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Elevated and plated

At the Plantage commercial kitchen, chef and owner Chris Wilson creates high-end, plant-based cuisine that Whatcom families enjoy in their own homes

Midway through a brisk workday at her real estate office, Julie James breaks for lunch, leans over the steaming bowl in front of her and inhales. The broth has been infused with charred onions, garlic and aromatics – warming spices of clove, cardamon and cinnamon sticks. Vegetables cut on the bias – bok choy, celery, sugar peas, carrots and broccolini – have been steamed just enough to deliver a satisfying snap. Plumped with a trace of scallion oil, a nest of noodles completes the dish.

The midday fare is a colorful and fragrant pho, traditional Vietnamese soup. The entrée, composed of all organic and plant-based and mostly local ingredients, was created at Plantage.

Complexly flavored, textured and layered
Every week, owner and chef Chris Wilson plans, shops, prepares and cooks hundreds of elevated, plant-based meals in her state-of-the-art commercial kitchen in Bellingham. And clients from throughout Whatcom County come to Plantage, happy to pick up their nutritious lunches and delicious dinners to take to work and enjoy in their own homes.

The pho is emblematic of the array of entrees available at Plantage (rhymes, of course, with “cabbage”). Wilson, a seasoned chef of 18 years, said, “You start with a giant pot of water, and you end up with something really satisfying.” Like all her creations, the pho is complexly flavored, satisfyingly textured and skillfully layered, from the rich broth to the crunch of the vegetables to the slurp of the noodles. “You can eat so much of it,” Wilson pointed out. “Yet, the soup is chock-full of nutrition, and you feel full and fueled.”

Healthful fullness is what customer James and her husband, Mark Frye, and their 8-year-old anticipate. Weekly, they pick up a meticulously organized basketful of prepared meals, accompanied by easy-to-follow, step-by-step instructions.“Becoming a client made sense,” James said. “I penciled out the costs of meal planning, shopping and cooking myself, and I was honest that I avoided these tasks. Grabbing something on the go that wasn’t nutritious was replaced by Plantage.”

James added, “Chef Chris is amazing. Her meals are delicious. And we are healthier and happier.”

How to combine healthful entrees with satiety and create more time for Whatcom families? This is the equation that Wilson – who grew up on the western plains of Oklahoma, went to culinary school in Houston and earned a degree in mathematics – wanted to answer when she opened Plantage in January 2023.

A business model inspired by flavor
As a business owner, cyclist and skier, wife and mom, Wilson thinks a lot about how Whatcom folk eat. “So many people love the natural beauty here,” she said. “I wanted to fuel families with delicious meals. And I also wanted families to have more quality time – so instead of planning, shopping and cooking, they could be paddleboarding on Padden or enjoying their photography side gig.”

Back in her chef days in Houston, Wilson gradually converted from thinking about food as entertainment to understanding food as sustenance: “I went from creating foams, froths and foie gras to making fresh nut milks, sprouting seeds and fermenting vegetables.”
With a focus on flavorful sustenance, Wilson easily serves patrons who ask these questions: “How is your tofu fortified? In your lasagna, where do the tomatoes come from?”

Before COVID-19, the chef considered opening a café. But with restaurants closing during the pandemic, and with the awareness that her own family valued time together at home versus eating out, Wilson found her business model. “I wanted to create elevated entrees that clients pick up once a week, then enjoy in their homes.”

She also wanted the food to be nutrient-dense and elevated. “There is a gap between restaurant food and food that nourishes your body,” Wilson said. “There is also a gap in vegan food. Largely presented as bowls and wraps, vegan dishes often lack elevation, aren’t plated with sauces or garnishes and do not satisfy.”

She summed up: “This is food you’d expect in a restaurant that also nourishes you.”

Pick up weekly, be nourished daily
Plantage is tucked into the industrial-residential mix of Bellingham’s Sunnyland neighborhood. Here, people can get a new heat pump, wander into a brewery or build raised garden beds in front of their homes. Wilson liked the vibe (delightfully funky) and location (intentionally central, adjacent to Interstate 5) for her customers’ weekly visits from Blaine, Fairhaven and even Seattle.

Clients decide on the number of weekly entrees that works for their household: a “small” package of six portions, a “standard” package of 12 portions or a “large” package of 18 portions. Every dish is photographed and presented online. Customers choose from eight menu features each week, including at least three gluten-free options. Chef’s pick means you can follow Wilson’s choices, always popular, as a convenient way to enjoy diverse meals without spending time to order. Sign up once, pick up weekly, be nourished daily: That is the value in an elegant (plant-based) nutshell.

At her workplace, which she “never doesn’t want to come to,” Wilson is deft at creating entrees such as polenta with ratatouille: “My favorite dishes are hearty and rich peasant food, like this true Italian dish.” For this entree’s base, Wilson makes her own cashew milk, a strategic surprise added to the polenta so the grits don’t seize up but remain velvety. Eggplant, zucchini, yellow squash, tomatoes and dried and fresh herbs make the ratatouille. Finally, the heirloom white Cicerchia beans from Rancho Gordo, with a little garlic herb oil, “cook up like little teeth.”

“My entrees are not trays of food from the freezer section that you heat and serve,” the chef said. “Instead, you spoon into satisfying layers: creamy polenta, chunky ragu and delicate white beans, finished with a sprinkling of cashew-based vegan parmesan.”

A base to build from
Though Wilson opened Plantage this year, she drew on three and a half years of prior success working as a personal chef for Whatcom families, creating a solid client base. Her previous business model was rewarding but also time intensive. She shopped for one family’s ingredients, went to the client’s home to prep and cook in the kitchen, then stocked the pantry and refrigerator with a week’s work of entrees.

Wilson added another chef, Abigail Bruno, who helped expand the personal chef business. But the max the duo could serve was four homes a day, with lots of driving time. Wilson wanted to decrease her business carbon footprint and variance (“we were dependent on clients’ kitchens”) and increase service, adding more clients as well as menu variety.

The chef began searching for a location to house a commercial kitchen that would flip her service model. Instead of going into clients’ kitchens, clients would come to hers. When Plantage opened this year, 20 families from Wilson’s personal chef business stayed with her and, importantly, Abigail did, too.

Mission for transparency
On Grant Street in Bellingham’s Sunnyland neighborhood, the cheerful Plantage storefront, with a rolling metal service garage door and a fir front door, opens into a commercial kitchen. An impressive row of stainless steel appliances is framed by a wall of clean, white subway tile and a pressed fir staircase that leads to an open loft used for storage and office space.

Whatcom has been described as a supportive county in which to start a small business. Still, changing a business model and investing hundreds of thousands of dollars in the right commercial equipment were critical steps.

A combination oven anchors the lineup of high-end, culinary machines. “The combi (shorthand for combination) is like a car,” Wilson said, because this single unit operates as a smoker, steamer and convection oven. Recipe times and temperatures can be programmed in, while humidity and fan speed can be adjusted. There’s also a huge gas range, a separate heating source for stockpots of simmering broths and beans, a blast chiller and a walk-in refrigerator.

On one Monday, an enormous prep sink is full of organic, green bunches of broccoli, 60 heads at least. Including the broccoli, 600 hundred pounds of vegetables will be prepped for the week’s 330 entrees.

“Once prepped and cooked,” Wilson said, “everything our clients pick up must stay fresh for seven days.”

Kitting out the space to meet permitting standards was also an investment of time. “COVID hit the city and permitting was short-staffed,” Wilson said. “But we were patient, and it all worked out.”

Pointing to the industrial-sized sanitize, rinse and wash station mandated by the county health department, Wilson reported these county officials were “phenomenal” in their communication and follow-up, even alerting her when more fees than necessary were paid. “At the department, Tom was so present,” Wilson said. “He welcomed my questions and was someone I could turn to.”

At most restaurants and markets, the kitchens are tucked away, unseen by customers. At Plantage, the kitchen is on full display. “There are a lot of curtains in this industry,” Wilson said. “We want to be transparent.”

So, when clients pick up their entrees, they see what chef Chris wants them to see: everything. A highly organized kitchen space that is daily scoured and regularly hard-cleaned. Two chefs who easily work together. And importantly, all the organic ingredients largely sourced from the Pacific Northwest – from the red cabbage to the flaxseed – are front and center.

Most Plantage ingredients come from the same wholesaler that sells to the Bellingham Community Food Co-op. A case of locally grown, organic onions for Wilson costs $50. As comparison, at the local chef store, a case – not necessarily organic or local – runs $18. “I won’t cut corners,” Wilson said. “My customers see what they’re getting.”

Wilson also won’t compromise on how her entrees are bundled. “Compostable packaging is so expensive,” Wilson explained. But she’s committed to being environmentally conscientious.

Even the dishwasher follows the throughline: no sulfates are used. Instead, Wilson invested a lot more money into an appliance that recirculates water from the first cycle, traps the steam, and turns the condensation back to water for a high-temperature, chemical-free, environmentally friendly rinse.

One Whatcom County expert commended Wilson’s thoughtful build of her business. “Plantage is a great illustration of the startup philosophy called minimum viable form,” explained CJ Seitz, director of Western Washington University’s Small Business Development Center.

“The startup gets in front of the customer as quickly as possible, with the absolute minimum of effort and investment,” Seitz said, describing Wilson’s initial personal chef business. “Once in the market, the startup will learn much more about the needs, pains and gaps that present themselves.”

Seitz continued, describing Wilson’s current business in a commercial kitchen: “This wise entrepreneur discovered a need that presented a more scalable business opportunity, and she pivoted to this new alternative – a prescription for small business success.”

Love for customers
“Kitchens are like little families,” Wilson said with a smile. “They are lively and fun places where you have meaningful conversations.”

Those exchanges happen daily between the chefs. Wilson is quick to point out, “I could not be doing what I’m doing, on this scale, without Abigail.” She added, “I hired Abigail not to fill a position, but because she is as passionate as I am about our mission.”

Wilson wants to intentionally grow subscribers, never sacrificing the thoughtfulness for entrees that change with the seasons, from the spring pea risotto to the autumn-favorite Swedish not-meatballs with classic cream sauce.

What does Wilson enjoy most? “I love knowing our clients,” she said. “We know whose child won’t eat mushrooms, who enjoys more cilantro, and the family who loves the cauli-mac bake with tempeh ‘bacon.’”

After mealtimes, and sometimes even during, the chef regularly receives texts from happy customers: “LOVED the enchiladas and the coconut bowl!! Thank you for the nurturing and nutritious menu this week!” And: “I enjoyed the ramen on the seventh day, and the vegetables tasted like they had just been sliced. How do you do that?”

Today, in the kitchen, Wilson and Abigail prepare celery, onion, peppers, carrots and mushrooms for moo shu vegetables. The cooks are scratch-making hand-rolled Mandarin-style pancakes that will enfold the crunchy goodness. Once ingredients have been transformed into entrees and labeled, the two pause to observe their work, laid out on the long pickup counter.

Wilson mused that 90% of her clientele will be enjoying the same meal at some point this week. “All of these people are taking these entrees – and eating healthfully – in different homes, but together, too.”

At Plantage, families nourished by time together over wholesome food is a happy and delicious mission. ■

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