The 2012 James Beard Award for Outstanding Restaurateur, Tom Douglas is one of the leading chefs and restaurateurs in the United States. He is widely credited with developing Pacific Northwest cuisine using regional and seasonal ingredients. In addition to owning and managing ten restaurants in Seattle, he is the executive chef for Macy’s and Amtrak, has published several cook books, produces and distributes nationally a specialty food line, and operates a catering business (which recently served lunch to President Obama). He was raised in Newark, Delaware. Town Square Delaware contributor John Osborn sat down with Tom in his office last week in Seattle to discuss his life and career, his roots in Delaware, and his extraordinary success on the west coast. This is part one of a two-part interview.
TOWN SQUARE DELAWARE: You grew up in Delaware in the 1960s and 70s. Tell me about what your life was like growing up during that period.
TOM DOUGLAS: I grew up across the street from Newark Country Club in Nottingham Green, and I lived there from the time I was 6 years old until I was 19. I swam for the Nottingham Green Gators at the Newark Country Club, caddied at the Club, and I had paper routes for the old Morning News and the Evening Journal. I went to St. Mark’s High School, class of 1976. I knew after I graduated that I did not want to continue with formal schooling. I got a job at State Line Liquors in Elkton, Maryland and the surrounding states were strictly controlled by state liquor laws, so we were very busy; there used to bus trips from Philly where all the guys would come in to get their pints on Sunday. That was my first job in retail. Before that, I had various odd jobs. I was always a “worker bee”, and I always had money as a result, which I think is part of what changes your opinion about the value of going to college.
TSD: Did you consider going to college?
DOUGLAS: All of my brothers and sisters went to college, most of them to the University of Delaware. At my Mom’s request, because she was so distraught, I took an economics class in the evening at the UD. After three weeks, I took off on a trip around the country and missed most of the classes, but I came back in time to take the final exam and passed. After that experience, I decided that I really did not need college to succeed.
TSD: How did you develop an interest in cooking?
DOUGLAS: I worked at the Hotel DuPont for seven months, cooking for customers in the Green Room and the Brandywine Room. But I had the bug to travel and explore the country. I had bought my father’s company car for $300, which was a Chevrolet BelAir station wagon, and I packed everything I owned in it and finally ran out of money when I got to Seattle.
TSD: Was it difficult to get established in Seattle?
DOUGLAS: The hardest thing for me was that you lose every ounce of your history when you leave your roots behind and come to a place where no one knows you or your story. You and I can connect with each other here in Seattle, in part because we have a kind of shared history through our sense of place; we know about the legislature in Dover and the beach communities. But out here, no one shares that history.
TSD: How did you acclimate yourself to the west coast?
DOUGLAS: First, I had to get a job. I went in to a restaurant, and the chef said “Cook me an omelet.” Of course I had been trained at the Hotel DuPont under a European style Swiss chef. In Seattle, they were churning out six egg omelettes in the old saute houses, rapid fire, cooked under a very high heat. I made my nice, refined, fluffy creation and he took one look at it and said, “You’ll never cook in this town.” But I did land the next job, and I realized early on that I was a pretty good manager of people. In the restaurant business, if you can manage people, you get promoted quickly.
TSD: How did you go from working in a restaurant to running a restaurant and building a reputation as an inventive, first rate chef?
DOUGLAS: I got a chance to run a restaurant near Pike Place Market called the Café Sport, and that was what put me and my talents on the map; that’s when I realized that I could run a business and not just run the kitchen. I cut a deal with the owners under which I would take a percentage of the profits over and above a baseline, and fortunately it started turning a profit around the time I started. Later on, I couldn’t get hired and so I became an entrepreneur by necessity, when I borrowed money from my wife’s uncle to open my first restaurant. But there really isn’t a big black line between running a restaurant for someone else, and owning your own restaurant; there is a big black line between becoming famous, and not becoming famous, and why that happens is something I can’t quite put my finger on.
TSD: What did you become known for, early on?
DOUGLAS: The first thing that I became known for was crab cakes. Incredibly, with all the stacks of fresh crab that comes into Pike Place Market every day, there wasn’t one crab cake on the menu of any restaurant in Seattle. For a long time, it seemed that you could not be a star chef unless you were European. But things were starting to change during the 1980s, and I rode that wave of interest in new American chefs. Also, I had a physical presence; I always was a big guy with a beard, and people and the press seemed to relate to me.
Check back tomorrow for part two of John’s interview with Tom Douglas, who talks about the farm-to-table movement, Pacific Northwest regional cuisine, his national involvement with Macy’s & Amtrak, and a few shout-outs to the folks in Delaware.