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The cover of his book -- his first book, his only book -- tells the story succinctly. In the photo, well known Seattle restaurateur Tom Douglas stands with blue sky and his city behind him. He's holding a codfish in one hand, a hook in the other and wearing a satisfied smile. He shares the cover with some of the things his book deals with: fresh cherries and basil, some star anise, hard tree fruit and a Dungeness crab. And it all looks spectacular: the city sparkles with only a hint of future rain, the food is varied and inviting. And Douglas, with his ginger curls and buccaneer stance, looks like a pirate -- albeit, a friendly one -- confident and questing.
The chef we meet in Tom Douglas' Seattle Kitchen: A Food Lover's Cookbook and Guide is exactly as represented. A pioneer -- he's often been accused of having had a strong hand in defining Pacific Rim cuisine through his restaurants, Dahlia Lounge, Etta's Seafood and Palace Kitchen -- Douglas is a large man who speaks carefully and conveys a certain gentleness. As we talk, he sometimes stops to carefully consider his answers and other times rushes in with enthusiasm, the passion for his topic overtaking him. And though he seems shy and even professes a portion of this trait, Douglas is at the forefront of a demanding profession in a city that has come to be known for excellence in its restaurant kitchens. More: he seems poised on the edge of a wider fame. An Emeril in waiting -- or, perhaps, in training -- chalking up his successes even while he sights the next challenge.
Douglas lives in Seattle with his wife Jackie and their 11-year-old daughter Loretta. Currently flirting with television -- a series pilot has already been filmed -- Douglas has also recently launched a line of specialty foods.
Linda Richards: How has the book been received?
Tom Douglas: It's gone really good. I had no idea what to expect. Our first 30,000 [copies] sold out in the first month.
Were you surprised?
More than that. Thrilled. You don't make money doing a book, but it's really good for the restaurants and for the product lines and for all the peripheral things. It's good for the ego, too. [Laughs] I spent more than I should have putting it together. We spent about $140,000. We were very thorough on our recipe testing. It's been an eight year process, so I went through three co-writer possibilities before I settled on the last one. Each one of those I paid money to. And the last co-writer, Denis Kelly, I just paid a flat fee to of $25,000 or something like that.
It's just expensive. It's an expensive process. It would be an interesting story on its own. [Laughs] I mean, I have friends who have self-published and even that can be expensive and then it's real difficult to sell them outside of your restaurants. Morrow bought my book but Morrow was bought after it bought my book. I took my book to 10 different publishers all over and I got nine offers and three really good offers so it kind went back out to bid. I had offers for more money but I was more interested in how they were going to work with me, how many pictures I could get. I still wanted twice as many pictures [as there are in the book].
But there are a lot of pictures as it is.
Well, just that one center [of color], just that eight pages. There are a lot of pictures in the book.
You wanted more color photos?
Yeah. I don't know: I grew up on Penthouse and Playboy. I just like color. [Laughs] So anyway, I finally went with somebody that I thought: We could work together.
Tell me about the recipe testing.
Every recipe was tested four times. I bought a stove to put on the line at The Palace: the cooking line, I bought a home stove because there's a big difference. If you say: Use medium-high on a restaurant stove, you're in trouble on a home stove. [Laughs]
Were there any other differences between a restaurant stove and a home stove?
Yeah. Just consistency. The thermostat is different. And the size of the burner, for example, when you put in, let's say a sheet pan of ribs, to cook in a home oven, you've got about a 15,000 BTU burner to get you back up to temp, which might take five minutes. Whereas in a restaurant oven you've got a 40,000 BTU burner. That same thing of ribs will be back up to temp in a minute. And so everything changes: your cooking times, your sears, everything changes.
Did you find yourself saying: How can people cook on these things?
Well, [Laughs] I've always hated them.
But you live in a house, though.
But I have commercial equipment in my home.
Shelley [Lance] and Duskie [Estes], my other two co-writers, tested them all separately on the stove and then they got together and decided what they liked out of each version that they'd come up with, because every cook is different. You'd be surprised. Looking at the same recipe, every cook comes up with something different.
You know, it's interesting to hear you put it that way. It's true though. I think that's because cooking is more art than science. I mean, if you use a half a teaspoon of salt one way or the other, it isn't going to ruin things, it'll just bring a slightly different result.
Well, there's two things that can happen. Number one is the recipe can be misprinted and so if they both come up with something completely different, you know that something is wrong there. Another thing that's different is my sear is different than your sear because searing doesn't scare me. Whereas, to a home cook, if I say: Brown and then check it, they're going to be checking it every two seconds to see if it's brown yet. Whereas my thing is: Set it and forget it because the brown is delicious and the brown is flavor and things like that.
Then they took what they liked best about their two recipes and created a new recipe and then tried it again, both of them. And if it worked out and they came up with the same finish we were ready to go. So when you think about that: four times to test each recipe and each recipe is for between two and six people, that's a lot of food, a lot of time, a lot of hours.
And everyone gained like 20 pounds.... [Laughs]
[Laughs] No, we have plenty of staff to eat. But it is what makes it so expensive to put out a book that Food & Wine Magazine called one of the top ten best cookbooks of the year. And they liked the book, but they really liked that every recipe they tried works exactly the way it says in the book. I remember reading a review of Emeril's book one time that just got trashed for the recipes not working. And I thought: I don't want that.
Do you have a favorite recipe from this book? Because we usually run a recipe when we interview cookbook authors. What would be a good one?
Do you have a favorite food? Because then I can match a recipe to that.
No not really. I like everything. You pick.
Well, I'm a big duck person. I love pork: pork ribs, pork tacos. The Etta's Salmon is the most popular dish in there but also we have the coconut cream pie and the cornbread pudding that just kind of melts in your mouth. Try one of those.
You grew up in Delaware.
Yes. Well, sort of. Until I was 18. I really did grow up in Seattle. [I've been there] since 1977.
Where did you learn to cook? Where did you learn to chef?
Just going out to eat and going back the next day and trying to figure out what I had.
Really? Reverse engineering.
Taste memory is what we call it.
As opposed to "tourner, tourner, tourner."
No, no, not for me. You know, I had to make a living, so I didn't have time to work for free. I did have an offer to go to the CIA [Culinary Institute of America] from the hotel I was working at in Delaware, the Hotel DuPont. But they wanted me to sign a contract when I came out: so it's like a five-year gig.
Like indentured servanthood.
What was it about Seattle that drew you?
I think the reality is that, when I was 18, Seattle was not where I grew up. That's what made it different. That's what made it great. It's just not where you are from. There's a lot of good things about that and there's also some very sad things. Seattle just clicked for me. I met great people. I got jobs right away. I'm a kind of get-things-done-person and so I could take management positions right away and so I got to make money right away. In the restaurant business the only way to make cash is to go into management. You can be a waiter and make ungodly amounts of money. [Laughs] Or be a kitchen manager. So that's what I went into.
The sad thing is that you lose your history. That's what I would tell anybody who moves away from home and their friends and their family. Especially as a single person. When I was [first] in Seattle, I would meet people and they didn't know what high school you went to, they'd never even been through your hometown, they never met your parents or your friends. It was like starting from serious scratch. It's amazing how your whole life just sort of goes away and you start to build a new one.
What's your hometown?
Although those places -- Delaware and your part of Washington state -- are very different, I would imagine, from a food perspective, there are some commonalties. Like, you said in the book that you grew up eating lots of blue crab... not that the foods from both regions are the same, but that you'd approach food from the same place, if you follow what I mean. The same jumping off point?
In a way you're right, but in a way you've got to remember that I was 18 years old and those things weren't hitting me at the time. And I would say, more than anything, I had worked six months in a restaurant and I came out here and that was the job I could get and so I started working in restaurants. And it was the people in those restaurants -- the chefs in those restaurants -- combined with the memories of my mom cooking and the intricacies of my grandmother's cooking -- she taught me how to drink Pabst Blue Ribbon and sip Jack Daniel's and a lot of things that are important to eating. But it was really the friends I made in Seattle that I kind of latched on to -- all of them much older. I was 19 and 20 years old and I was meeting these people and they were 30 and 40 years old and we just started going out to eat. And that's really how I started changing from being the cook that I came as, which was get the job done, open a dozen oysters, just really simple plain stuff, to appreciating food and understanding what a dining experience is. It's not just what's on your plate. You know, it's those lamps and that music and it's that waiter and it's the phone call when you [make] your reservation: that someone obviously can't wait for you to get there and have dinner and really want to show off their restaurant.
Let's face it: the people that come to our joints come because it's their anniversary or it's a special night for them. And they want to come back next year. And they want it to be like the time of their life for the next six months, because for many people it is. That's the best part about the business, I think: people are so excited to walk through your front doors.
Understanding that must be one of the keys to your success.
It's one of the keys to the business.
I don't think everybody has those keys.
[Laughs] Well, I don't know. I think in some ways it's changing a little bit. People go out so much now that we're finding our dining times going from what used to be a two and a half hour turn to an hour and a half. Even in our fanciest, The Dahlia Lounge, we're starting to have hour to hour and a half turns. Because people are going out to eat. They're going out and then they want to go home. They're still going out, but they're not going out for that special event as consistently. So, we still have the special eventers -- the ones where it's their anniversary and they've been doing this for 10 years straight because they got engaged here and all that kind of stuff -- but we're also finding the other side of that which is people just getting sustenance and they just want something good to eat and they want it fast -- get in and get out. Those same people used to go to a cheaper restaurant -- they used to go to McDonald's or whatever.
And now they have more money.
Not just more money, but they have more palate. And they've gotten used to it. And yeah: there's some really interesting food on the menus now, but I'm just hungry. Just give me something good.
Do you respond to that on the menus, as well?
We do. Our menus are getting more and more simple.
How do you describe the style of food that you serve? Is it fusion?
No. Ooh: we hate that word. [Laughs] Bad chef word. My hair doesn't stand up very well, but it would. That's kind of a bad word in the industry. I'm not saying there aren't places that are doing it but, I think it's confused with global and with what fusion is. To me, fusion is taking a marriage of ethnic backgrounds and putting them together and serving them on the same plate and that to me is not only fusion, it's often confusion and that can be a problem. Whereas, what I see as global -- and we see it happening all over the country -- is taking what might be a potsticker appetizer and then going to a rabbit and polenta entree and then going to a coconut cream pie dessert. That's what you're seeing a lot of on menus that I like. Not fusion, but global influences. But hopefully not on the same plate.
So that's not what yours is. What is it?
Ours is, basically, whatever we can steal from what we've had recently. We all love to go out and eat and we all love to recreate and it kind of goes back to that. I kind of foster that in my staff. We have menu meetings every week and we talk about things that might be fun to cook. So, when I get back from Spain, we'll have Spanish food on the menu. And when I come back from the Italian market in South Philly, we'll have a South Philly antipasto plate.
You like being influenced.
I do. It's how I've learned. And it's what I can offer to other people.
Do your menus change a lot?
Our menus change every day: lunch and dinner. Not everything, but a percentage of the menu changes at all three restaurants.
The Dahlia Lounge came first?
Yes. Almost 12 years ago. And then Etta's about six years ago. And Palace [is] five years old.
Are they very different in nature?
You know, to us they seem similar. People always say: How do you make them so different? But if you were to take the dishes of food and line them up on this one table from all three restaurants, outside of the china I think the food would seem similar in nature.
The rooms are quite different?
The rooms are very different and the plateware is different. Etta's doesn't have tablecloths, Palace doesn't take reservations or have tablecloths. Things change when you add little bits and pieces. When you add a velvet drape, all of a sudden you're more upright, same with a white tablecloth. So, yeah: they're very different, but, in my mind, similar. I'm a cook. I can only cook how I cook. I wouldn't think I could put out bad food in one and good food in another.
But Etta's is focused on seafood and Palace is all about the wood grill. The wood rotisserie grill. Dahlia -- which now has a wood rotisserie and grill -- is all about... my goal for Dahlia is, if you come to Seattle and you want a Seattle experience, you've got to go to the Dahlia Lounge. I get a lot of press [in Seattle]. My restaurants, which are often talked about as being some of the best of Seattle, are never stuffy. There's never any maitre 'd or waiter with their hands behind their back or things like that.
One of the interesting things is that, you always think about New York sort of leading the way. But New York is actually [now] picking up on what Seattle was doing 10 years ago. The whole casualness is really starting to hit Manhattan. They're all about getting rid of that snooty maitre 'd and taking care of the customer. In the 25 years I've been going to Manhattan, it's a whole different marketplace.
Is casualness seen more as a hip thing to do?
That and it's customer service and there are so many restaurants that you can't afford to have an attitude anymore. It's nice to see. No attitudes.
Has television tried to find you yet?
Yeah: it's really one of those things you've got to make a decision about. I've actually filmed the pilot but I'm still uneasy about the whole concept of being famous if it were to sell. Or be successful. I mean, the chances are none of those things are ever going to happen but, if it does, you've got to make that choice. I've just filmed Emeril, back in Manhattan and it's unbelievable what's happened to that guy. From bodyguards to ravenous fans to limos; he's got his own private plane now. So you've got to make those choices. I'm not sure that I want to be that famous. It's kind of fun when I go to the grocery store and people stop me and ask me: Would you put this with your salmon? That kind of stuff I don't mind. But it doesn't happen in Manhattan.
Emeril goes to L.A. now and he'll sign 4000 cookbooks in one sitting. He's sold over three million books: everything is just exploding. And he's just the most mild mannered [guy]. He just happened to be sexy and hit the right button and everything just kind of fell in place.
Would your show be about Seattle?
I'm not the most comfortable on TV by myself. I like having a foil there. So they kept trying to get me to do a show by myself and I'm kind of shy and retiring. So it was just something I hadn't pursued. And finally I have this other chef buddy in town who is small, French and has a thick accent. And me: big and fat without an accent. So I came up with this idea to do a thing called Spy Chefs. We get up in disguises. He's already been Carmen Miranda and I've already been a geisha girl.
[Laughs] And you do the show dressed up?
We steal the recipe concepts. And it's based on what we talked about earlier: taste memory. It came about in talking about how I learned to cook, which was basically getting ideas and going back and recreating either the same or with my own little touches. So we go into restaurants in kind of this slapstick disguise and steal these concepts and then take them back and figure them out: him from his French-y chef-y angle and me from my don't-really-give-a-shit angle and see where we get to. Because people have seen what we had and what inspired us and see how we each get to something similar. So, you know, if it ever happens. [Shrugs]
What are you hoping comes out of the cookbook experience for you?
Well, a lot of it already has, which is just the experience of doing it. I've been doing restaurants for a long time: I'm ready for something new. [Laughs] In a funny way. The same thing with the product lines and all that. The hardest thing about being an entrepreneur and opening restaurants is, you can't really close them. Unless for some reason they're not successful, people don't just close a successful restaurant. I've got 100 people that are making a living off the Dahlia Lounge. Are you just going to close it? I mean, I know those people can get jobs somewhere else, but they've become my friends: they're the best part of being in the business. But it also pigeonholes you then. I mean, you know: your magazine is successful right? You're going to do it for a long time. At what point do you pull the plug? Charles Shulz didn't stop writing Peanuts for 50 years or something.
I like the fact that this book and those sauces are giving me avenues to grow a little bit more. I've been my own boss for a long time. It's about altering the terrain, basically. Putting some speed bumps in the road. Not that business isn't its own speed bump, but just new avenues. | August 2001
Linda L. Richards is the editor of January Magazine.