Tom Douglas: America’s Best Food Is on the West Coast

Pioneering chef and restaurant owner Tom Douglas (right) is Seattle food. So you can forgive him the subtitle of his latest book, The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook: Sweetness in Seattle (with Shelley Lance). If anyone should be allowed to riff off the title of the 1993 movie that officially made Seattle a thing in the national mind, it’s the chef who launched 11 restaurants (plus Dahlia Bakery) in the brooding capital of fleece and double lattes. Last week, Douglas stopped by CHOW’s offices in San Francisco to talk about the book (it spans English muffin sandwiches, éclairs, and a recipe called The Best Crème Caramel in the World), restaurants in New York and San Francisco, and the modernist cuisine phenomenon emanating from Bellevue, Washington.

SAN FRANCISCO IS THE BEST FOOD TOWN IN AMERICA
"Having just spent two of the last three weeks in Manhattan, I’m even more impressed with the whole West Coast. I had the realization that San Francisco is easily the best food town going. Portland is right behind it, and Seattle is right behind that. There are different levels of French food in Manhattan that we don’t get out here, but nothing else is all that interesting. I went to The NoMad in New York and just didn’t love the chicken that everybody talks about—the brioche [under the skin] was a little mushy in my mouth, though my team loved it. The best roast chicken in America is still in San Francisco, the one at Zuni. I spent five weeks in Paris, and it’s hard to find a better croissant than the ones in San Francisco. The quality of food on the West Coast is the best you’ll find anywhere."

NEW YORK AIN’T ALL THAT
"They’re so full of shit in New York. You give them a flavor out of their usual palate and they go crazy. These days it’s all the David Chang effect. Everybody's doing fish crudo these days—nobody was until Mario Batali put it on the menu; now everybody is. At the end of the day it comes down to who has the best fish on the plate. Batali's is still the best, but the stuff I tried in New York was terrible. One place it was put on a warm plate just out of the dishwasher, $32 for five little pieces of hamachi."

SEATTLE IS NOT SLEEPY
"The idea that there’s nothing avant-garde happening in Seattle is just crazy. That’s a visual-mental thing rather than a reality thing. Because our style is more homemade, you assume that the sugar cookie at Dahlia Bakery is very basic, but that’s just because of the way it looks. It’s actually very sophisticated. The financier at Craftsman & Wolves [in San Francisco] is going for a Pierre Hermé look; ours is more organic. They’re presented in a different way, but ours is just as delicious."

MODERNIST CUISINE IS COOL, BUT THE BASICS RULE
"I think what Nathan Myhrvold and those Modernist Cuisine guys are doing is invigorating for a lot of kids who are just starting out cooking. It gives them goals and some tools. The question is, is it making food better or just more manipulated? If you take a beautiful piece of fish, no matter what you do to it, just getting it is 50 percent of the battle. The next 50 percent is not trying to fuck it up. You can sous-vide it, pull it out of the plastic, put it on something to give it a quick sear. Or you take that same piece of fish, put a dry marinade on it, and cook it in the pan. At the end of the day, what’s better? My personal decision is the less manipulation the better. What makes you a better cook is knowing how the fish was caught. That can’t be forgotten with modernist cuisine, with all its equipment. I still happen to think a Chinese bamboo steamer is as good a way as any to cook a piece of fish, and they’re $10."

Photo of Tom Douglas with the author by Chris Rochelle / CHOW.com

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