Chef John Cox Takes on the Historic Orcas Hotel

On Valentine’s Day 2020, John Cox and Julia Felder closed on the purchase of an old inn called the Orcas Hotel on Orcas Island in the morning and learned they were expecting their first child in the afternoon.

We all know what happened about a month later. The COVID-19 pandemic shut down the United States, hitting the hospitality industry especially hard. In the past year, these new inn-owners focused on the unexpected blessings that the shutdown brought.

Connecting with the Island Community

John and Julia

John and Julia

The first few months during quarantine, when very few visitors trickled off the ferry onto the island, served an important purpose: the chance to connect with the local community. Something that Cox made clear was a priority from day one. Throughout his 20+ year career as a renowned, forward-thinking chef in the fine dining world, Cox has always worked as closely as possible with local communities to source his ingredients. 

“In a small community like this, you do become acutely aware of how your decisions impact everyone around you,” John Cox said. “I have spent a lot of my career thinking about sustainability with food, communities and microeconomics and that really stems from many years in Hana, Maui and Big Sur, California.”

After graduating from culinary school in Vermont, Cox began his work at Post Ranch Inn perched on the edge of the Pacific Ocean in Big Sur. After several years there, he accepted an offer from Passport Resorts to oversee Hotel Hana Maui and Sea Ranch Lodge in Sonoma as Corporate Chef. He continued to oversee many more hotels and restaurants, start a few of his own in California and return to the Post Ranch Inn kitchen as executive chef. Throughout his career, he’s long earned food critics’ praise for his creative dishes with a sustainable, local focus.

Despite having lived in so many places across the U.S. with some of the most beautiful views in the world, Cox said there is something special about Orcas Island.

“I love looking out the windows of the hotel, especially at night when the sea is really quiet, and you can see the ferries gliding across the sea and see all the lights reflected on the water,” Cox said. “It’s just such an interesting view because it’s constantly changing; there’s always things happening both natural and manmade.”

Creating an Immersive Experience

Not only is it ethical and more sustainable to involve the local community when it comes to sourcing food and creating a business, it’s essential to providing a unique experience that truly embodies the soul of the destination. Cox said that this is key in his own travel ethos, and it’s his plan to bring that to their new inn, the Orcas Hotel.

“There’s people who want to go to Tokyo and stay in a Holiday Inn or a Hyatt and have that continental breakfast because they know exactly what they’re going to experience,” Cox said. “They can go dabble in the local culture and then come back to that safe haven that they know. My idea of hospitality is the exact opposite of that… I want guests to be really immersed in the experience.”

For the Orcas Hotel, capturing the spirit of the island means a hotel that is old and a little creaky, but full of soul. It means a different special every night that is the same thing the locals are eating. It means a tip from Cox when you’re heading out the door to turn right at the ferry and check out the quiet Lake Killebrew as well as taking the tourist trodden road to the East Sound.

Reviving the Orcas Hotel

Orcas Island Ferry

Photo credit: Ronald Woan

Built over 100 years ago in the early 1900’s, the Orcas Hotel is a historic landmark on Orcas Island. The island is about a two-hour journey north from Seattle and only reachable by ferry or seaplane. The ten-room hotel itself greets every visitor to the island in its position just above the ferry landing. The Orcas Hotel went through a major renovation in the 80’s, but it was time again for many improvements when the couple acquired the property last year.

 “The paint was peeling off, the carpets were stained, the cafe was a mess, the kitchen was falling apart,” Cox said.

During quarantine, the couple rolled up their sleeves and got to business. They hired someone to stretch the new carpet, but other than that, they did everything themselves– replaced the kitchen equipment, tore down the wallpaper and put a fresh coat of paint up in its place, installed fire pits on the outdoor deck.

Meeting in the Middle Between Fish n Chips and Fine Dining

Orcas Hotel Mussels

Veracruz Style Steamed Mussels

Renovation certainly is no easy task, but John and Julia have other even bigger fish to fry as well (pun somewhat intended). One of their biggest challenges is bringing their sustainably-focused, creative background in cuisine to an establishment that has been far from fine dining in the past.

“Historically, the Orcas Hotel has always been a place where you just sell cheap coffee, sandwiches and fish and chips to tourists,” Cox said. “That’s not what my wife and I wanted to do. Zero interest in that. We want to be a seasonal, soulful dining location that locals really want to support and that people actually seek out.”

Overall, Cox doesn’t see the Orcas Hotel continuing to be the default fish and chips shack nor does he envision it becoming the next Michelin-starred restaurant. The goal is to be appealing to both the second-home owner on the island as well as the local working at the ferry dock. He described it as “a simple, utilitarian hotel that happens to have a very creative group of people working there.” 

For now, the group is able to put that creativity to use in the whiskey room (or chef’s library depending on the mood)– Cox’s favorite room in the hotel. It houses the chef’s collection of 500 cookbooks, single malt whiskeys from John and Julia’s travels in Scotland, a wood-burning fireplace and a single table. Right now, it’s serving as a private dining room…probably the closest thing to fine dining on Orcas Island.

The hotel has also been running the cafe with to-go food only, but the restaurant and historic bar is yet to open. Cox said they are holding out hope that they will be able to invite guests back into the building by late summer or early fall. 

Interested in the San Juan islands? Check out this sample itinerary: Olympic Peninsula & San Juan Islands Itinerary

 

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