PHOTOGRAPHY BY MARK C. ANDERSON
Chef John Cox follows his heart to a haunted hotel on a remote island in the Pacific Northwest
Orcas Island is a pinch yourself kind of place, where waterfalls tumble through temperate rainforests, gas stations offer oysters on ice, windspun art installations hang from old-growth trees and residents set out bunches of lavender along the road requesting poetry in exchange.
A year-round population of 5,000 shares the isle with mountains called Turtleback and Constitution, and a twisting cypress tree that stretches over crystalline Cascade Lake, inviting a climb and a leap. Old heirloom apple trees grow all over. Marine life proliferates, from killer whales to spiny lumpsuckers.
Tucked in the top left pocket of the Pacific Northwest near the border with Canada, the horseshoe-shaped island defies succinct description. One relatively new resident, chef Quinn Thompson, has probably come closest; “Big Sur Island,” he calls it.
It’s also a place that has got better—or at least better tasting—even as 2020 got worse, thanks to the renaissance of the historic Orcas Hotel, which sits on top of the ferry landing that conveys people to and from the Washington mainland and other San Juan Islands.
That evolution is happening with the help of Thompson and the hotel’s new chef-owners Julia Felder and John Cox, an Edible Monterey Bay contributor and partner at Carmel’s Cultura comida y bebida, along with a talented band of apprentices and hospitality lifers including Monterey County restaurant pros, Kyle Odell and Marsella Macias.
They’re cultivating the type of place that feels like it could only exist right there on Orcas. And while it’s very much a specific experience, the way Cox and company are going about things could influence mom-and- pop lodging around the world.
But don’t take my word for it. I’m biased. I lived, ate and worked with the Orcas team for two months as its first artist-in-residence, writing about the team, hotel and the island, but also painting stairs, washing dishes, expediting plates, stacking firewood, dumping garbage, weeding gardens and flipping hotel rooms, partly because up at Orcas it’s an all-hands-on-deck kinda deal.
Take it instead from the most time honored island authority you’ll encounter at Orcas Hotel, and the one with whom I happened to share Room 9: the ghost of Octavia Van Moorhem.
“B & Bs were always on my radar; cooking for people, having a piece of property and creating a sense of place was something I always wanted to be good at.”
Octavia’s family finished building the hotel in 1904, so creaks and quirks are to be expected. The welcome letter that greets guests acknowledges all that up front—Octavia’s occasional games, old stairs, thin walls and ferry landing traffic—and comes with earplugs. For Cox and Felder, those elements are reasons they wanted the place. As the letter goes on to say, “We love it, but it’s not for everyone.”
The couple was years into a concerted search for a spot to call their own when Cox found Orcas after an hours-long session of habitual scrolling through BizBuySell.com, seeking for-sale-by-owner offerings with history.
The Orcas Hotel description, he says, “was a terrible listing. It looked like a scam.”
But a call led to a visit that led to verified possibilities, and the craggy terroir of the island resonated for a pair who honeymooned in Scotland (and bid on a bed-and-breakfast in a tiny village called Tarbert). A deal coagulated over six months, and by January 2020 the newlyweds were full-time residents. They started updating the grounds before escrow closed and pounced on café buildout once it did, ripping out carpet and reinventing the pastry case just as indoor dining was closed with the outbreak of COVID.
Improvements have been a constant since, from new tin ceilings in the still-unopened restaurant to all new appliances in the kitchen. “We figured we’d gradually replace one at a time as they went out,” Cox says. “Then we realized they were all broken.”
The café patio has found new life with a tent, lights and fire pits. Macias planted a chef garden. Just the other day the Orcas team decided they’d had enough with the uneven tile by the dish pit, so innkeeper apprentice Aileen Shea hauled off to the hardware store and a couple of hours later Cox, Thompson and Shea had Skilsawed down to the foundation, laid new cement and particle board, retiled and sealed the new surface all before dinner service.
But the most appealing update is the Chef’s Library. Once home to little more than stained carpet and a pull-down projector screen—“like a church conference room from the ’70s,” Cox says—it now hosts a working fireplace, period furniture, glowing shelves lined with scores of cookbooks and a polished whiskey cabinet filled with finds from around the world.
The most compelling item on those shelves is not Cox’s set of Culinary Chronicles, which maxed out his credit card as a 22-year-old line cook after a late shift at Sierra Mar and a bottle of wine. And it’s not the Octomore 11 single malt whisky by celebrated Scottish producer Bruichladdich, a distillery Cox and Felder liked so much they named their dog after it. (He goes by “Brooks,” and writes his own welcome letter to canine visitors, paired with chef-made dog treats.)
The most telling item is also the earliest entry in Cox’s collection, a book titled So ~ You Want to Be an Innkeeper, a 16th birthday gift from his aunt. She knew how much the family loved staying in bed-and-breakfast inns when they traveled, and that, as Cox puts it, “B & Bs were always on my radar; cooking for people, having a piece of property and creating a sense of place was something I always wanted to be good at.”
That informed his work as he started cheffing young and rose quickly, gathering awards and creative control at stops including Casanova, Hotel Hana-Maui and Post Ranch Inn, where he met Felder, herself a gifted chef. It was his second tour at Sierra Mar that convinced me he ranks among the most thoughtful chefs I’ve encountered, with a knack for narrative—I’ll never forget his Rumsen-inspired menu with acorn bread, rattlesnake and ant-spiced miner’s lettuce—which bodes well for a place with as much identity as Orcas.
“Whether I was working in Hawaii or Big Sur, I always wanted to create something that is that place,” he says. “That’s what’s great about a bed and breakfast. It has a soul and reflects the environment it’s in.”
Along the path he encountered colleagues who entertained similar dreams of ownership—but didn’t know anything about, say, byzantine bookkeeping or small business loans. With Orcas, he and Felder saw a chance to change that. They put out a nationwide request for staff willing to sign up for an 18-month stint, pledging a full-fledged crash course on how to manage a hotel.
From a field of 500-plus applicants, they handpicked five and trained them on everything from the register to housekeeping to pastry cheffing. At staff meetings, Cox and Felder disclose normally confidential things like balance sheets, business strategy and guest check averages. Each team member has access to below-market staff housing, that includes a yurt, a teepee and a tiny home. They can attend field trips to farms, dinners and distilleries, and have the option of completing a survey that generates a grid of professional and personal development goals. (Grids include everything from learning payroll and how to manage overtime to hunting local wild boar and making prosciutto and smoked sausage from it.)
The approach is both ambitious and practical. It offers training that could be time consuming and cost prohibitive in a culinary school context, while giving the business a flexible workforce where it’s not easy to find one.
“Everyone participates,” Cox says. “We cross-train on everything. People like to say this person can’t do espresso, or can’t serve, or can’t bake great desserts, or is purely a housekeeper. We don’t limit our team to a particular job. We want them to have aspirations for other things. I hate to call it innovative, but no other properties are doing it.”
You can make a strong case Octavia Van Moorhem and her family gave Orcas Island its most iconic building. Given how hundreds flow through on their way to the ferry every day, and the hotel’s tradition of hosting not just drinks and snacks but also thought salons and societal functions, the hotel gives the island its own combination of Grand Central Station and Café du Monde.
Octavia’s legend, however, isn’t just the building, but her cooking, namely fruit pies, fried chicken and Belgian cookies. She’d ring a bell and those camped on platforms around the dock would come running for $2 dinners that would leave the extended family overfed. Island historian, professional storyteller and ghost expert Antoinette Botsford is one of her fans.
“She was very good-natured and just loved to make people happy,” Botsford says. “She loved to eat.”
Octavia’s legacy translates in full to the new era. Yes, the hotel does have rooms offering homey accommodation to complement sweeping views of the Salish Sea and surrounding islands, but this is a food operation first and foremost, as salivating Instagram followers can testify. The go-tos—New Mexico-style breakfast burritos, big burgers and beer-battered fish ’n’ chips among them—sell with the consistency of the tides. But the kitchen team comes to play with specials.
“For a long time Orcas Cafe was all about tourism, extracting dollars from people waiting for ferries—coffees and croissants,” Cox says. “We figured tourists are always gonna be here, and if they like it, great, if not, fine. Even pre-pandemic, we wanted to be a locals’ restaurant. So we flipped this hotel on its head and started pushing hard on specials.”
That’s meant Taco Tuesdays and Sushi Saturdays, plant-based boxes and “survival kits” delivered to doorsteps. It’s meant installments of a series called “Grandma’s Kitchen” and savory barbecue pulled from the custom one-ton reverse-flow T-Pit smoker shipped from Ennis, Texas.
Oh—and weeks and weeks of nightly features. One day there’s a French Laundry tribute with salmon tartare cones, roasted duck and black truffle, another there’s New York-style street kebabs. Recent hits include Veracruz- style steamed mussels, smoked shiitake mushroom okonomiyaki pancakes and chicken-fried steaks.
“We take anything and run with it,” Thompson says. “We can do finer and nicer, but we can do the sloppiest Joe you’ve ever seen.”
Odell, whom Monterey Bay eaters will remember from stops at Carmel Belle and Cultura, leads front-of-house ops and a drink program based on batch cocktails and island-sourced wine. Craft creations like brown-butter old fashioneds and bloody Octavias give classics a jolt of character but more than anything maximize efficiency as the rush-hour line snakes out the door.
Odell, a Monterey native, took a chance on Orcas, packing his belongings and his dog Snow and trekking 1,009 miles north to join the team.
“If I was going to take a leap, I would do it with John, the guy I talked to every time I had to make a career decision,” he says. “Some will sit there and play it safe. He’s going to go for it, be unafraid to take risks and be smart about building a good team that can push and be creative.”
Thompson and Odell often run point on chef dinners in the library, which bode well for the opening of the restaurant, which has a long vintage bar, a big stone fireplace, fresh carpet and fresher paint. Orcas will continue to be a beacon for hikers, sailors and seekers, but if this team has its way, it will be a magnet for foodies too.
“Ideally I would want a guest who came here, got off the ferry and had a similar experience to if I was going to Europe and happened across a place that was extremely special and customized to a region,” Thompson says. “You walk in and it’s the only place that is like it in the world.”
That’s how Octavia would want it. She has a kindred soul in Thompson, who lives at the hotel and loves local history. He has experienced his own interactions with her—once she teased him by throwing tortillas around the walk-in refrigerator and on another occasion conjured violin music only he could hear—which, according to the local ghost whisperer, is the best way to know Octavia approves.
“She is present when people are happy,” historian Botsford says. “Her spirit is hospitality.”
That spirit is alive and well, in a place that feels like no other. Which is pretty much the whole point.