If he had wanted an easier playing field, he could have moved to Cleveland and started cooking seafood there, but KEVIN DAVIS, a Louisiana native with mean fly-fishing and mushroom-foraging habits, came to the Northwest. Raised in a household that revolved around the kitchen, in a part of the country with a highly valued and specialized cuisine, Davis' gift for Creole and Cajun cooking was his practically by birthright. But you can only make so much chicken Rochambeau—and as the executive chef at Arnaud's, the go-to Creole restaurant in New Orleans, one can only assume that Davis made more than his share. Fittingly, he began his career in Seattle at the Southern-inspired Sazerac before switching gears and accepting a position as executive chef and co-proprietor of the Oceanaire Seafood Room.
When the restaurant opened in January 2002, the economy was in turmoil and Oceanaire had almost 300 seats to fill—at lunch and at dinner. In a city with many well-loved independent seafood restaurants, a corporate chain—one with a home base in Minnesota, no less—didn't seem to stand a chance. "We all knew that we only had one shot at making it," says Davis, recalling the opening crew (many of whom are still with the restaurant) and the attitude that made them, against a lot of odds, a local favorite. But 9,000-square-foot luxury seafood restaurants do not stay open on attitude alone.
Oceanaire offers diners what most other Seattle seafood restaurants don't: wild seafood from exotic waters. We're wise to make the majority of our meals from local harvests and what's available in nearby waters, but on special occasions, isn't it nice to have the option of enjoying Hawaiian wahoo, Arctic char, and Australian lobster? Davis certainly thinks so.
Every morning when he gets in to work, he grabs his five or six daily faxes and checks the grade, species, origin, and price of what's available in order to figure out what he can get flown into town for that night's dinner or the next day's lunch. (Davis also gets seafood from local sources.) So that the fresh sheet is indeed very fresh, the menu is printed twice a day at Oceanaire. It's exciting work for a man who relishes the opportunity to cook with ultrafresh, globally sourced ingredients, a man who intends to stay focused and passionate about seafood for a long time.
Also figuring into Davis' job security is sustainability. When species of exotic and regional fish are depleted, what will he serve then? He recalls the day when a bright, promising sous chef brought him a Newsweek article about scarce populations of swordfish. "He wanted to know what we were doing about it," recalls Davis, and he resolved to come up with a good answer.
In addition to banning seafood from overfished, vulnerable, nonrenewing populations from his kitchen, he got involved with the Marine Stewardship Council, an international nonprofit that employs labeling and certification programs to recognize and promote ecologically sound, environmentally proactive fisheries. Looking at his immense and stylish dining room, he proposed hosting a benefit dinner and auction. At the first event, held last year, participants raised $10,000; this year, at a dinner held in July, the event raised $23,000 more.
As much as the money helps, Davis is just as proud to help raise awareness about sustainability. He's also quick to acknowledge the work of his culinary peers, the in-depth knowledge of local fishermen, and the increasing sense of responsibility that informs our city's diners. He says he believes most people make good decisions when they have the right information, and he points to the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program as another valuable resource for cooks and consumers. "Seattle has the opportunity to be a good example," he says. "Everybody can do their part. It really does make a difference." 1700 Seventh Ave., 206-267-2277, www.theoceanaire.com.
Kevin Davis' Picks
Best Farmers Market:
Best Restaurant for Special Occasions:
The Herbfarm in Woodinville.
Best Sandwiches and Cured Meats:
Salumi in Pioneer Square.
Tamarind Tree in the International District.
Via Tribunali on East Pike Street.
Best Late-Night Dining:
Palace Kitchen on Fifth Avenue.