A local chef — now retired — once commented that a perfect restaurant would have “no customers and no employees.”
A cynical view, perhaps. But it elegantly captures the challenges of running a restaurant. Culinary entrepreneurs have to be so much more than good cooks. The great ones parlay awesome kitchen skills, enviable marketing savvy and top-notch management chops into the kind of destination dining that garners three-star reviews and five-alarm sizzle. They understand that the profit margins can be thinner than scaloppine, but they persevere because the rewards are as rich as a silky béarnaise.
Knowing how to cook is one thing. The entrepreneurs on these pages have that down. Knowing how to cook for a crowd, how to hire the right people and how to entertain finicky diners are skills that tend to separate the people who can construct a good meal from those who can build a successful business.
With one of the most vibrant dining-out scenes in the country, Seattle attracts and nurtures spectacular culinary talent. On the facing page and the pages that follow, you will get to know five who took the time to sit down and answer our questions. Some are relatively new to the Seattle restaurant scene; others are veterans who have demonstrated the staying power of a robust cabernet. Each day, they deal with delivery issues, personnel problems and, increasingly, governmental regulation that may be well intentioned but often seems like meddlesome overreach to the owner of a small business.
Yet their love for food, for a well-executed meal, transcends the quotidian and ultimately informs and enlivens their distinct business models.
Adana (formerly Naka), Capitol Hill
In January, Nakajima closed his high-end kaiseki, Naka, and pivoted toward a more casual, less expensive business model with Adana, which he opened in February. A big reason, he says, was his yearning for regular customers “from a ‘hey, it’s good to see you again’” standpoint.
Seattle Impressions: “My base [of experience] is off Japan and I am still newer in the Seattle area, so I would say I don’t know as much as chefs and owners who have been in Seattle longer. What I do see is that the definition of a great restaurant in Seattle is different from Japan — not in a bad way, just different.”
Profit motive: “We are not a large restaurant so, ideally, for the people who are ordering dinner in the dining area with alcohol, dessert and other options, if the bill comes to $50 [per person], I am pretty happy.”
Go-to dining spots: “My mom’s place. If it’s a restaurant, pho is my choice: Pho Bac (several locations) and Dong Thap Noodles (Chinatown-International District).
Northwest cuisine defined: “Holly Smith always kills it with her northern Italian at Cafe Juanita. Her food is still to this day the best in town. Taichi [Kitamura] from Sushi Kappo Tamura has the only sushi place in Seattle that really tries to deliver local fish straight to the guests.”
Preferred knife: “That’s like asking a parent to choose their favorite child. They all have their uniqueness and different uses.”
Biggest challenge: “I would say the rise in the minimum wage and [higher] taxes, which is tough for a small business like mine. I do hope there will be an option for smaller businesses so I can see more family-owned places survive compared to everything turning into a full corporate America.”
Biggest mistake: “If I make it too Japanese, the way I learned in Japan, there will be the group of people who love it, but most people will say there is no texture or flavor.”
Biggest success: “I don’t think I have reached success yet. I am constantly looking into how I can do things better.”
Photograph by Scott Eklund. Kevin Davis was a semifinalist for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef: Northwest in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Davis was the original chef for Oceanaire Seafood Room in 2001. He left in 2006 to open Steelhead Diner, but when Oceanaire went bankrupt in 2010, Davis and his wife, Terresa Davis, returned to create Blueacre Seafood.
$15 minimum wage: “In an industry as labor intensive as ours, any small change in labor cost has a major impact on our operation. It used to take us several months to adjust to the state minimum wage increases of 10 cents a year, so raising the minimum wage by 10 times that amount each year has thrown our entire business model into chaos.”
Changing Seattle: “Seattle is a lot more cosmopolitan and there are a lot more good restaurant options in the surrounding neighborhoods that weren’t there 10 years ago. It’s made us better competitors. Our clientele has stayed basically the same over the past few years, although I do believe we have less of a local presence downtown due to high parking rates and the traffic issues created by Seattle’s rapid growth. The flip side of that is the ever-growing tech industry, which accounts for a larger and larger percentage of our event business every year.”
Northwest cuisine defined: “Eclectic global cuisine prepared with the Pacific Northwest palette of ingredients: Dungeness crab, oysters, geoduck, mussels, clams, salmon, halibut, black cod, wild mushrooms, asparagus, apples, stone fruit and wine and microbrews, just to name a few, with an emphasis on local and sustainable producers and resources.”
Dining out: “We try to eat at a new restaurant every week, but if I had to choose, I would say any restaurant where the owner is actually cooking!”
Tools of the trade: “Bob Kramer frenching knife (a Father’s Day gift from my wife), Josper charcoal oven, manual pasta machine, Deglon oyster knife, wood-fired oven.”
Biggest mistake: “Putting anchovies on anything! It’s the kiss of death in Seattle. Personally, I love them, but I use them discreetly.”
Greatest success: “Speaking for my wife and myself, our four beautiful children, our three beautiful restaurant ‘children’ and getting to live in the beautiful city of Seattle.”
Kitchen tunes: “Never in the kitchens while I work. But on Saturday and Sunday morning, I get to Orfeo about 6:30 a.m., warm up the ’73 Deluxe reverb, plug in a little black Stratocaster and let it rip. Strictly blues.”
Photograph by Scott Eklund. A native of Maryland, Holly Smith moved to Seattle in 1993 and worked at Tom Douglas’ Dahlia Lounge. She opened Cafe Juanita in 2000 to focus onthe food of northern Italy.
Cafe Juanita, Kirkland
Smith received the James Beard Foundation's Best Chef: Northwest award in 2008and was a semi-finalist in 2011, 2012 and 2015 for the organization’s Outstanding Chef in the United States honor.
Constant focus: “My goal daily is to create a menu and a space where I would like to dine. That continues to be the true north for Cafe Juanita. I have never changed what I was offering based on economic conditions external to the restaurant. I have tried not to make creative and cultural decisions based on fear.”
Changing tastes: “The biggest change in the last year has been the increased participation in tasting menus. We enjoy taking guests on a journey. The tasting menu is a fun way to try new things.”
Changing habits: “There is still the Seattle factor of casual attire and everyone wanting to dine at 7 p.m., but those somewhat rigid elements are relaxing a bit. Increasingly, we have welcomed guests with dietary restrictions. While we have always welcomed them, in the past four years, we have honed our service and do weekly menus printed for vegan, vegetarian, dairy-free and gluten-free guests.”
Changing times: “Managing stress from the political climate is important. We had two disturbing incidents with guests threatening my staff recently. Both were racially motivated. In a hospitality setting as owner, I have been very clear that guests must leave and no such behavior will be tolerated.”
Northwest cuisine: “I used to believe there was a differentiation. I don’t think that there is one any longer. We are global. Now, there are Seattle ‘things’ and Pacific Northwest local ingredients — salmon, wild mushrooms, etc. — that denote our place.”
Tool time: “I love microplanes of all shapes and sizes for shaving veggies, zesting citrus, etc. And an offset spatula is a beautiful tool.”
Kitchen music: “I long ago gave up any control over the music. Of late, some really great stuff has been playing. The mood changes daily and my only beef is if it is too loud. We have to be able to stay connected to each other and hear one another during prep.”
Greatest success: “My relationship with my son and the longevity and quality of Cafe Juanita are both high on my ‘this could be it’ list.”
Favorite haunts: Sushi Kappo Tamura (Eastlake) and Wataru (Ravenna).
Photgraph by Scott Eklund. Lisa Dupar was born in Mexico City and grew up in the South. She came to Seattle in the early 1980s to become sous chef at the Westin Hotel’s elegant Palm Court restaurant.
Pomegranate Bistro and Lisa Dupar Catering, Redmond
In 2011, Dupar won the Julia Child Award from the International Association of Culinary Professionals for her cookbook Fried Chicken & Champagne: A Romp Through the Kitchen at Pomegranate Bistro. The Julia Child Award honors a food writer’s first book.
Tipping: “We have immersed ourselves in many discussions and brainstorming sessions regarding pros and cons related to this issue. We are leaning toward the automatic hospitality fee for the restaurant, as we know this will become mainstream in the not-so-distant future.”
Changing clientele: “I’ve been in business 33 years. Our clientele is more food-service savvy, period. People are concerned about local seasonality of ingredients, organics, GMOs, allergens, welfare of farm animals, plant-based diets, compostable disposables, delivery services offered, the anticipation of special diets being accommodated, and an expectation that our chefs are skilled in a variety of international cuisines.”
R-E-S-P-E-C-T: “With the catering piece of my business, we have always been looked upon as ‘not as talented’ as restaurant chefs. The coveted James Beard Awards don’t even have a catering category, yet higher standards and higher expectations have required us to respond to the demand of being able to successfully execute a sit-down dinner for 500 exactly as if it was food from a favorite superstar-restaurant chef. We have invested in top culinary talent and a catering logistics team that allows us to execute restaurant-quality food in worst-case-scenario situations, such as a field with no power or running water.”
Northwest cuisine defined: “Coming from the South, I can verify there is a distinct Northwest cuisine. It’s all about salmon, pink scallops, spot prawns, Asian influences of the Pacific Rim countries, Washington wines, apples, pears, hops, mushrooms, potatoes, chanterelles, morels, Seattle coffee culture, asparagus, etc. Ingredients we take for granted as abundant you may miss just about anywhere else in the world.”
Blade bonding: “[I love] my Bob Kramer knife, mainly because I’ve known Bob since the ’80s and so I know the man behind the craft. His passion for excellence makes you aware of what is in your hand. Plus, it feels ‘just right.’”
Biggest menu mistake: “Generally, it is an attempt to execute a dish that has several “touches” or too many components for a busy restaurant or a huge catered event. As one of my chefs likes to say, “It is more difficult to execute simplicity in an excellent fashion.”
Photograph by Scott Eklund. Before opening his own restaurants, Brian Clevenger cooked in Lyon, France (l’Hotel de France), San Francisco (Delfina) and Seattle (Tavolàta and Staple & Fancy Mercantile).
General Harvest Restaurants (Vendemmia and East Anchor Seafood, Madrona; Raccolto, West Seattle; Contadino and Pizzeria Contadino, Capitol Hill)
When not plating paccheri with gulf prawn, tomato and sofrito in his own restaurant, Clevenger savors the Vietnamese-French offerings of Stateside on Capitol Hill. “This is the best restaurant in Seattle,” he declares.
The restaurant biz: “The Seattle dining scene has changed greatly in the last couple of years — in my opinion, for the better. With the emergence of so many new restaurants, the demand for a greater experience is at an all-time high. With more restaurants comes the demand to be better: relevant, value forward and aware of guests’ expectations and experiences. Understanding that your guests are choosing to spend their hard-earned money at your restaurant instead of the hundreds of other places they could is where it begins for us.”
Challenges: “The most important issue affecting our small company is the growth that Seattle is experiencing. The ability to find high-quality team members is becoming more difficult every day. This does make it more challenging to find great teammates but, more importantly, shows the need to train and grow your current team. That has always been our approach to business; it is just forcing other restaurants to do the same thing.”
Northwest cuisine defined: “I think the simple answer is Tom Douglas — basically focusing on seafood and vegetables while allowing other geographical/cultural influences to develop a dish.”
Tool time: “My favorite knife is a Fujiwara petty. I use it for everything. Now, for my favorite tools, it’s my cake tester and a high-heat rubber spatula.”
Biggest mistake: “Trying to be cool! Just stick to food that you’re good at. For me, that is something craveable: pasta, seafood and vegetables.”
Tuning in: “We only play music in the kitchen during prep. As I type this (slumped over a prep table), Whitesnake’s ‘Now You’re Gone’ is playing.”
Secret to success: “When I step back and look at our small restaurant group, I get so proud seeing each restaurant’s leadership group and team thrive, teach, learn and grow. Surrounding ourselves with like-minded people who want to succeed and help the person next to them succeed is by far the greatest success to date.”