Written by
Photography by Matt Banderas '04

carrots and sageAccording to Planting Roots: A Culinary  Guide to Embracing Walla Walla's Terroir by Brennan Johnson '16, there are seven guiding principles to cook by:

  • Experiment–Take risks and see what suits your palate.
  • Taste–Always taste what you're creating.
  • Salt, salt, salt–Season ingredients with salt before, during and after you cook them.
  • Explore–Try new things both within the kitchen and outside of it. 
  • Get outside–If you're going to root your cuisine in a place, get to know its terroir.
  • Slow down–Cook with care; notice all the details of texture, flavor and color.
  • Share–Cooking has always brought and will always bring people together.

Planting Roots, a 67-page illustrated cookbook featuring recipes inspired by Walla Walla Valley ingredients, was Brennan Johnson's senior thesis in environmental humanities. The book, which features color photographs of salmon, rose petals and dandelion heads, explores the connection between food and the geology, biology and culture of the Walla Walla region.

At the heart of Johnson's project is the idea that people have lost their connection to the foods that grow around them and to the rhythms of food preparation. He writes: "Perhaps foraged goods, hand-picked items and more have become appealing trends at restaurants precisely because they attempt to tap into the rhythms we've lost."

Johnson's book explores the Walla Walla Valley through the concept of terroir—the idea that each region has a distinct taste based on its geological, biological and cultural attributes. In the final chapter on cultural terroir, Johnson recounts the history of white colonization of native lands in Walla Walla and asks: What signifies "authentic" Walla Walla: Native recipes comprised of foraged food or Westernized agriculture systems?

"The 'authentic' can be expanded to embrace the diverse and vibrant array of heritage that all contribute to this place," he writes. "But this area's roots should never be overlooked."

After graduating last year, Johnson moved to Asheville, North Carolina, where he works on the pastry team at Rhubarb, a restaurant serving high-end Southern cuisine. Rhubarb's Executive Pastry Chef Kailey Laird hired Johnson back in 2015 to work at Aveline restaurant in San Francisco, where she was then based.

"He responded to a job posting and I hired him with no experience," said Laird. "He doesn't have any culinary education, but he doesn't need it. He's a very ambitious guy. He spends a lot of time reading."

According to Laird, Johnson's unique approach is indispensable. He occasionally develops recipes—including, recently, a plum galette with almond-crusted candied beets and a goat cheese mousse—for the restaurant's series of Sunday Suppers, which feature one-time menus of local food served at community tables.

A trip to Europe first piqued Johnson's interest in food and culinary culture. When his pastor father received a grant to investigate European communal bread ovens in 2009, he went along and was smitten.

"Bread is the thing I always come back to. You give in to the bread's rhythm. With the tasting menus, you have no constrictions. I need the bread at times, when I'm busy and I need to be a little more centered. Then I need that creative expression when I feel a little more complacent."

Johnson loves his work at Rhubarb, but it might not be his permanent home. Although he isn't sure what his future holds, he knows that he will continue to examine the intersection of art, culture and food.