 40-year-old winner of this year's James Beard Award for best chef in the Northwest recalls disdainfully, "and taught me to use them with the precision of a chemist -- as if precision equals alchemy."

Transcending his early training, Traunfeld developed a sensitive, fearless style of cooking that doesn't conform to written orders. His work, honed in the garden as much as in the kitchen, has been so successful at Herbfarm, a tiny restaurant in the foothills of the Cascades outside of Seattle, that seats are booked nearly a year in advance, and he has recently published "The Herbfarm Cookbook".

Traunfeld arrived at Herbfarm in 1990 after graduating from the California Culinary Academy. At the time, the tiny restaurant was housed in a reclaimed garage, but its focus was as a commercial nursery, serving weekend meals to educate and inspire its customers. There were 13 acres planted with 600 types of herbs, and Traunfeld seized the opportunity to get to know the more obscure varieties.

He discovered, for instance, that angelica, with its tastes of juniper, vanilla and celery, makes magic with rhubarb and that the astringent hyssop, with its camphor and thyme flavors, can bring out the nutty underpinnings in beans and imbue beef with the tart illusion of age.

He parsed the lemony herbs -- lemon balm and lemon verbena -- finding that each makes a delicate partner with fish, carrots and beets, but that the more powerful verbena can, as well, be teamed with chilies and ginger or fruit. He learned to use meadowsweet flowers to make infusions for steeping cherries, peaches and figs, to deploy the mildly licorice-tasting sweet cicely as a counterpoint to fruit and to use scented geranium to give a bewitching hint of roses to chocolate.

Perhaps more important than his knowledge of arcane herbs is how Traunfeld charted the moods of more common ones like basil and mint. As herbs became the basis of a cuisine rather than an afterthought, he developed an instinct for how they interact with basic ingredients, and with one another.

"Growing the herbs, harvesting them, it all makes you respect the ingredients," he says in his carefully enunciated, almost nerdish manner, which provides a decided contrast to his rough gardener's hands. "When you know the ingredients intimately, you handle them with so much more care." Eventually, just as knowledge and practice moved Traunfeld's cooking beyond recipes, it distilled his dishes to the spare essentials of flavor and feeling.

Traunfeld does not advertise his expertise. He simply surprises us by matching lavender and rosemary with potatoes, for instance, which evokes the sweet scent of turned soil in a field. By roasting halibut or sea bass with a medley of boisterous cilantro, parsley and spearmint leaves, as well as with toasted ground coriander, he reminds us of the scent of beach scrub in a briny breeze. Using bruised, peppery basil to enhance the sweetness of a peach, he delivers the sense of summer heat and summer shade.

While his book boasts clear recipes and his encyclopedic knowledge, Traunfeld's cooking does something even better: it creates the simple shock of matching a meal with a moment, of capturing times and places past.