Ian Wingate is one of the best-known chefs in the region, but he got his start at a Sicilian cafe in Chico, Calif.
“The chef/owner’s mother barely spoke English, and she would get our attention by snapping a bar towel,” laughs Wingate.
Perhaps it was in her kitchen that Wingate realized that actions spoke louder than words in the culinary world. He went on to study at the prestigious California Culinary Academy and later worked alongside talented chefs in California and Hawaii. But family ties drew him to Spokane.
He first made food come alive at Harry O’s restaurant, east of downtown Spokane. Though the restaurant didn’t last long, it was among the first in Spokane to spotlight chef creations, and Wingate made headlines while he was there.
He landed next at an unlikely location at a strip mall in Liberty Lake, where he opened his own restaurant and aptly named it Moxie — a combination of courage and inventiveness. It featured inspired Euro-Asian cuisine and was soon voted Best New Restaurant in The Inlander’s annual Best of the Inland Northwest readers poll.
It was at this location that Wingate gave culinary cred to a longtime staple of home cooking: the humble meatloaf. It has become his trademark. “Meatloaf is the flagship of Moxie. It’s comfort food, everyone can relate to it,” he says.
Wingate was recruited for the position of executive chef at the newly renovated Davenport Hotel in 2002. After that job, he reopened Moxie in downtown Spokane, then Agave: A Latin Bistro and Tequila Bar, just two doors west of Moxie.
“I rarely thought about having any restaurants,” he says. “It’s one of those things where you just wake up and realize, ‘Wow. Where did this come from? And why me?’
“I definitely have a passion for food,” he adds, “and I didn’t want to work for anyone else.”
Agave is a partnership with Sergio DeLeon, of DeLeon’s Grocery. Agave features DeLeon’s homemade corn tortillas, rancho beans, Cuban black beans and rustic rice.
“The evening tapas menu at Agave features smaller portions, fresh ingredients, and light sauces — the way I like to eat,” says Wingate.
Even after his many years of success in the restaurant business, Wingate says competing with chain restaurants continues to be tough.
“I hope people keep an open mind about what local chefs and restaurants are doing. More often, you get a better-quality product for less, or the same price, and a healthier product, than at the chain restaurants. We do not buy food or make it in large volumes, and that makes for better products.”
Think you want to follow in his footsteps? “I recommend young chefs get a culinary degree with a strong business background,” Wingate advises. “Do not be fooled by the TV chefs. This industry is hard work.”
GRILLED MAHI MAHI TACOS
4 6-ounce Mahi Mahi fillets
1 ounce lime juice
1 ounce orange juice
1 tablespoon fresh cilantro
1 teaspoon fresh minced garlic
1 teaspoon chipotle powder
Pinch of salt and pepper
Combine all ingredients in a medium-size shallow pan, and marinate fish for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, prepare topping.
1 medium red pepper, chopped
1 medium green pepper, chopped
1 medium sweet onion, diced
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 teaspoon fresh garlic
1 teaspoon oregano
Sauté topping ingredients in a medium pan and set aside. Grill (or pan sear) mahi mahi for two minutes on each side. Plate fish on top of three small corn tortillas and spoon a quarter of the sautéed mixture on top. Garnish with crème fraiche, fresh cilantro, cotija cheese, diced tomato and lime. Serves 4
Nutrition: Calories: 377; Fat: 5.5g; Carbs: 68g; Protein: 17g; Fiber: 10g