Conscience in the Kitchen

By Cynthia Nims

After graduation, Seth Caswell ’93 headed west with a friend to Taos, New Mexico. His plan was to stay for a year and enjoy some great skiing, then apply for law school to pursue environmental law. They arrived during the summer, with ski season months away, so the first task was to land jobs. Because Caswell’s parents owned a bagel deli in Maine, he was able to talk his way into a restaurant, where he began as assistant baker. He soon became assistant pastry chef and then line cook. By the time Caswell might have turned his attention to the LSAT, it was too late: he was hooked on cooking.

A few years later, in the late 1990s, he did a six-year stint on Long Island at Nick & Toni’s in East Hampton. The restaurant already had an organic garden that Caswell and the rest of the kitchen team helped manage and expand, which reinforced his appreciation for seasonal and regional fare.

“I learned pretty quickly that vegetables harvested in the morning and served that evening taste a hell of a lot better than what shows up delivered in crates from cold storage,” he said. The restaurant stocked the kitchen from its own garden, fishermen showed up with local seafood, and Caswell honed his butchery skills on ducks, lambs, and pigs from the area. A lot of learning in those years, he recalls.

From there, he went to work in such high-end New York City restaurants as Campagna, La Folie, and JoJo, a Jean-Georges Vongerichten establishment, where Caswell saw “a notable respect for ingredients, a kitchen where chefs clearly cared about what they were cooking.”

After a summer vacation to Seattle in 2005 unexpectedly morphed into a permanent move, Caswell served as chef at the acclaimed Stumbling Goat and, subsequently, Emmer and Rye, named one of the city’s best by Seattle Metropolitan magazine in 2010. This year, Caswell started a new position that seems to fit him to a T. As the executive chef at Google’s campus in Kirkland, Washington, near Seattle, he is employed by Bon Appétit Management Company, which is lauded for its attention to sustainability and social responsibility in a wide range of food-service operations. He works in a LEED-certified kitchen, employing green restaurant practices.

For Caswell, it’s “an amazing opportunity.” He feeds a thousand employees daily, folks he feels are among the smartest, most creative, and most innovative he knows. “They’re smart enough to care about what they eat,” he says, noting that the delicious, sustainable food his team serves is “brain food” that “gives them the energy to keep going.”

And it’s far from mundane cafeteria fare. Consider the popular Vietnamese sandwich, banh mi, made with ham terrine and pickled vegetables; the shiitake and bok choy tacos with Asian pear slaw; and fresh oysters right from the shell. Even the ever-popular chicken Parmesan is made with local, sustainably raised chicken and house-made breadcrumbs.

“I think community responsibility among restaurant owners will continue to grow in the coming years,” Caswell says. He’s certainly invested in helping to make that happen. His role as a board member of the Chef’s Collaborative, a national organization of food professionals established in 1993 to promote sustainable cuisine, is part of his current efforts.

As Caswell reflects on his career trajectory, the beginnings go back further than that first cooking job in Taos. A comparative religion major at Vassar, he chose the topic “Environmentalism as a Spiritual Movement” for his senior project. Reading Thoreau and Emerson, Caswell began to develop his personal philosophies about respecting our food sources and the environments from which they come. The project, he says, ultimately shaped his direction in life.

Cynthia Nims (, a Seattle-based food writer and culinary consultant, holds the Grand Diplôme d’Etudes Culinaires from La Varenne cooking school in France. She is the author of over a dozen cookbooks. Her latest is Salty Snacks, released in 2012.