Urbane Executive Chef Greg Lopez has worked weddings, large parties, hotel room service, and regular restaurant services, and often, he does it all in one day. Along with being the executive chef at Urbane, Lopez also oversees the food portion of the food and beverage department for neighboring Hyatt Hotel and Olive 8. At 11-years-old, Lopez got paid under the table washing dishes and worked his way up to making pizzas. Today, even with many kitchens under his watch, he remains focused on getting the word out about Urbane. That is, when he's not cooking with a Sounder and trying to put the "Seattle pizza" on the map.
Photo by Tiffany Ran
I spend most of my time on my feet in the operations. I'm rarely sitting at a computer. Although I have a lot of administrative work just to get done, I'd walk away from that in a heartbeat just to get the operations going. You'll catch me out on the street here as much as the hotel or anywhere else, and also in the kitchen offering as much guidance or inspiration I can.
When I first moved to Seattle and took over Urbane, I spent less of my energy trying to teach people how to heat up a pan or boil water. It was more on what my vision for Urbane was and how a.) a general kitchen should be run and then, b.) how Urbane should be presented to the guest in not just the food but how it relates to the service, and how our service should be talking about what we do, and how that relates to the entire message that is Urbane.
As far as the food goes, what is the message of Urbane?
We boiled it down to a lot of buzz words but we haven't yet been able to put it into a sentence.
Locality is important to us. A bulk of my training was in California. I think California was, at least in terms of the U.S., a real mecca in food culture because that's just where the bread basket of growing food is. It was very shocking to me that Washington can compete with the bounty of California and no one knows about it. We felt that was a key component to what we do at Urbane.
Then, there's quality. For example, we serve pineapples for breakfast. There's not a lot of pineapple trees in Seattle or year round in the state of Washington, but I still want to put it on a plate sometimes. So it becomes, "Okay, if we can't get it close to home then I want to find the best one that is out there." When we talk about what the best is, we talk about: Is that organic? Is that biodynamic? Is that just low carbon footprint? Is that, "Hey, we don't care that they're using pesticides and technical farming movements, that's just the best pineapple out there?" So we sat there and said we would shop around for the best individual ingredients, and that's what we're putting on a plate.
Do you decide most of the menu then?
I'm a pretty collaborative guy, at least by nature. I'm not so far away from my days of being a line cook to know what it's like, especially the ones that are young, hungry, and ambitious ones. They want to be creative and they want to experiment with their own styles and putting their own food out there. I've tried to find the best way to harness that energy. I find the spirit of collaboration is the best way to do it
A common perception is that they might not be able to be as creative or experimental in a hotel environment, what would you say to address that perception?
I would say they're absolutely wrong, at least in my kitchen. I would say the biggest struggle I've had, at least with coming to Seattle, is the fact that I work in the hotel industry and it's hard to get talented people knocking at my door looking for jobs. I spend a large portion of my time trying to get good cooks in-house.
Once we get good cooks in house they're much more likely to stay and my theory is that once we get good cooks in, they're giving much more room to run than they expected to. We are collaborative. We do listen to what they want to say. For every one thing where we say, "That might not be the best thing to do," they do have one that makes it on the menu. I do rotational menus so everybody gets a little input to what's actually served to our guests. That perception is actually something I'm battling against. We're actively trying to get more people coming in here and seeing what we do, rather than just assuming they know what we do because we're part of a hotel.
Often times when I talk about the restaurant, I have a lot of people who have never heard of it or don't know where we're at. I think we're kind of a hidden gem, and I'd like for us to not be a hidden gem. I would recommend people come in for our happy hour and come figure out who we are and come get to know us. For those who do, [they can] ask for me when they're here. I'd love to come out and meet the people who are coming out to give us a try.
How does working in a LEED certified building affect the way that the kitchen works at Urbane?
It works a lot deeper than that for the people. It's surprising to me how fierce people are about our culture as a building. Physically, I don't have to do too much, but my people are generally very conscious about waste. We do composting, we do recycling, all of our to-go equipment are compostable. Any of the plastics we have in here are recyclable.
To speak to how that affects my job is that if I was to try and change any of that, I would have a revolution on my hands from the people that work here because that's not a part of who we are. So they are all very good stewards about that culture. [We have] wind turbines where we're capturing our gas exhaust on the roof. My guys love that just because that gas exhaust is a natural byproduct of what we're doing but we've found a way to harness it in an environmentally conscious fashion.
How did the Cook with the Sounder event come about?
The hotel is a very proud partner with the Seattle Sounders. Brad Evans is to his friends, maybe even a little bit more wider known, is a foodie and we just kind of made that natural pairing. Someone just came up with the idea of, "Hey maybe you should cook with Brad one of these days." It just kind of grew into an event from there.
Instead of having it be like, "Hey, let's meet Brad Evans" and have there be a platter of food over here, we decided to make it into a contest where it'd be more worth pursuing.
Last year's event actually gave us the inspiration for this year. Brad grew up in Arizona and him and I got to talking about my experiences in California. We got to talking about what we missed in that part of the world. What we missed was good cheap Mexican food. I usually reach out to Brad through his people and Brad's response was that this year, he wanted to do Mexican. So it should be fun.
What's the food you enjoy eating when you're not in the kitchen?
I'm a sucker for good pizza. I will go long and hard trying to find good pizza where I live. I think long and hard about pizza. Since we're on the topic, I'm surprised that Seattle doesn't have its own pizza. We have New York pizza, we have the Chicago deep dish, California even has its own version of a fluffier crusted New York style pizza.
I have a friend that I joke around with a lot is that we do skillet pizza, that instead of doing it in a brick oven, you do it all in one pan. The first time I did it, I was like, here is our signature Seattle pizza!
As far as places to get pizza, Tom Douglas does a great job with Serious Pie. There's a place called Bambino's [Pizzeria] near the north end of Belltown which does great authentic kind of pizza where the ends get kind of dark and charred, which is delicious to me. I grew up in New Jersey and I'm always a sucker for New York Pizza. Belltown Pizza, where you can just get a beer and a slice of pizza, now that's a great day off for me right there.
So with all that you have to oversee, do you have days off?
They come occasionally. I think most people in my role, you get used to the fact that schedules are not schedules. Your life is based on other people eating. But when that day comes where you can take the day off, you take the day off. It never comes on the same day two weeks in a row.