In the pantry at Nell Thorn, there are only two ingredients that you’ll find in cans: organic coconut milk and field-ripened tomatoes. And that’s the way it should be, according to owners and chefs Susan and Casey Schanen. “Our menu is based on our overall philosophy that food should be fresh, clean, sustainable, organic, and – as much as possible – locally sourced,” says Susan.
When you walk in the front door of Nell Thorn you immediately see evidence that they are serious about local sourcing … there is a blackboard with a long list of local farms, fishermen, ranchers and growers whose food finds its way to a Nell Thorn lunch or dinner. “Both Casey and I grew up appreciating very good food,” says Susan. “I grew up in a family of cooks, innkeepers and hoteliers, while Casey’s background is delicious family cooking, horticulture and farming.
Our entire lives we’ve been learning about food; first from family and then by learning and cooking along-side amazing mentors. We call it heart work. That place in our lives where we know that what we’re making has all of our heart in it. It’s not just food, it’s an expression of who we are and of this extraordinary place we live.”
Casey and Susan’s road to Nell Thorn has wound around La Conner – from Susan’s early days at the Lighthouse and Black Swan, to their partnership in Café Flats. All along, Susan says, the generosity of others has made them both mindful of the principle of ‘pay it forward’. These days, their network of farmers, friends and staff are an incredibly important part of their success, and they are acutely aware of how the pay-it-forward philosophy is interwoven into their restaurant and their lives.
When Nell Thorn opened in 2001, Susan and Casey wanted their goal of fine dining to include white linen table cloths in the dining room. After a few years what they discovered, however, is that a lot of potential guests were a bit edgy about the white linens. Susan says with a laugh, “People come to La Conner in cars and people come by boat. Some have packed ‘fine dining’ clothes – some only have shorts and boat shoes. Some have very hungry children in tow. But the one common denominator is that they all appreciate great food, regardless of what they’re wearing or whether or not we have table cloths. So we opted to leave off the linens, and just concentrate on offering food that is delicious and nicely presented.”
Today, Nell Thorn is undeniably one of the best restaurants north of Seattle or south of Vancouver, B.C. With fresh ingredients and a truly Northwest-inspired menu, Casey, Susan and their staff love finding new ways to bring foods and flavors together. They also love making sure that their customers have a terrific experience. As an example, there’s the story of the ‘perfectly orchestrated engagement proposal’. Susan tells the story with a twinkle in her eye: “We got a call from a gentleman who was going to propose to his fiancé at Nell Thorn. He wanted to know if we could write his proposal on her dessert menu – and wanted to know if we could make a gluten-free, dairy free & sugar free dessert for his fiancé. We were debuting a new dessert category called “Naturally Nell” including a special ‘please-cake’ dessert. So we created a custom dessert menu for her that included the “Will You Marry Me Please-cake.” After we gave her the dessert menu, we all hid around the corner and held our breath until we knew she’d said ‘Yes’! We’ve had other engagement proposals at Nell Thorn, but I think that one was – by far – the most fun.”
Long before organic, clean and sustainable were common food terms, Susan and Casey used all three as a guiding philosophy for their restaurants and their menus. Over the years, they have instilled that same philosophy with their staff – who have worked hard to help build Nell Thorn’s reputation as one of the Northwest’s best destination restaurants. “It all comes back to real food, lovingly prepared and beautifully presented,” says Susan. And Nell Thorn lives that philosophy every day.