An Interview with Tom Douglas

Yes, we’re trying something new here at the Hedonist. I alluded to it in a previous post, but I wanted to make sure I was able to set something up before tellin’ y’all about it.

Tom Douglas, for those of you not from the Seattle area, can be said to be an institution here in the Emerald City. He runs several restaurants, including the Palace Kitchen, The Dahlia Lounge, and Lola. He’s been nominated for the James Beard Award back in 1996. He has two book out on the market: Tom Douglas’ Seattle Kitchen and Tom’s Big Dinners : Big-Time Home Cooking for Family and Friends. He’s also been recently invited to participate in Iron Chef America (which airs this Sunday).

And most importantly, he makes a kickin’ Coconut Cream Pie.

He and his staff were kind enough to arrange a sit down with me, and answer a few questions (some of which were provided by some of you readers out there).

You moved to Seattle in the late 70′s and have been working in the food industry since that time. How has the food scene changed in the area between then and now?

Well, there are more restaurants now, with more people living downtown. The variety of restaurants have increased tremendously.

“Chinese” food, which used to be concentrated in Chinatown, is more readily available. Thai food and Vietnamese have come along. That and the depth of ethnicity has really changed, Restaurants like that have now gone upscale. Wild Ginger and Monsoon, places that have taken a pan-asian approach, can now concentrate on their specialty, whether it’s barbecue or seafood. I think that’s great.

I don’t think that how the infrastructure of how restaurants “are” has changed. But they’ve certainly changed for people. People eat out more for sustenance now, and not necessarily for special occasions. People eat out for dinner more than they used to. Lunch used to be an equal player with dinner, but now dinner is way out there. People don’t take the time to deal with lunch like they used to. The two martini lunch is pretty much gone. That has pretty much changed everywhere in the country.

That’s too bad, because there was a charm to that, a civility to doing business over a meal and a cocktail.

What do you like most about working in Seattle?

The people. It’s a great town here. My staff is wonderful. It’s nice to have the depth of great employees out there. We could always use more, but there’s a great amount of restaurant professionals out there to choose from, something that’s more difficult when you get to other places.

Jeffrey Steingarten has suggested in one of his columns that the Pacific Northwest has wonderful raw materials, but no cuisine based on them. Do you think that’s so?

I don’t look upon restaurants as having cuisines, I look at them as restaurants. There’s a “style” of restaurants.

The cliche of Manhattan restaurants is the snooty Maitre D’ who will maybe or maybe not let you in for dinner, depending on how you’re dressed, do you have a reservation, who you’re with, blah, blah, blah. New York suffered from that for years and hurt their business for a long time. When Danny Meyer took his trip along the West Coast in 1984-85, and the opened Union Square Cafe in New York, I think that he brought some of that West Coast and Seattle culture back to the East Coast. He got rid of the snotty maitre d’. Servers became your servant and not your big brother. He brought them professionalism.

I think that’s what’s part of Northwest Cuisine. Northwest cuisine is how you’re treated on the telephone. When you call for a reservation, it’s not “I’ll see if I can get you in”, it’s “We’d love to have you come in”. It’s the Northwest approachability and style that you didn’t used to see everywhere.

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