Eric Tanaka outside The Dahlia Bakery serving up Thanksgiving food in full pilgrim attire
This is part two of our interview with Eric Tanaka, Group


Grillaxin' with Eric Tanaka, Part Two

Eric Tanaka outside The Dahlia Bakery serving up Thanksgiving food in full pilgrim attire
This is part two of our interview with Eric Tanaka, Group Executive Chef of Tom Douglas Restaurants. You can read the first part here.

So, what exactly does a "Group Executive Chef" do?

Ah, yes, what am I? Well, my job pretty much encompasses everything. On new projects, I'll do menu development and I'll stay with the team until I'm sure that they can maintain and take it forward -- in every way, really. If I have a vision or Tom has a vision for a place, my job is getting everybody else to see that vision. Moving forward from there, I'm thinking how do we make it better? How do we stay competitive in the marketplace? We're constantly looking for ways for self-improvement. And we're not talking huge strides everyday. It's more about little things here and there, paying attention to details.

Is the goal of training a team getting them to a point where they could essentially run the place without you, like its theirs?

Yes, that's totally the case. It's about getting people who are passionate about the product and the vision and who can take the ball and run with it. If there's micromanaging on my part, that's no good for anyone. So I see my job as really more philosophically and fundamentally guiding our teams.

You've been with the Tom Douglas company for sixteen years. How did you end up here?

I graduated from college and was working for the city of Irvine, doing bike trails. I hated it. I had wanted to go to cooking school right out of high school, but my parents wanted me to get a "real education." But after college, it was my mom who clipped out an ad for a restaurant cook job and encouraged me to apply. I didn't know if I wanted to go that route, I just knew I loved to eat. Anyway, I got the job. And then I quit after a month because I was sure I was terrible. But the chef wouldn't let me quit. So I said, "Ok, of you think I'm fine, I'll stay."

After a year there, the restaurant was opening a place in New York and I went out there to help open it. Then the chef quit after three months, so there I was, a chef in New York. It was fun, but I was really inexperienced. The learning curve was huge, but fast -- you learn fast out there. After a while, I had done everything I could do there. Someone offered me a position in Italy, so I went out there for a while.

My brother was going to Seattle University, and we were getting together for a family reunion. I was already looking to leave Manhattan and had interviews lined up in Chicago and San Francisco, and I thought, I might as well interview out in Seattle. It was crystal clear when I was here, just beautiful, 75 degrees, no rain. Tom was the first guy I interviewed with and we got along super well. He only had The Dahlia Lounge at that point, and had signed leases for Etta's and Palace Kitchen. He didn't really have any chef positions, but I said, "I'll come out and cook for you. If you like me, it'll work out. If not, it won't." It worked out really well.

I saw on the company blog that you recently took a trip to Bali. How was that, food-wise?

Well the markets were incredible. The restaurants were mediocre, but there were just tons of markets, with people cooking and doing incredible things in spite of the limited circumstances. It was fairly simple food, but just delicious. In restaurants, the food was more westernized, stripped of any personality, and didn't really capitalize on any kind of deliciousness.

I went to a cooking class with a guy in his house. We made all these little salsas and relishes, most of them with products you can't get here. We took lotus flowers, chopped them up, made a relish. We made basic things, but even just the chiles have such different, intense flavor. We cooked with these teeny onions that were like a cross between shallots and onions. It was things like that that I found delicious -- fresh items mixed with rice, seven, eight, nine, twelve different relishes.

Were there any direct cooking inspirations you took from that trip?

It just reinforced the importance of simplicity to me. I tell my guys all the time, "When you're young, you wanna do everything, garnishes, all the bells and whistles. But at the end of the day, when you read a menu item and then taste it, if you close your eyes, can you taste what's on there? And would you write the same thing on the menu?" If you can't taste the food--clearly taste it--then you're not writing the menu according to the dish. I look back now and I see the greatest experiences that I've had, whether in a restaurant or somebody's house or a food stall, are when I've closed my eyes and really tasted the flavors.

To me, it's an interesting exercise: close your eyes and taste. With better chefs, the flavors aren't muddled. If it says "matustake mushroom," you really taste the matsutake as specifically that -- same for lemongrass or anything else. When the menu reads exactly as the food tastes, it's like, wow. That's what I'm looking for, from my team: clarity of flavor. Our menu writing should follow that. To me, that's impressive.

What are the rules of conduct in your kitchens?

1. Make it taste delicious 2. TASTE EVERYTHING

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