Tom Douglas
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Tom Douglas

Rebekah Denn / July 2013

Food Arts presents the July/August 2013 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Tom Douglas, who led his adopted city to a national stage rather than leaving it behind, who deems pizza as worthy of devoted focus as a platter of oysters, who never opens the same restaurant twice, and who never fails to hit a culinary level that’s relished by Seattle locals as well as visitors.

The burly, bluff chef/restaurateur, 54, got his start when a high school career counselor hooked him up with the elegant Hotel DuPont in his native Delaware. He then roamed the country until he “ran out of money” in Seattle, where his inspired cooking at Café Sport in the mid-1980s helped define the then-amorphous concept of Northwest cuisine. At his own Dahlia Lounge (1989)and then hangouts like Etta’s (1995) and Palace Kitchen (1996), he elevated his ingredients with prissy-free élan—tucking roasted pork into pleated agnolotti del plin, coating wild salmon with a patented paprika spice rub, and turning a triple-coconut cream pie into a towering tour de force.

As he expanded his Seattle holdings (the count is 13 and rising), a stint at a Tom Douglas restaurant became practically obligatory for promising line cooks and front-of-the-house staff, who then rippled out to kitchens and dining rooms of their own. His many protégés, powerhouses in their own rights, include Holly Smith of Cafe Juanita and Mark Fuller of Ma’Ono. Douglas has kept up with them all, putting in the same brutal hours he did in his Café Sport days.

He’s varied his interests—a bakery, Med-style kebab and tagine house, a beer-and-pretzels hangout for Amazon techies, a wood-fired pizza place he took seriously enough to name Serious Pie, a line of packaged goods, and even a sundries market. His wife and business partner, Jackie Cross, oversees their farm in Eastern Washington, which started out as a getaway and now produces 100,000 pounds of summer produce.

What Douglas never did, despite the example of contemporaries, was branch out to what others considered the big leagues of Las Vegas or New York City. “I only had one kid,” he says. “I wanted to see her grow up. Spending my life on a plane is not my idea of fun.”

Instead, his wild curly hair and wisecracking voice have made him one of Seattle’s few non-sports, non-geek celebrities, whether he’s spotted downing pho at his favorite $6 a bowl Vietnamese haunt, leading a fund-raising charge to restore Fourth of July fireworks, cleaning up a waterfront park, swapping jokes with chef pal Thierry Rautureau on their weekly radio show, or lending his name to regular fund-raisers for Food Lifeline and other food bank projects.

His secret to success? Luck, he says. But when pressed, he knows better: “We only open a restaurant when we can afford to build one, so we try to keep banks out of the picture.” He stays away from percentage-based rents, his contractor and designer work in-house, and capital costs are kept to a minimum, with none of his restaurants “particularly fancy or gussied up.” He reinvests in his businesses—and in his workers and community—and he’s characteristically blunt about pushing the industry toward better pay and health care for workers.

He doesn’t think his unerring sense for restaurant ideas is his finest achievement. “I’m not the best cook in the world, and I’m certainly not the best restaurant manager in the world,” he says. “If I have a gift or an ability, it’s using our voice to stand up for people.”