Culinary Walla Walla

Walla Walla is a friendly place: the kind of place where neighbors know each other, cheer each other on, and help each other out. 

Published: 6/24/2014

In the southeast corner of the State of Washington, a charming little rural town is cooking up a big name for itself. Walla Walla is a friendly place: the kind of place where neighbors know each other, cheer each other on, and help each other out. Many townspeople were born and raised here, while others have migrated from cities like Seattle, Portland, Boise, and San Francisco. They’ve moved because they feel at home—and, if they’re culinary artists, they’ve moved to become part of Walla Walla’s burgeoning culinary scene. But how did this town of 32,000 people located at the foot of the Blue Mountains become a destination for great chefs and discerning foodies? The answer lies in the tapestry of the community: from the fertile farms of Walla Walla Valley, to the town’s colleges, food shops, wineries, and restaurants, and the fervent community spirit that threads them all together.

Former Bellevue, Washington restaurant owner Dan Thiessen came to Walla Walla two years ago to become the executive director of culinary arts for the Wine Country Culinary Institute at Walla Walla Community College. “Walla Walla Valley is an agri-rich area that produces world class produce and food products,” Dan says. “As a chef, to have some of the best food right in our backyard along with some of the best wine in the world makes for a limitless array of possibilities in working with food and wine,” he says. Under Dan’s direction, the campus’s 4,000-square-foot greenhouse was cultivated and planted to provide food for the culinary school. “With our own greenhouse, gardens, and compost program, our students have the opportunity to truly experience the farm-to-table movement firsthand,” Dan explains. “Our food truck, café, and catering service give students real world experience, doing what chefs need to do in the real world, worldwide.”

Executive Chef, Scott McLean, who masterfully oversees the kitchen at The Marc Restaurant & Vineyard Lounge in The Marcus Whitman Hotel and Conference Center, feels excited by the variety of food he has at his fingertips. “We partner with local growers, grow our own micro greens, and partner with Three Rivers Culinary Garden for house-grown bounties to bring fresh and in-season ingredients right to the table for all our guests,” Chef Scott says. “Having these fresh foods makes it easy to create in-season menus. We even began preserving local vegetables and fruits, so in our off-peak season, we can still provide our guests with Walla Walla’s best.”

A favorite among locals and visiting foodies alike, Cugini Import Italian Market has been in business for 10 years. It carries a wide variety of Italian imports and hard-to-find gourmet groceries, but is most raved about for the house-made charcuterie and baked goods. “I try to make everything in house or find it locally,” says Owner Chantelle Martuscelli-Guzman. “I bake my own bread for our sandwiches; make Ricotta cheese, sauce, and pasta for lasagna; several house-cured meats; and three types of salami from an old family recipe. Pretty much everything that comes out of my kitchen is made from scratch and locally sourced,” she says. The market has its own food truck that makes the rounds to local wineries and the farmers market. “Walla Walla is small business based and the quality is undeniable,” Chantelle adds. “A lot of people here care about what they’re eating. There is definitely a strong awareness and back-to-roots cooking going on.”

The people of Walla Walla also care about their local wine. With more than 120 wineries and 90 tasting rooms in or near Walla Walla, visitors have a myriad of options for wine touring in nearly every direction. There are tasting rooms downtown, out east in repurposed World War II era airport hangars, on the western edge of town, and just south of town in a classic vineyard setting. Guests can easily visit a few wineries, take a culinary class or garden tour, and have time to relax a while before enjoying a fabulous gourmet meal.

Many wineries are connected in some way to Walla Walla’s culinary scene. For example, Three Rivers Winery is also the home of the garden for The Marc Restaurant, and Woodward Canyon Winery offers a summer market, the Lazy S Arrow Market, featuring locally grown produce and other local delicacies. Beyond wine, there are artisanal tasting rooms to discover. Montiellet Fromagerie, in nearby Dayton, has phenomenal cheeses and local healthy foods like fresh eggs and pastas. Guests can arrange to take a one- or two-day artisan cheese-making class, enjoy a wine and cheese tasting, take a tour, or even stay overnight on the farm. At the end of the day, many excellent restaurants—including two whose chefs (Chef Antonio and Chef Chris Ainsworth at Saffron Mediterranean Kitchen) have been recognized by James Beard—are the talk of the town. At The Marcus Whitman Hotel, guests can enjoy a signature wine in the Vineyard Lounge before having a hands-on Chef’s Table experience in the kitchen at The Marc Restaurant. With markets, wineries, and restaurants so nice you’ll want to visit twice, there is no other town quite like Walla Walla. To learn more, visit

As seen in the issue Summer/Fall 2014 of Touring & Tasting Magazine.