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Interview with Tom Douglas

Dahlia Lounge, Etta's Seafood, Palace Kitchen, Lola, Seattle

What's your favorite new ingredient?
I'm really digging those fresh Arizona dates. It's fun to have a fresh date; they're usually dried and imported. They're a great flexible salad ingredient; you can use them as a savory or sweet item.

What's the most versatile flavoring?
Horseradish or lemon zest. Horseradish is one of those perk-me-ups. You can use it in a cocktail sauce, you can bread fish with it—it loses its punch when cooked. It's a "What is that?" flavor. It adds depth of flavor to things. Lemon zest is a great replacement for salt because it adds flavor without being unnatural, and it's delicious and can literally go into anything.

What's the most underused flavoring?
Kasu paste, the fermented sediment from sake brewing tanks. Typically, it's strained to get the real odorous fermentation gunk out of it, and it ends up being a white chalky paste. I like it in its original form when it's brown and unstrained, and it has this luscious aroma. We cure black cod or salmon or chicken thighs with it, or we mix it with miso and mirin.

What items should be in every pantry?
Hoisin sauce, ginger and an Italian grandma. I barbecue with hoisin, I make moo shu Peking duck with it, and it's great when you're making broth for pho [Vietnamese rice noodle soup] It's basically the Chinese ketchup, and I use it way more than I use ketchup. I use ginger like garlic. I love it for steaming fish and making barbecue sauces or roasted chicken. As for the Italian grandma, if she looks like Sophia Loren, I'd want her for more than the kitchen!

What's your favorite knife?
My cheap stainless steel Chinese cleaver that works as a board scraper as well. I like the three-or four-inch-wide ones that I can use to carry stuff from the chopping board to the pot. They're only $10, and you can get them in Chinatown—they're ubiquitous. I like them because they're utilitarian.

What's your favorite pan?
I inherited my grandma's 10-inch cast iron. It has memories, we call it the patina of life; it has a sense of generations of cooking with it. I have 500 pans, many new and shiny, but to be a favorite, it has to have a sense of sentiment.

What's your favorite place to buy equipment?
For me, it's the National Restaurant Association show in Chicago. It's odd, but it's miles and miles of the coolest stuff. It's not just walking into Sur La Table or Willams-Sonoma, it's the coolest restaurant-grade stuff and home stuff. One thing I got there was a Pacojet; I threw it away because I hated it, but I got it there.

What's the best restaurant dish you ate in 2005?
The best meal I was served was ribollita, an Italian bread soup at the Castello di Ama winery in Tuscany. I usually hate ribollita, and the people I was traveling with thought I was crazy for ordering it. But at the winery, it was awesome, and they got to gloat that I liked it, but I got to gloat that the stuff they had been eating was in fact crap. ribollita has Tuscan kale, white beans, chicken stock, skinless tomatoes, lots of herbs. It should be drenched in olive oil and topped with bread and Parmesan cheese. It was just made beautifully. It can come out looking like refried beans, and when you see it like that, turn around and walk out. But it can also come out looking like the best kind of stew you ever had, bright green with herbs and glistening with vintage olive oil, as it did at the winery.

What's your favorite sushi place?
Shiro's Sushi Restaurant in Seattle is my local favorite. Shiro [Kashiba] works the sushi bar, and you have to sit at the bar. He's got the biggest smile, and he's the master of sushi. The pieces aren't the size of your head, they're the perfect mouthful. His rolls are good, they make sense, they're great combinations of flavors.

Kazahana in Tokyo is the best I've ever had. I was just in Japan, and Kazahana was magic. The fish was very fresh. We were on the 28th floor of the Conrad Tokyo, and it was just a spectacular evening.

What restaurant would you want to eat in once a week?
I do eat at Pho Bac in Seattle once a week. [The one I go to] has a choice of a small bowl or a large bowl. It's just pho. I drop my daughter off at school, and I have it as breakfast. It's a great way to start the day.

If you were going to open up a fast-food place, what would it be?
A Sloppy Joe place. I crave my mom's Sloppy Joes. It's actually a viable option.

Are there any dining trends you see on the rise?
We're seeing more cooking with chocolate and it's getting more and more involved on the entrée side. Nibs are a great way of doing that; you can integrate them simply into salts and rubs. They add a nice undercurrent, a nice tone, with lots of possibilities. Steaming with nibs is great, and we've macerated nibs with vodka for a nondessert martini. To take care of the tannins, we match it with simple syrup, but not too much, otherwise it becomes a dessert martini.

A lot of chefs are getting into making things completely from scratch, like cheese. What would you like to make from scratch?
I've never tried making mozzarella. We're going to try it, and we're opening a pizzeria, which will use our in-house cheese.

What's your favorite insider spot in an airport?
Caviar House Seafood Bar at Heathrow [in London]. It's really excellent, an unexpected stop.

Do you have any food-related superstitions?
Never eat duck alone. It's so juicy, there's something kind of sexy about it.

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