The term "hotel restaurant" contains a subtle contradiction. Think "prison chapel" and you'll see what I mean. A freestanding restaurant can concentrate on nothing but satisfying its customers; a restaurant in a hotel can never forget that in the end it has to answer to The Man. And these days The Man is usually an anonymous number cruncher a thousand miles away at Corporate.
In these days of nonstop 24/7 travel, hotels need restaurants more than ever, but they don't need good restaurants. So when a hotel eatery opens to near-unanimous critical raves and a full-page photo of its chef in Gourmet, there's clearly something special going on.
Food-service-career-wise, Danielle Custer made a smart move when she agreed to leave her job as executive chef at Laurels in Dallas to open 727 Pine in the new Elliott Grand Hyatt Seattle. Thirty-two-year-olds, females in particular, aren't often given a free hand running a top-of-the-line, 21-shift-a-week restaurant operation. And with staff cuts in the wake of Sept. 11, Custer now finds herself in charge of the 425-room hotel's room service and catering operations as well. How is she coping?
Danielle Custer: I think I'm really good at left brain/right brain kind of stuff, but I was trying to do it all from the day we opened—and when I suddenly became responsible for the banquet stuff, too, something had to give. So just a couple weeks ago, I promoted my sous chef, Kyle Nelson, to head restaurant chef, and Mark Crowder and Keith Harmon to run the hotel kitchen, and Carrie Christensen executive sous chef to assist me—the first time I've given anybody else that kind of responsibility for my food.
Seattle Weekly: What kind of food is "your food"?
Custer: Very much my own. My resume is not dripping with the names of celebrity chefs, and when I worked in Seattle before [at Fuller's in the Sheraton Hotel, now a banquet facility], I learned a lot from Monique [Barbeau] and Caprial [Pence] about fresh ingredients—"buy locally, think globally"—but they gave me a lot of freedom to create my own style.
It's evolved over the years. When I moved to Dallas, I put a lot of Northwesty things on the menu, because they hadn't seen that sort of food much: tuna tartares and so on. And when I came back here, I brought Southern and Southwest things along for the same reason, like my quail and hushpuppies or the lobster enchilada.
I tend to come up with dishes in my head, not the kitchen. Sometimes it's just "boom!" Other times I'll think about combinations off and on for months, and then I'll be eating out somewhere one night, and there'll be salsify on the plate, and I'll think: "Salsify! Of course!"
My dishes tend to carry out a theme. A flavor, for instance—like the lamb is laced with anise flavors, licorice jus, fennel in the salad greens, mint jelly—I use mint a lot. Or the theme can be cultural, like the salmon marinated in kasu with a Thai-flavored risotto. The main thing is, everything on the plate has to have a purpose; nothing is there just for looks. And it's got to have a pop: I love food that jumps off the plate.
That's fine for foodies, but what about the average hotel guest?
This is and remains a hotel restaurant, which means we have to cater to all kinds of likes and dislikes. But it doesn't mean we have to compromise on quality and excitement. In a hotel you have to serve breakfast, so my focus has been: Create a great breakfast—sunshine on a plate. What's wrong with a beautiful, fluffy three-fold omelet made from local organic eggs? And homemade preserves with your brioche—Smucker's? No.
We have three different audiences for our food. Breakfast is mainly hotel guests. Lunch is local businesspeople, so you have to think about getting them in and out quickly. And dinner is dinner. But we aim to do our very best for all three. All the thought processes are the same.
So are you now on the "hotel executive chef" career path?
It's true, I can do this anywhere. But I could run a restaurant anywhere, too. I chose to move back to Seattle. I grew up in the New York food scene—my mother was and is a food stylist for magazines and ads—but I'm a Virgo, and I know if I tried to live there I'd be dead by 40. This is my home, my culinary birthplace. I bought a house. I expect to "meet someone, settle down, raise a family," the whole thing.
While you're working on that, what do you do for fun?
Eat out, when I get a chance. Appetizers in the bar at Campagne. I love what Thierry [Rautureau] does at Rover's but don't get there often enough. The same with Armandino [Batali at Salumi]. And Agua Verde—now that I'm back here, I miss the Southwest. But I don't regret the path I've taken.
727 Pine, 774-6400
breakfast, lunch, and dinner seven days a week