When reached by phone, Chef Eric Tanaka is busy “writing out improvement

When reached by phone, Chef Eric Tanaka is busy “writing out improvement plans for ourselves.” It’s part of his role as Group Executive Chef of Tom Douglas restaurants, a job which Tanaka says “pretty much encompasses everything,” from menu development to staff training to finding ways to keep restaurants competitive. Tanaka spends much more time managing than cooking these days (“If I’m cooking, it means people aren’t doing their job”), but you don’t get the feeling he minds: “I love being in restaurants, front or back. I love this business. As a cook, you’re proud of each dish you make. As a chef, you’re proud of your menu. Restaurateurs are proud of the whole restaurant. Sure, the goals have changed, but the pride is just the same.”Read the first half our interview after the jump. Then check back tomorrow for more Tanaka action, including thoughts on Balinese food, the importance of eating with your eyes closed, and perhaps even more taco truck musings.Is there an ingredient or dish that you’re particularly into these days? If so, what?There is no ingredient or dish, but simplicity turns me on these days.What do you think this says about your cooking style/interests?I think this hopefully says I’m a little more focused on quality vs. gimmickry. As a younger chef I was dazzled by bells and whistles. Now it’s substance.What were your culinary inspirations?An empty stomach. Both of my parents worked a lot, and as a result I had to cook for me and my brother and sister. I cooked pretty basic stuff. Almost always something with rice. More than likely, it was fried rice with bologna. Our family weekend meal was bologna fried rice with black pepper and ketchup. I grew up in Los Angeles, the Silverlake area. We would go visit my uncle who had a farm in Pomona. They grew strawberries and corn and had their own little vegetable garden. He used to make himself the same thing for breakfast every morning: a green tomato omelette that was awesome. So, you’re making an omelet. What’s in it?Bavarian Meats Kessler ham and Estrella Valentina cheeseYou’re making a pizza. What’s on it?Anchovies, tomato sauce, fresh oreganoWhat’s your after-work hangout?Anywhere with my wife Danica, but we’re super fond of the pretzel dots at Licorous.Where would you eat if you had just $5? Where would you eat if you had $100?If I had $5 I’d eat at my taco truck by the Ballard Bridge, Taco Loco. If I had a $100, I’d eat at Taco Loco.Favorite Seattle restaurant (besides your own)?Right now, Elemental. It changes all the time, but I love the quirkiness and independence of it.What would you like to see more of in Seattle from a culinary standpoint? Anything you’d like to see less of in Seattle?I’d like to see more uniqueness from a culinary standpoint. I’d like to see less chains.What do you mean by “uniqueness”? Do you mean diversity of cuisine, or stylistically different restaurants?All of the above. For me, it’s not just about fine dining. A great city has to have a diversity of dining experiences, from ethnic to mid-level to taco trucks to fine dining. There can and should be great representations of every style of restaurant. There’s no one place or type of food that is great. Jean Georges is not the best type of food in the world — maybe for that type of food, ok — but it’s no better than a taco truck. The best taco truck could never compete with Jean Georges, but within their own segments, they’re both iterations of deliciousness. That diversity of dining is our food challenge. Seattle’s come so far in the last five years, and that’s exciting.

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