Chefs Suzanne Simon & Bettina Stern on Lauryn Hill, Mushroom Tacos and the Best Ethiopian Food in Washington D.C. | Pop-In@Nordstrom Eats

Over the monthlong course of Pop-In@Nordstrom Eats–the current, culinary edition of our always-changing Pop-In Shop–we’ll be bringing you interviews and recipes from some of the best and brightest chefs around. This series is in participation with our own powerhouse restaurants division as well as Cherry Bombe magazine, the beautiful publication focused on women and food. 


Farm-to-taco is the concept of Chaia, the restaurant run by chefs and close friends Suzanne Simon & Bettina Stern, who began their business as a farmers’ market stall and still maintain a uniquely close relationship with growers at their brick-and-mortar restaurant, where the veggie tacos are famous and several wines flow on tap.

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Nordstrom blogs: If you were stranded on a desert island—a desert island which happened to have knives, fire, a stove, pots, pans, etc.—what would be the five most essential ingredients you’d want with you?
Simon: Olive oil, rice, lemon, paprika and garlic. I’d forage for protein.
Stern: Extra-virgin olive oil, multiple bulbs of fresh garlic, kosher salt, red pepper flakes and delicious chocolate bars for nibbling.

If you could cook for any person living or dead, who would it be? Why and what would you make for them?
Simon: Frida Kahlo because I am obsessed with her. I would make her Chaia tacos to see what she thinks.
Stern: I enjoy making my three sons their favorite dishes whenever they ask—and when they’re home. They are very appreciative. Their palates vary so I can’t pick a specific meal, per se.

kaleWhich culinary specialty from your region do you love the most? What’s another one that you think most outsiders don’t know about?
Simon: We have some of the best Ethiopian restaurants (including Dukem, Etete and Das), which most outsiders don’t realize.
Stern: Maryland blue crab is a delicacy from the treasured Chesapeake Bay. The two best ways to enjoy it are piled high on a newspaper-lined outdoor picnic table or in a classic crab cake! A less familiar seafood treat is the American shad (the largest member of the herring family), which fed our country’s founders. Shad spends most of its life in the Atlantic Ocean but swims up fresh rivers to spawn. It is a sight to see as they hop along the surface of the Potomac River just a couple of miles from our shop. It is a delicate and very delicious fish, which I pan-fry or broil with butter and then simply season with kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper.

What’s your single favorite vegetable?
Simon: Eggplant.lemon
Stern: Eggplant.

Simon: Blackberries.
Stern: Summer-ripe peach.

Simon: Cheese.
Stern: Line-caught bluefish, eaten the same day.

Sweet (food, not ingredient)?
Simon: Macaroons.
Stern: Warm tarte tatin.

Savory (food, not ingredient)?
Simon: Pasta alla Norma (a traditional Sicilian pasta with eggplant).
Stern: Smelly triple-crème cheeses.

How about your “I’m having a bad day, I deserve this” go-to comfort food?
Simon: On bad days I don’t look to food. But I do like buttery popcorn.
Stern: Practically any Italian pasta.

beetsPlease detail for us the best meal you’ve ever had and what you loved about it.
Simon: Thai food at Little Serow. All of it. It’s always so delicious, and I love the simplicity of the space and the food: perfectly balanced flavors, cold beer and a changing menu. The best!
Stern: One of my favorite meals was here in DC back in January 2012. Little Serow had recently opened, and I caught a glimpse of Tom Sietsema’s Washington Post review before it hit the newsstands. My eldest son was home for a visit from college, and I knew I had the perfect dining partner to go check out this new restaurant. With a “no reservations” policy, we gave them our cell numbers and walked around the neighborhood on an unseasonably warm evening before we returned to sip awhile on delicious beer in the underground and very teeny entryway. Once seated, it was true dinner theater: servers were charming, speakers played loud bluegrass music, and the marvelous Thai food came out in seven courses, family-style. Truly a memorable evening.

What’s on your perfect playlist for cooking at home?
Simon: Lauryn Hill.
Stern: Everything from Marvin Gaye to Sam Cooke, Tom Waits, Al Green, Miranda Lambert, Prince, Lauryn Hill, Chet Baker, Bob Marley, Amy Winehouse, Jamie Cullum, Nelly, Kacey Musgraves, Chopin. But I always return to rock ‘n’ roll at some point in the evening. Usually toward the end. One of my favorite bands is a Welsh group, Stereophonics. “Maybe Tomorrow” is one of my favorite songs.

What inspired you to be a chef?
Simon: Love. I truly love to cook for people.
Stern: I like to cook because eating is an activity shared with others. It’s a pleasure to feed family and friends.

And now it’s time for the recipe…


These earthy-tasting mushrooms are made with a mix of sautéed wild and cultivated mushrooms, depending on what is in season. The Xilli chipotles adobados add a spicy richness to the finish.

5 cloves garlic, minced
Extra-virgin olive oil
6 cups wild mushrooms, sliced (try shiitake, hedgehog, hen-of-the-woods, chanterelle, porcini … or simply white button)
Kosher salt
1 teaspoon Xilli chipotles adobados
⅔ cup Greek-style yogurt
½ lime, for juicing
Warm corn tortillas
½ cup crumbled feta (DIY)
⅛ cup cilantro, chopped

Heat about 2-3 tablespoons of oil in a medium heavy-bottomed pan. Add mushrooms and minced garlic. Stir and cook for about 15-20 minutes until mushrooms have softened and the mushroom broth has evaporated. Season with salt to taste.

While mushrooms cook, blend chipotles adobados with 1 cup of yogurt, until smooth. Add salt and lime juice to taste.

To serve, place mushrooms in a bowl on the table along with warm tortillas and small bowls each of yogurt sauce, feta and cilantro.

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