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It's Tom's Seattle... We Just Eat Here

James Beard Award-winning Seattle chef Tom Douglas is a man whose name is synonymous with Pacific Northwest cuisine. Through five of Seattle's most creative and exciting restaurants, Tom and his wife and business partner, Jackie Cross, have helped define the Seattle food scene. Tom is also the author of three cookbooks, including the award-winning Tom Douglas' Seattle Kitchen, and oversees a line of specialty food products sold nationwide. I've been lucky enough to get to know Tom since I moved to Seattle in '99 and his Palace Kitchen practically serves as a second home for me. Tom has been kind enough to have me as a regular guest on his weekly radio show to talk about cookbooks, but this was the first time I had the opportunity to interview him about about celebrity chefs, getting your kids involved in the kitchen, bloggers, his undying love of Seattle, and much more. Highlights from our talk are below. You can read the entire interview or listen to a podcast of the interview on Amazon Wire (gentle readers, please note: I was at the peak of a severe cold when we recorded this so I sound a bit like Lauren Bacall).

--BTP First of all, how would you define Pacific Northwest cuisine?

Douglas:   That's a cheap question. Too easy?

Douglas: [Laughs] Well, I've only been asked it for 25 years now and it's still a hard one to come by. I think it's in the context of a restaurant and for me restaurants are so much more than just their cuisine. I think the Seattle restaurant scene is a really fun--really up and down the Pacific Northwest coast. Portland's the same way... Vancouver. There's a certain sense of approachability. A certain sense of product. A celebration of the amazing bounty that we have here. Pacific Northwest cuisine is really about--kind of the same regionality that every other region has--things that come from here. I think the best way to explain to somebody from "the outside" is to use the salmon explanation.

When you are a chef in New York City or in Florida or in Dallas and you want salmon on your menu tonight you call your fish broker and you order salmon. You have some fresh salmon? Yeah? I'll take some salmon tonight. In Seattle, when you want salmon on your menu you call your fish guy and you say, What kind of salmon do you have tonight? Coho? King? Silvers? Keta? Where was it caught? What river? Campbell River? Yukon River? Copper River? Columbia River? Who caught it? Was it brought up right on the boat? Was it troll-caught? Gill-netted? Pursing caught? How was it bled? Did they bleed it right there on the boat or did they wait till they got to the dock and take it to the dockhouse and then take care of all the fish at one time? Or, as that fish was brought up, did somebody stop, bleed it, and pack its belly with ice and put it in the hold and go back three hours later to the shore and that afternoon put it on an Alaska Airlines jet down to Seattle? Oh, I'll take that one! I'll take that salmon that was King, troll-caught, boat-bled, caught this morning, on a plane this afternoon. That's the fish that I want!

And so, when you talk about Northwest Cuisine, that's the charm of living here and being a chef here. You have those kind of options. Seattle seems to... We're in the spotlight from time to time but for the most part we seem to be a little off the national media radar, isolated, even, in this corner of the country. Do you think that's good? Do you think that fosters creativity or is it frustrating sometimes that you can't break out as a chef or as a city beyond a regional cuisine.

Douglas: No, no, no, I think it's better. You end up with restaurants more concerned about what's on the plate than the fluff that comes with all the media attention. You know what's more important, and you can ask the people in San Francisco, how many people from San Francisco are on the Food Network? It's not just Seattle. It's a "Left Coast" thing. But look at what's on the plate. We're putting real food on the place and I think that trumps any other issue that we might have. As a card-carrying celebrity chef do you--

Douglas: I'm also a card-carrying member of the Pacific Northwest Barbecue Association. I can pull it out right now if you don't believe me. [Laughs] We'll take your word for it. What is behind the increasing popularity and obsession behind foodie culture. Is it just the Food Network? Is it people being more educated?

Douglas: There's nothing behind it. I think it's peaked, honestly. Now it's food for entertainment. It's not about the cooking as much as it used to be. Those are game shows. That whole Food Network... now it's a game show. What's really behind the foodie culture now are the farmers' markets and food as a social phenomena. And that's not anything new. They've been doing that--you know, remember the passagata in Munich or in Milan or something--these long avenues... Or the Champs Elysées where people just stroll and it's all about stopping in cafes and stopping at the brasserie. Food was the focus. It's only now that the Americans are staring to get that. And me too! I think the farmers' markets have flourished because people have gone to Europe and what's the favorite thing when they come back? God, did you see the market there? Half the people, when you go the Ballard Farmers' Market, our local farmers' market, half the people are arm in arm watching--they're not buying carrots. They are enjoying being around food and people enjoying food. And what we see in our restaurants and in our business in general is that people want to spend time around real food in a real way--in a real social way. They want to be around people of like mind. That's what's exploding. Not what's happening on the Food Network. You would agree then that diners definitely are savvier than they used to be?

Douglas: Oh, absolutely. And more demanding of what they expect. The relationship between the maître d' and the diner has changed. When you walk into a restaurant, do you have any qualms about saying, Can I have that table over there? You know, you don't have any qualms, do you? The intimidation factor isn't there.

Douglas: It's gone. As it should be. If you have a favorite waiter or a favorite table, ask for it. If the maître d' doesn't want to do it, hmm, I bet there's a good restaurant across the street. Speaking of savvy diners, have you been caught up with how online bloggers can affect restaurant reviews and openings. Do you feel they're having too much influence for people who maybe don't have the background or experience to be making these claims.

Douglas: [Laughs] Well, let's just say, even when there weren't blogs, when the Internet didn't exist, the food writer at that time at the Seattle PI, the second largest newspaper in town, was forced to do it out of the Sports pages. Same thing with The Seattle Times reviewer. He was in some other department and got forced to do reviews because he had an interest. Now, probably bloggers are stronger and more informed than any of the old-fashioned review process for restaurants. So that's the good part. That people who are writing about food really do care about it--it's a passion, right? The bad part of the equation is that, like much of the Internet, it's anonymous. I'm a good case in point, you can go on and read stuff about me. You know, when I want to know what I'm doing next I go to the Internet to find out. Because, somehow or other, these people know what's in my future--and I don't even know. That's the bad part about it. But I really do think that the blogosphere is what's churning this social, food phenomena that's happening. That people have like minds and like souls and now they get to talk about it. It's taken it to a whole other level. I guess the damaging side that I was considering is when a new restaurant has opened and they give it a week--they're there night two and base everything on that instead of revisiting or going back and seeing how things have changed. And sometimes one bad review from a blogger or a critic--a critic wouldn't necessarily post it so quickly while a blogger might say I went to the soft opening and here's what I ate and here's what I didn't like.

Douglas: One critic or blogger can't ruin your restaurant. If it gets better in a week there will be enough word of mouth to get you through. I would tell you that, as a restaurateur who's planning on opening more restaurants, I think about that now. I think about how I open and who's going to be talking about it. You're stupid not to. It goes right along with being undercapitalized. I wouldn't want to do that. I want to understand the marketplace that I'm getting into. For example, I've dealt with that in a way at Serious Pie and Lola, my last two openings. For the first week I'm open you get the whole bill but it's discounted 75%. Second week it's discounted 50%. I have found that if you give somebody a deal or a discount, admit or recognize, yeah, we are a new restaurant, we're getting our feet wet here. Somethings are going to be bad and we hope you have some patience so we didn't charge you full price because of that. The customer's a part of that--

Douglas: The customer digs it. They love being a part of that review process and that breaking-in process. You turn the tables around on what could've been a bad blog experience if they'd paid 100% of the bill to somebody who says, you know, I only paid half-price, these were the issues but I have hope for the place. One last question, Tom, cliché as it is, if you could plan the menu for your last meal what would you like to see served?

Douglas: Well that's a desperate thought. I don't eat on airplanes sometimes because I think, well, if the plane goes down I just can't have this be my last meal. This is so horrible. All things being equal, you know, you're just going to die tomorrow and you knew it and you had to plan the dinner... Asian food's been really important to me. I think a Chinese feast of lots of broccoli and whole pigs and barbecue ducks and things of that nature. Really hard, pan-seared fried noodles. Salt-and-pepper spot prawns right out of the tank. Black bean crab. Things of that nature, a feast of that sort. Not only has it been how I feel about food--I love food served to the center of the table like that, I love that communal nature of dining--but it's been a huge influence of what I serve in my own restaurants, my own cooking style.


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BTP - Well done. It's good to see you take that Saturday afternoon radio gig to a new level. (Lauren Bacall?? More like Candice Bergen in my opinion!)

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