Kevin Davis is the chef/owner, with his wife, Teresa, of Steelhead Diner, a successful upscale diner food restaurant sited in Pike Place Market. Davis has cooked all over the world: in Paris, Australia, New Orleans, and Napa Valley. In March, he will open the couple's second restaurant, Blueacre Seafood, in a location formerly occupied by The Oceanaire, a restaurant Davis helped open in 2002. I spoke with him about what it means to be a chef.
credit: Thomas Berwick
What are your culinary inspirations?
I learned at a very young age that cooking was a way to emotionally touch people. My grandmother was a great chef, a Cajun chef, self-taught. She was the matriarch of the family, and everybody just looked to her. She was kind of like the Godfather. If people needed money in the family they would go to her, if they had a tough decision, they would go to her for advice. She held everybody together through food. Her gumbos and her chicken stews, people just would line up around the corner for this stuff. So at an early age I found out that food was very powerful. And then I started cooking, and it was kind of a natural thing. Some people can't season things, and I could do it.
How young were you when you started cooking?
My mom died when I was 12, and my dad made us cook as a way to bring the family together. Each kid would cook two nights a week. So after school, after football practice and whatever else, you'd come in and cook. I'm not going to say it was very good, but after we got tired of Hamburger Helper every single night, we started cooking. (Dad was a great cook, too, and inspired us.) When I got back from college and I got my first job at the World's Fair, as a cook, I already knew how to cook. I walked into the kitchen and I wasn't afraid. I know how to cook. I know how to cut things. Wow, this is easy. I'm good at it. And then I started to realize that people could be emotionally affected by it. I could express myself. I could make a dish and have everybody turn around and go "Wow! That's really good. You're amazing." I've always led a charmed life. Cooking, being a chef is great. People listen to what you have to say, and people are interested in what you do. There's a dark side to that. It's a very hard life, it's a very disciplined existence. You have to really be dedicated, or else the world just chews you up and spits you out.
How do you mean?
Because you have all these people coming. You have 150, 200 people coming to your restaurant because they think you're great. Now what do you do? You have to be great! And it's not OK to be great one day. You have to great every day. People who do it for a long time love it. I love that atmosphere on the line when you're there, and just you and your teammates against the world, and the only thing that is keeping it together is your strength and your ability and your savvy and your quickness and your reflexes and your sense of smell and your sense of taste and your sense of timing. It's just crackling, every day, twice a day.
(At this point I ask Davis if he's going to be on the line at Blueacre. He is. Check back tomorrow to hear what he says about that.)
Is there an ingredient or dish that you're particularly into these days? And If so, what is it?
A lot of times you find a lot of zest in my food. I like to use orange zest or lemon zest or lime zest. I like fresh bay leaves. Those are kind of hallmarks. I like to use fresh sliced chilis, exotic chilis. I use exotic spices, paprikas. I use World Spice as my sounding board. I treat my herbs in a special way, building them up in my sauté dish, I sauté them in oil. When I sauté garlic, I would add the herbs right after the garlic is rendered, so it releases the oil in them. Same thing with my bay leaf. Otherwise I'm fairly traditional. I like to finish with olive oil. I use a nice Tuscan olive oil at the restaurant.
You were talking about gumbo?
The dish that I most closely associate myself with is gumbo, because it's a quintessential dish that I grew up with. I think it's the most difficult soup to make. It takes a lot of being around it, and eating a lot of it to understand what it's supposed to be. When it's prepared properly it's a food that's capable of inspiring emotion and good will. When it's right--and it's very hard to get right--people don't forget it.
Do you make your grandmother's gumbo?
Yes, it's on the menu at Steelhead and it's always been. At Blueacre, I'll do a seafood gumbo, where I do chicken andouille sausage at Steelhead.
You're making a pizza. What's on it?
A San Marzano tomato sauce, first of all. Italian San Marzano, roma tomatoes. So the sauce, it's fire-engine red. Cooked with just garlic and fresh basil, and finished with whole butter. That goes down on the pie. And then I could do a little anchovy on the base in the beginning of that, but then I like to have Italian calabrese sausage, or Spanish chorizo, sliced paper-thin, and then shaved Serrano chilis. And then fresh basil.
Where do you eat if you have just $5?
My place is in the Market. There's all kinds of little places that you can go to in the Market and find cool things. There's a place right below us, Café Yarmarka, they always have piroshkies. Tell you the truth, I really don't eat out much. I usually cook for myself or I eat in the restaurant. ThoughI have this friend who used to bring me pain au chocolate, and I love pain au chocolate in the morning, from Café Besalu. Or there's another place in West Seattle where the guy is just a master of this puff pastry, Bakery Nouveau. The pain au chocolate, the puff pastry is just like glass. Crunches, and it's just so perfect. If I was going to spend less than $5 on anything, I would do that.
So if you had $100 to spend on a restaurant, where would you go?
I would probably go down to the Market and grab some oysters and crabs, a fresh steamed Dungeness crab, a whole crab, and some oysters, and I would go to the Pike & Western Wine Shop and I'd get a nice bottle of riesling, and I'd just go over to the park and have a great lunch. That's what I would do.
I don't eat out anymore. My tastes have changed, I used to eat out a lot when I was a kid. My wife and I used to go out a lot, that was our big thing. But somehow, over the years, we became more introverted, our tastes became more simple.
So what do you make at home?
My wife really likes oxtail or braised dishes, so short ribs or chicken fricassee. She loves chicken fricassee, chicken stew. I make tom ka gai. A lot of times, it'll just be a simple steak, with a green salad and a nice bottle of red wine. That's the way we usually eat.
I very rarely sit down and have a meal. It's terrible, but it's true. As a chef, you have to taste all day long. It becomes almost like a compulsion. Every dish that goes out, I taste. But the last two special meals we had, we went to The Herbfarm. But you can't get that for $100.
Do you have an after-work hangout?
No, I don't hang out. My wife doesn't drink. I do the French structure, where I'll go to work in the morning, 7, 8 o'clock, work til 2 o'clock in the afternoon through the lunch rush, and then come back at 4:30, 5 o'clock and work until 9:30, 10. So my whole day is filled. And when you get about 32, 33, 34 ... I know this doesn't sound exciting, but this is really my life, we don't really hang out, not any more. I do the wine program at Steelhead, for last year, and I've really had a lot of fun with that. I do the wine list, I taste the wines, I meet with people and they're always giving me stuff. So if I want to have something to drink I have plenty at the house, and I don't like hard liquor. That's how I am this old and still love to cook.
A lot of people get into this business because they love to party. They're like, this is a great lifestyle. You can go to work at 3 o'clock in the afternoon and not be late for work. That's how a lot of people start in this business. But the people that stay in the business find something else beyond that. They stay in it because they love it. And then when you're in the business where I'm at---not that I'm an old man [Davis is 44], but in the restaurant business, I am pretty old--and you find out about 32, 33, that you can't work 12 hours on a hangover. I find my joys inside of the walls of my kitchen, and I find my joys spending time with my wife, and I find my excitement going fishing. That's what Steelhead Diner is all about.
For part two of my interview with Davis, visit Voracious tomorrow, when he talks about his plans for Blueacre Seafood.