Foodies in the Pacific Northwest know Chef Tom Douglas. Recognized for all of his delicious Seattle-area restaurants (and corresponding cookbooks), the James Beard Award winner is also involved in local events like Teatro ZinZanni and Bumbershoot, as well as a weekly radio show with “Chef in the Hat” Thierry Rautureau.
In addition to his culinary accomplishments, I had been told by many in the industry that Tom Douglas was a great guy to work with – both as a peer and as a boss. I sat down with the master chef and restaurateur at the recent ‘F is for Food’ Bumbershoot event to pick his brain on business, food, and working with your spouse. Tom – true to the rumors – was happy to chat.
Q: A number of celebrity chefs have expanded across the country and around the world, while you’ve stayed in the Seattle area. What are your reasons for staying local?
A: I love that term – “celebrity chef”.
The biggest thing [that’s kept me here] is my daughter. I’m just now thinking about making a move. I’ve been on the Macy’s Culinary Council for five years now, and they’re starting to develop food courts in coordination with the council and want me involved. I’ve refused for years [because of the east coast location] but now my daughter’s living in New York so that’s the only way I can consider it.
Now, to put a Dahlia Lounge in New York, or even Portland, no. I don’t think it would work. I like it here. I like to keep an eye on things. I think it’s interesting to talk to your staff often.
Q: With so many pizzerias in town, what made you want to open your latest restaurant, Serious Pie? Did you see a need for another pizzeria?
A: I didn’t really think about the other pizzerias in town. Serious Pie was really just an offshoot of my bread bakery. We had the space and we wanted to expand. So I rounded up some of the chefs I knew, and I thought it’d be fun to work out a pizza from a chef’s perspective – not just from a making money perspective, though I still had a business plan. (If it won’t make money, you don’t do it.) It’s an amalgamation of three of us sitting there, working on dough for three months, thinking about what we wanted to do with it. To this day, I’m really proud of that pie.
Q: With your wife as your business partner, how do you keep business and personal separate? Did you have to set up rules?
A: No. We did in the beginning, but now, we’ve been doing this a long time. We’ve been business partners for twenty years and before that, we worked together.
So You Wanna Be A Chef?
Q: What’s the best career advice you’ve received?
A: Don’t ever ask anyone to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself. Never take anyone for granted. Learn from everything everyone brings to the table.
Q: What other chefs really influence your cooking?
A: Everybody. I swear, even when KFC comes out with a new sandwich, I’ll go try it. I’m curious what other people are making. For instance, I just tried a burger that had seventy ingredients. Seventy. Our burgers at Dahlia Lounge only have three.
Q: What are your favorite Pacific Northwest ingredients? You’re well known as a fish guy.
A: It’s funny because I don’t eat a ton of fish. The cool thing about being here is that we have everything. We don’t have it in the breadth of seasons that California does, but we grow our own cattle, we grow our own goats. We have a great non-alcoholic industry, especially with Starbucks here. The wine industry is unbelievable. I really appreciate the palate and the energy we have around here.
I do love the smoked salmon, of course. I love that here in the Northwest, you can ask any chef and he’ll tell you what river [the salmon was caught], which species, how it was caught, how long its been off the water. We know more about the origin of our ingredients here.
Q: What’s your go-to restaurant for a good meal?
A: I go to one of my restaurants and someone else’s restaurant every day. At minimal, I eat two meals out a day. Other than my restaurants, the place I go the most is Pho Bac, for breakfast and lunch. I go for restaurants the same way others do – depends on my mood, my guests, etc.
Q: What’s the one kitchen utensil everyone should have?
A: With my new line of kitchen equipment, it’s really all about kitchen confidence. I find that most people don’t cook fish, or even attempt to cook it, because they don’t know how long to cook it or what to do with it. A meat thermometer is invaluable for just that reason – it instills confidence. No matter what fish you’re cooking, bring it to 130-140 degrees and it’ll be perfect.
Q: You have cookbooks, restaurants – even spices! What’s up next for Tom Douglas?
A: I would love to open a smoked salmon spot! I’m also working on a new book. I have these future Sunday dinners where I get together with other chefs and we talk about the problems we’re having, where we’d like to go, where we see ourselves in five years. You have to keep changing. I hesitate to say ‘staying hip’.
Photo Credit: TomDouglas.com