Gastronomically speaking, Seattle is killing it right now.
Recently, it served as the setting for television show Top Chef, revealing to millions what Pacific Northwest natives have already known all too well: that Seattle is a place for great food. It’s a city where ‘organic’ and ‘locally-grown’ aren’t just trendy buzzwords; it’s where the seafood is caught daily just a few miles away and where multicultural cuisines mingle effortlessly.
No one knows the ins and outs of Seattle’s dining scene quite like Tom Douglas (TD). He helped build it, after all. For almost three decades, Tom has helped put the town on the culinary map: he has 13 restaurants (going on 30, it seems); owns an organic farm; is a radio talk show host; and has authored four cookbooks (his latest is The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook). And just last year, Tom was named the 2012 James Beard Restaurateur of the Year.
So we caught up with the man of many hats to gain his insight on dining in the Emerald City.
Cereal: It’s incredible how quickly the Seattle restaurant scene has grown. For us, it’s purely observational, but every year we come back, we’re blown away by the number of new restaurants. How do you explain this growing trend?
TD: Have you been on Ballard Avenue [in the Ballard district] recently?
Cereal: Yeah, it’s insane.
TD: It is insane. There must be 50 restaurants on Ballard Avenue alone. I think there’s a ton of interest. I think people are looking for restaurants that aren’t three or four or five billion-dollar affairs. What’s in now are these grassroots, shoestring restaurants — so it doesn’t take a whole lot of money to open for business. That lesson was learned during the last ten years of gypsy restaurants, where you just do pop-ups here and there. People realised they didn’t have to spend 2 million on décor in order to have a place where people wanted to be.
Cereal: What do you think makes Seattle such a great food destination?
TD: Well, you have to have what we have, which is great natural ingredients, restaurateurs who give a shit, beautiful growing areas on the eastern side of the mountains, and lots of farming and agriculture
We have a customer base that’s clamouring for innovation and we have everything from The Modernist Cuisine to Starbucks. It’s a wide range of different kinds of products that emanate from here.
Cereal: Do you have a favourite hidden Seattle gem?
TD: I think the lower levels of the Pike Place Market get forgotten about. You know the market is four or five layers deep, and I think that you walk through up top at the fish hoppers, and you forget to look deeper. But for me, spending a day at the Pike Place Market is better than spending an hour there. I would plan all three meals in that location and explore from top to bottom.
Cereal: How would you describe the Seattle diner?
TD: I think it’s an adventurous restaurant market with equally adventurous diners. We have a little bit of everything here. What’s interesting about Seattle is that there are more teriyaki joints than there are burger joints.
Cereal: We miss that – good teriyaki. And good pho.
Cereal: Are there any restaurants or people that are inspiring you right now?
TD: I’m two Asian dudes trapped in a white dude’s body [gestures to his belly] – well, that’s what I was told by my old Filipino sous chef. I love that kind of cooking so much. I get inspired going down to San Francisco’s Yank Sing and The Slanted Door, and Wild Ginger here or the Sea Garden in Chinatown.
Cereal: How do you measure success in your restaurants?
TD: You’re only as good as your last meal. And I don’t consider your last meal just the food on your plate. The last meal is the greeting from the hostess, the cleanliness of the carpet, the toilet paper in the men’s room or women’s room, sweeping the sidewalks outside — that’s all part of your last meal. Is the booth you’re sitting in ripped up? Is your waiter pressed? Is the music right? Is the lighting there? Has the ceiling not been cleaned in four years? All of these elements have to be on point.
Cereal: What’s next?
TD: We’re opening a grocery store, deli, cake shop, book store, flower shop, and restaurant. All by April. Oh, and a falafel shop. And a little Jamaican jerk chicken stand.
I like to have fun. I like to eat…as you can probably tell. But I don’t really think about my empire, I don’t think about it as an empire. I just like to eat and I like new challenges. You only live once. I don’t believe that I’ll be reincarnated into another restaurateur so I’m going to go for it now. Everything that sounds fun and affordable, I’m going to do.
Cereal: Do you have any advice for those embarking on their own ventures?
TD: To make things happen? Get off your ass and do it. I’ve got to say, I’m just so amazed at how many people are risk-averse. It wasn’t long ago that I was down to my last ten bucks. There are a lot of people who are risk-averse and what would I tell them? If you have a good idea, do a [business] proforma and go for it.