The Third Annual Tom Douglas Lawn Party and Croquet Tournament is this weekend, hosted by Dahlia Lounge. We thought it would be a great time to talk to the man behind it, restaurateur and entrepreneur par excellence Tom Douglas.
Tom Douglas’ name is instantly recognizable in Seattle, the city he has called home for 37 years after “driving around the country and running out of money.” How fortunate we are that he ran out of gas in our state. Born in Cleveland and raised in Newark, Delaware, he taught himself by doing and seeing. He credits watching local retailers—such as Nordstrom and Starbucks—for his success in learning how to run and shape a business. His network of businesses has expanded to over a dozen eateries throughout the city, including Assembly Hall, which also houses a juice and coffee bar, a deli, more retail space with edible sundries, and Asian cuisine destination Tanaka San.
A modest person with a disarming, off-the-cuff personality, Tom is the “everyman chef,” the guy next door who made it to the big time by following his own passion for the flavors and themes of good food.
Leslie Wheatley: What was your first memory of food? The time when food really clicked emotionally for you?
Tom Douglas: Growing up we got to pick our own birthday dinner, so trying to figure out your favorites was interesting and fun. I remember driving with my dad once—who was a traveling salesman—on the Garden State Freeway. There was a Chinese restaurant there where I ate my first egg roll. That was a life changer! I’ve since been called two Asian dudes in a white man’s body. When I got to be eighteen and out on my own, I found that I would be spending my money on dinner with champagne and white burgundy, having many fancy dinners out, when I should have been saving for rent. These meals became more and more of a priority.
LW: Tell me about the Charity Croquet Match. Who conceived of the idea and whom does it benefit?
TD: The idea was [first] conceived by Gary Manuel Hair Salon and we always had a lot of fun with it. They dropped it about twenty years ago, and I always had a soft spot in my heart for the event. We would dress up and have best costume competitions and it was a really great time. Two or three years ago I was at the park in South Lake Union and decided to do it again with Dahlia sponsoring it, so now each of our restaurants does a course. Each restaurant designs one of the croquet courses and mans it, and whichever restaurant designs the best course receives a prize.
We have many sponsors for the event, including the bar. We have seventy teams and lots of friends who come to watch and all the money raised goes to the Food Lifeline, where I have been on and off the board for thirty years. Tom Douglas restaurants donate all of the food, and every penny we raise goes toward the charity. Same for the drinks.
This year we are at the Discovery Center at Lake Union on August 10, from 2 to 4 PM. It will be the last year there, as they are putting up a forty-story building in its place. We are still looking for our new spot in 2015.
LW: Did you play lawn games as a child? If you were having a causal lawn game day at home for family and friends, what food would you serve?
TD: Yes, of course! We had croquet, lawn darts, Frisbee, you name it! Kickball, stickball…. I would serve Nachos. Tacos are pretty perfect, and I love a good sausage sandwich. Cheese steaks…I’ve got a little Philadelphia in me. [He smiles.] I remember I went to Cape Cod 35 years ago and loved Joe Macs for the lobsters served up at the bar.
[Author’s note: I’m not sure if Tom is psychic but I’m amazed by this statement, as I grew up on the Cape and went to Joe Macs as a child! It is one of my earliest food memories: coming back from a day at Chapin Beach, playing pinball and eating lobster and pizza with sticky sea hair and sand between my toes. Summer bliss…]
LW: You recently opened a new school for cooking?
TD: I have, its the Hot Stove Society. August 7 will mark one month open for us. We decided to build this little school in an empty space where Lola is, in the same building as Hotel Ändra. For the last ten years we had done the summer camp which was a very intense, five-day social cooking class that was eight hours per day. It was a breakfast, lunch and dinner program with about three hundred tastes made by different chefs per week, and people loved it so much it would sell out in five minutes. I realized the demand was there and that’s why I created Hot Stove Society. It’s a social school, but there’s not a heavy curriculum. You can learn some of our restaurant dishes and some new dishes. For example, tonight might be “Masa Masters,” so learning how to cook with Masa and then a salad for supper, then onto knife skills and baking the perfect pie.
LW: What are your favorite dishes from your own restaurants?
TD: I tend to go to my restaurants based on my mood or need. For example, we have the concessions over at the Paramount Theater, so if I’m working at the theater and I get off late, or if I’ve been out partying late I’ll go to the Palace Kitchen so I can still get my dinner before 1 AM. It depends on my mood. I love the lacquered five-day duck at the Dahlia Lounge, or the trashy good fried shrimp and spinach salad at Etta’s. I had the congee for breakfast at Seatown this morning. That’s one of my favorite dishes there, and I like Tanaka San’s crispy rice cakes with a spicy cod roe mayonnaise. It’s my belief that half of any restaurant menu should stay forever, the other half you should give yourself the opportunity to continue to evolve and grow. Right now we are working on a new restaurant coming soon called the Yucatan Pib, and we’re in the middle of designing that, so it’s in the creative stage.
LW: What are your favorite “Tom Douglas Rub With Love” seasonings and what do you use them for at home?
TD: I use the Pork Rub the most, ’cause I use it for ribs and fish tacos and that sort of thing. I use the Roast Rub on steaks and prime rib. Those are my two favorites. I also like the Tokyo Rub dropped into a soup. It’s got seaweed, sesame and orange peel in it, and is also great on shrimp.
LW: Being around you sure makes a person hungry. It must be wonderful surrounding yourself with all of these flavors, and so tempting!
TD: Yes, it is AWESOME every day!
LW: It’s hard enough to keep one restaurant successful for years. As a self-taught chef with fifteen successful restaurants and more on the way, plus a retail presence and now a cooking school, you are an entrepreneur of the highest caliber. What advice would you give for any up-and-coming restaurateurs?
TD: My advice is to love the whole business, be good at the whole business. I love the business part of the biz as much as the cooking. For me, the restaurant is all about the team, so the more dollars and time you invest in your team, the better the restaurant will be! I hope to see you all at Croquet. Let’s raise some money for Food Lifeline!
The Lawn Party and Croquet Tournament is this weekend at the South Lake Union Discovery Center Park (101 Westlake Avenue North).
Sunday, August 10, 2 PM to 6M
Tickets: $15.00 Individual Spectator. $500.00 Team Registration
Purchase tickets at www.dahliacroquet.com.