Tom Douglas is one of the leading chefs and restaurateurs in the United States, who 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 two of a two-part interview.
TOWN SQUARE DELAWARE: You are certainly known for developing Pacific Northwest regional cuisine. What does that mean, and how did it develop?
TOM DOUGLAS: It was a number of things. Before my time, the focus of fine dining was purely a continental European style. With regional cuisine, you use high quality local ingredients — what is now known as the farm to table movement — and customers started to take this very seriously. You don’t just get a piece of salmon; you get salmon from a particular river, of a particular species, that was either netted or troll caught, packed in ice and flown into port within 24 hours. As a chef, you know everything about the piece of fish that you are cooking. It is truly local in the Pacific Northwest, the intensity of the ingredients here is pretty amazing. Even today this is not true in a lot of other places, including Phoenix and Dallas. Back in Delaware, for example, most of the crab cakes are made with crabmeat from Indonesia and the shrimp is flown up from the Gulf of Mexico.
TSD: Speaking of the farm to table movement, you own and operate Prosser Farm east of Seattle. How significant is this to your restaurant and catering businesses?
DOUGLAS: Our farm is a little late to the game in terms of the leading edge of the movement, but it is about sustaining the movement – walking the talk, so to speak. It certainly does not make money, it certainly is not a huge supplier for us other than in the peak of the season. Last year, we got 52,000 pounds of produce off the farm and I can go through that in a few weeks, maybe a month. The bigger thing for us is that we just put up our annual notice in our restaurants of ten person forays for our staff to go out to Prosser Farm and work there, and within 48 hours of the posting all of the spots are gone. You can literally go out as a cook in one of our restaurants, pick the vegetables that look good to you, and be back in Seattle cooking it up on tonight’s menu. We take them out, they spend the night, we have a communal dinner, and it is living the ideal of farm to table. My wife loves the farm, and her parents live there as well, it’s fantastic.
TSD: Were there other Seattle influences that affected the way you ran your restaurants?
DOUGLAS: Yes. I learned early on from Bruce and Jeannie Nordstrom the value of customer service. I learned from Jeff Brotman at Costco the importance of focusing on their member customers and getting the best deal for them. I think that this focus on customer service is a fairly unique aspect of the Pacific Northwest.
TSD: The growth of your restaurant business has occurred over a 25 year period that has coincided with a significant expansion in population and wealth in the Seattle area, largely driven by Microsoft and the related growth of the technology business sector. How essential was this to your success?
DOUGLAS: I’m not that analytical about things, but I will say that for many years we used to just beg Boeing to come have their parties at our restaurants, and while we continue to appreciate their business, this is no longer a one company town now that you have Starbucks and so many other businesses that are based here. In some circles, it is popular to bash big business these days, but people just have no clue as to how important these large firms are to the local economy, and the collective impact of tourism and corporate business on Seattle and San Francisco and other major cities.
TSD: How do you balance the other things that you have done nationally, such as your work with Amtrak and Macy’s, with your Seattle base of operations? Have you considering branching out to other cities with your restaurants?
DOUGLAS: We have had restaurant offers from every major city, but I have only one kid and I wanted to see her grow up; I did not want to spend my life on a plane. The Amtrak thing has been a lot of fun. The test kitchen is based in Wilmington on the riverfront near the train station, so I get to come back home and see my Mom, do the testing for the meals, work with the guys there. I am developing some vegetarian entrees now for the Acela dining program, which I think will be terrific. I am going to be back in Delaware next week in fact, and I am doing a dinner with the UD hospitality program. I think you can put out some good meals but there are restraints – for five years I was the chef for Northwest Airlines and I had to board a meal for $1.43.
TSD: You have talked about your passion for the community as well, where did those influences come from?
DOUGLAS: I can’t explain where I got those instincts. My parents never made a lot of money, and were not in a position to make a lot of contributions. I have a profile that means I get asked to do a lot of things, and I am happy to help. I am a cook, and I know that people like you can afford to come to my places and eat out but other people can’t – but that does not let me off the hook. I am on the board of Food Lifeline, a hunger relief organization in western Washington, and am leading the capital campaign to build a new food distribution facility to extend our reach; we are asking for money from everyone who can afford to give, from the Gates Foundation to Nordstrom.
TSD: You hold progressive political views?
DOUGLAS: I believe in the safety net for everyone in our society. In the restaurant business, I work with people who are living on the edge, from paycheck to paycheck. These are hard working people, they don’t have college degrees, but they put in long hours, many have two jobs to make it work for them. There are basic areas of need, like health insurance, that all people really need to have. There is a huge gap between the top 1% that includes me, and everyone else and the gap is getting larger. If we don’t begin to address it, then we are fools.
TSD: Anything you would like to highlight for the hometown readers?
DOUGLAS: There are some terrific new restaurants in Delaware that I enjoy when I come back. The last one I enjoyed was Deep Blue in Wilmington. Newark could use a couple of new places, though!