Running around and playing without a care in the world seems to be the lifestyle choice of most young children. While most dream of going into space, becoming professional athletes or ruling a kingdom, Arlen Coiley dreamt of flavor combinations. The kitchen became his own personal playground.
Coiley, a junior studying gastronomy and agriculture at Fairhaven College with a minor in entrepreneurship, works a fair amount of his spare time like many of his fellow students. Coiley however, won’t be found at a job near campus, or even at a job in Bellingham, rather, he can be found running the show at Rifugio’s Country Italian Cuisine as head chef.
The minute Monday comes around I become a student again,” Coiley said. “I can feel my mindset shift, I go to class and all of a sudden I’m thinking I need to study.”
Along Mount Baker Highway, east of Bellingham, past the small town of Deming, there is a little restaurant around the bend, seemingly passable without a second glance. As patrons are greeted with a friendly hello, enchanting aromas of fresh Italian cuisine prepared by Coiley surround the senses.
When Coiley moved to Bellingham, he said he was surprised by the lack of high-end restaurants. This led him to seek out ways to be more directly involved in agriculture, in turn leading him to work at Western’s Outback Farm. In his time there, Coiley said he grew food and put on events where people could come taste the food being grown.
In early 2015, Coiley went to a chef mixer through Sustainable Connections. That night, Coiley met Richard Balogh, owner and executive chef of Rifugio’s, who invited Coiley to the quaint location outside Deming. Upon visiting, Coiley immediately took Balogh up on a job offer.
Balogh opened the restaurant eight years ago, and has always wanted to create more of a farm-to-table environment. With the help of Coiley, this dream has become a reality.
“Coiley is bringing the ideas,” Balogh said.
At Rifugio’s, Coiley designs and preps his own dishes, using what he has learned as well as the people he met working at the Outback in order to create a fresh, farm-to-table environment. Coiley has worked to create plant beds at the restaurant in an effort to bring fresh, local ingredients into the cuisine.
“He’s enthusiastic, which is one of the key ingredients I see about him. He’s passionate at what does,” Balogh said.
Coiley said his favorite dish right is currently salmon croquettes, which he makes with local salmon. When talking about this dish Coiley became more animated and his passion for cooking was visible.
“It’s the kind of thing that’s so simple, it’s nothing flashy,” Coiley said. “It’s nothing that is put in front of you and is so complicated. It’s such a simple dish.”
The making of a chef:
Coiley’s journey into chef-dom began at a young age when he began making breakfast with his family.
What began as experimenting in the kitchen with smoothies, progressed to working with eggs, a vital piece of his culinary journey, he said. Eggs are a template for a lot of dishes, because they’re a general base of flavor, Coiley said.
At the start of his teenage years, Coiley got his first job as a dishwasher at a restaurant where his mother worked as a server. There Coiley got a first-hand look into his future. He witnessed the entire spectrum of the behind-the-scenes action from preparing to plating dishes. Additionally, he learned how a commercial kitchen could operate effectively, he said.
The head chefs, Kim Bast and Daren Holscher began to teach Coiley the basics, he said. After spending some time at the restaurant he started to do more preparation work for the chefs. Eventually Coiley was moved onto the line where he got to cook and make some of the dishes.
Coiley decided it was time to get some formal training and education by the time he was 16 years old, he said.
He thought, there is no better place to get that than in Italy. While he was learning, his boss and mentor let him use his restaurant to hold a fundraiser. Coiley planned the menu, cooked everything and raised over $4,000 that night, fully funding his trip to Italy.
“[The fundraiser] is where I really realized I wanted to be a chef,” Coiley said.
After six months in Treviso, Italy, Coiley went back to being a line cook, but started to take what he learned and applying it to things around him immediately.
The first thing Coiley did was start his own business making pasta from local ingredients, which he sold at local farmers markets, he said.
Coiley got to where he is today from the help of others teaching him what they know and his own dedication to the craft, Coiley said.
Fellow Fairhaven student and co-worker Jon Orhan İnönüeri has been working at the restaurant since the beginning of January and said working with and learning under Coiley is an honor.
“[Coiley] has a palpable energy for food and creativity that really comes through in everything he cooks, the way cooks it, and his overall demeanor while his doing it,” Orhan İnönüeri said.
Coiley has already met one of his life goals becoming a head chef but he doesn’t plan on stopping there.
“I know this isn’t where it ends,” Coiley said. “It’s not just going to be me going from restaurant to restaurant being a chef.”
Coiley has a passion for food, hospitality and education. Coiley said he wants to teach people about more than just cooking food, but how to grow food as well.
“I would love to create a bed-and-breakfast and catering company that is also a education center around food,” Coiley said. Coiley hopes to make this something that relates to everyone of all ages and all levels of knowledge of food.
After graduation, Coiley said he plans to travel to new places to expand his culinary experience.
“Even though I have learned a lot about cooking and food I still have a lot to learn,” Coiley said. Coiley wants his first destination to be somewhere in the Middle East, to learn about the style of cooking there and using new ingredients.