Published on: October 5, 2004By Kevin CoupeIn addition to writing
MorningNewsBeat each day, Content Guy Kevin Coupe also contributes regular columns to a wide number of publications, including the now-defunct
FMI Advantage. As a regular MorningNewsBeat feature, the folks at FMI have graciously agreed to let us reprint some of these columns.
Questions of obesity, nutrition and food safety tend to dominate much of the debate in the food retailing business, but they tend to do so in an environment where "food" simply isn’t a top priority. Rather, they get discussed in a cauldron where questions of efficiency and cost savings seem to be far more important than the quality of salmon.
Which made us wonder about how someone who really is in the "food business" - that is, the business of creating great food products that appeal to people's imaginations and palates - deals with these top of mind issues. And more specifically, how does one of Seattle's top chef/restaurateurs cope with the national fat crisis, not to mention numerous questions that have erupted around the consumption of salmon (which is, like, the official dish of the Pacific Northwest)?
In the case of Tom Douglas - who owns three of the city's best restaurants as well as being the creator of a line of barbecue sauces and rubs, and the author of two popular cookbooks - these are issues that don't really have an impact on day-to-day life.
Douglas starts from the premise that consumers are smarter than many people give them credit for being, and that offered superior choices - whether in restaurant food or packaged products - a sizeable contingent will respond.
Let's start with salmon. There have been a series of questions raised about the levels of PCBs in farmed salmon vs. the health benefits of wild salmon, as well as the use of food colorings to give farmed salmon the same pink color that wild salmon have. The issue is whether too much farmed salmon actually can be carcinogenic.
Considering that one of the main dishes at Etta's, which is just down the street from the famed Pike Place Market, is a fabulous "rub-with-love king salmon" served with cornbread pudding and shiitake relish, you'd expect that maybe some of Etta's patrons might have some questions.
"Those kinds of stories don't complicate my life," says Douglas, "because we don't serve farmed salmon. Besides, it's really more about a fight between the wild salmon farmers and the farmed salmon producers."
However, Douglas says that in the long run, it doesn't even matter. "Fifty percent of people don't even recognize the difference," he says. "They just want to eat salmon," and they don't give a great deal of thought about where the salmon has come from. "My customer base does know the difference," he says, and that's where being specific and consistent in the choice of wild salmon establishes a sense of trust between the restaurant's patrons and chefs.
Just as trust is a key component of any relationship between shopper and shopkeeper. In most supermarkets, however, the issue is only addressed if the customer asks the person behind the fish counter…and not even then can one be guaranteed that the answer is going to be correct and enlightening.
As for the issue of America's expanding waistline…well, that also seems to be an issue that people tend to forget about once they pass through the front doors of Douglas's establishments. People don't tend to worry about it, he says, "because they're making a choice to spend fifty dollars or more per person when they come through the front door," and are willing to cast those concerns to the wind…at least for the evening. These customers, he says, "don't want the lard to be taken out of the pie crust." At least, not tonight.
Douglas's restaurants include the Palace Kitchen, the Dahlia Lounge, the Dahlia Bakery, and Etta's Seafood, (They’re regular stops for me whenever I'm in Seattle, terrific neighborhood restaurants that are welcoming and warm, especially on a rainy, chilly evening. You can find out more about them at http://www.tomdouglas.com
One thing that has changed, Douglas says, is customers' interest in low-carb choices on the menu. Five years ago, he notes, the restaurants would always have a vegetarian option on the menu for people who didn’t eat meat. These days, the vegetarian contingent seems to have been replaced by the low-carb enthusiasts, and that means always having a variety of choices that are low in carbohydrates.
Douglas believes that on all these issues, people need and want to be educated, though he doesn’t think it is the restaurant's responsibility to provide that kind of information. "It seems to me that the people who want to be educated will educate themselves, and the people who don't, won't."
For example, he says, a lot of people over the past few years have educated themselves about wine, even beyond the "Two-Buck Chuck" craze for value-priced wines that has swept the country. Particularly in the Pacific Northwest, which has a thriving and expanding wine industry, people are teaching themselves about the local product. "Sixty percent of our wine sales are of Washington State wines," he says, "and if you count British Columbia and Oregon wines, it's as high as 70 percent."
And despite all the media hype about Americans not wanting to spend any time in the kitchen, Douglas believes that there is still a role for cooking in the traditional US household. "It's a big country, and there still are a lot of people out there cooking," he says.
That's where Douglas's cookbooks and packaged products come in - because he's convinced there is a desire out there for quality products that aren't mass-produced. (The rubs are made and packaged by his own company; the barbecue and teriyaki sauces are co-packed with another local company.) His first cookbook, Tom Douglas' Seattle Kitchen
($30 - Morrow/Harper Collins) was named Best Americana Cookbook of 2001 by the James Beard Foundation; his second, Tom's Big Dinners: Big Time Home Cooking For Family And Friends
, recently was published by Morrow/Harper Collins.
Because Douglas is a lover of food and wines, we asked him what has delighted him lately. One the wine front, he said he is particularly enjoying wines from Washington State's Chinook Winery, especially a 2002 Cabernet Franc Rose; and, he said, he very much likes the 2001 Columbia Crest Grand Estate Syrah.
As for a favorite dish of late, Douglas said he's been enjoying a "House Cured Pork Jowl Bruschetta" that is served at the Palace Kitchen. "Our offices are in the same building, and it's just incredible."
Since we happened to be in Seattle, we decided to test out his recommendations…and discovered wine and food that were just astonishingly good - full of flavor and melt-in-your-mouth taste.
Which is as good as it gets.Reprinted with permission from the Food Marketing Institute (2/2004).