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Hot opportunity: Seattle restauranteur Tom Douglas visits Mount Si's culinary class | Photo gallery
It took a while for someone to work up the courage to ask, but Seattle restauranteur and award-winning chef Tom Douglas, was ready for the question.
He was standing in the Wildcat Cafe at Mount Si High School Thursday morning, a visiting celebrity for the 30-some culinary arts students watching—a rock star—when senior James Hustad asked point-blank, "Are you hiring?"
The answer, before the laughing had died down was, "We are. We are always hiring."
With 15 restaurants, including Etta's, Dahlia Lounge, and Serious Pie, and more than 700 employees, Douglas said his organization (www.tomdouglas.com) has a constant need for staff members. However, he hires only the ones who truly love food, and food service.
Douglas, the 1994 winner of the James Beard Foundation award for Best Chef: Northwest, and recent nominee for the same foundation's 2012 Outstanding Restaurateur Award, met with some of Mount Si culinary arts teacher Laura Tarp's students Thursday, March 29, to talk about working in the restaurant business (try it before committing thousands of dollars and years of your life to culinary school), what it takes to succeed (hard work), and what he wants to see in job applicants at one of his restaurants (passion).
"That's where you set yourself aside from everybody else, is to have the want, the desire to be better than everybody else," he said.
That passion seems to be lacking in the newest crops of culinary and hospitality graduates he's seen, Douglas says, and half-joking, he says it's a little lacking in the room, too.
"I have a bunch of restaurants in downtown Seattle. Have you ever been to one?" he asked, and when no hands went up, "Thanks for nothing!"
It's not just the business that Douglas wants to see from these students, though, it's also their interest. He had no formal training in cooking, beyond a high school job cooking for the Hotel Du Pont in Wilmington, Delaware, and his exploration of restaurants that began immediately after high school, when he got in the car and headed west until his money ran out. That was in Seattle, 35 years ago.
That was also how Douglas taught himself to cook, he says. He'd try a dish, then figure out how to improve on it, and eventually, to "own" it.
"I steal everything I know. I pay for it, when I got it from the menu, but I steal ideas," he said. "Restaurant bills were my tuition."
He's not necessarily opposed to the other kind of tuition, but cautions against going straight from one school to another.
"I would only recommend culinary school after they've worked in the business," he said. "Get a feel for it. Make sure you like it. Make sure you understand the dynamic of the restaurant business, because there's a lot of good cooks out there. You know what there's not a lot of? There's not a lot of good managers."
Beyond career advice, Douglas was also quizzed on how to manage losses to food waste or breakage, about pricing menu items as food costs increase, and about sourcing food. An enthusiastic speaker on each topic, Douglas was especially vocal about "those three things, local, sustainable, and organic."
He and his wife, Jackie Cross, own and operate Prosser Farm to supply their restaurants. The farm provides about 50,000 pounds of food to his restaurants annually. That's less than a month's supply for the restaurants, but the farm is cost effective because they focus on growing the produce that would be more expensive to buy at the quality they want. Last year, that was 21,000 pounds of tomatoes.
Students also asked standard celebrity-type questions about favorite restaurants, chefs, dishes, and TV shows, all of which he answered with his usual candor. He joked that Masahara Morimoto (Iron Chef Japanese) should be his favorite chef, since Douglas was able to defeat him in the competition cooking show in 2005, but it was actually his friend Mario Batali.
What may have been his most memorable advice, though, followed an abashed student asking what to cook for a date.
"Always something you can share," he said, and something that you can personalize. "Create a dish that you own… like me. Nobody can touch my mu shu pork. I've been married 28 years. That's pretty good moo shu pork!"
Douglas' visit was arranged by the Washington Restaurant Association, an advocacy group for the restaurant industry. Tarp works with the WRA and for the last 10 years has sent teams of students to its ProStart competition, recently held in Everett. For more information about ProStart, visit http://www.wrahome.com/training-education/prostart/.
Students were invited to sample treats that Seattle chef Tom Douglas brought to Mount Si High School Thursday. Douglas told students about his own success in the culinary world, and was told by one student that his brownie bar was "the most delicious thing I've ever eaten in cookie-form."
Mount Si Culinary Arts teacher Laura Tarp, right, gives a quick tour of the Wildcat Cafe kitchen to Tom Douglas, center, and his assistant, Thursday, before Douglas spoke to her students.
Above, Douglas welcomes students to the classroom during his visit with Mount Si culinary program students last week. Below, students listen and react.