Tom Black’s first introduction to the kitchen was a punishment. “I was about 14 and I couldn’t be trusted at home after school by myself so I had to go hang out with my sisters at their jobs so I wouldn’t get into any trouble,” he says. Hanging out at the sandwich shop his older sister managed turned into helping out and eventually, at the legal age of 15, getting hired.
Even after working in restaurants through high school and into college, deciding to drop out of Columbia to attend culinary school, joining the Army in order to pay for culinary school with the GI Bill, Black didn’t really think of cooking as a long-term profession: “It was more feeding my soul for what I loved to do at the time.” Luckily for him, culinary school reaffirmed that his passion could make for a real career.
And luckily for us, a friend convinced him to move to Seattle in 1994—“we both left our jobs and filled a Volkswagon Jetta with as much of our personal stuff as we could and then we drove all the way to Seattle”—to join the burgeoning food scene, now as the chef at catering cafe Gourmondo.
Here, a few of Tom Black’s favorite things…
Dish to impress guests: Chicago style deep dish pizza. I have been on a near 30-year journey to perfect my cornmeal crust—when I bust it out, everyone enjoys. I just made it in the middle of answering these questions. It turned out amazing, but as usual I found some flaws.
Secret ingredient: Pride. It permeates everything I cook. It is hard to teach, impossible to learn from someone else, but it shows itself very clearly when not added.
Banned from your kitchen: Black pepper and grapefruit, sad but true. Sometimes society’s needs dictate the uses of such things, but not if I can help it.
Guilty pleasure: Hershey’s syrup on vanilla ice cream, a fond childhood food memory if ever there was one.
Hangover remedy: Don’t get hangovers, never have, and, believe me, I have tried. I will take three eggs over easy, bacon, hash browns, and sourdough toast please, and a large milk while we’re at it.
Can’t live without: Yellow notebook pad, I am dead in the water without my ever-evolving, always-growing lists.
Place to eat on a day off: Kauai Family Restaurant. It is my comfort food.
Recently splurged on: Bone-in ribeye for Christmas dinner. Salt crusted, slow roasted, properly rested, pan gravy tested, sliced to perfection = homerun every time.
The difference between fine dining and catering is… It is not so easy to differentiate between them, since there is such a thing as fine dining catering. The ability to make something incredible, break it down, pack it, transport it, then make it beautiful and tasty again is an art form in itself. The biggest difference is doing all of this in someone else’s kitchen, someone else’s oven, someone else’s garage, etc. The times I spent in large shiny kitchens producing incredible food with all the toys and lots of talented cooks working under me make me very proud. The times I have put out incredible food for 10 people off of a broken Weber grill with no one there but me to make it work simply amaze me.
People I’d like to cook with and why: Chef Bobby Moore of Barking Frog at Willows Lodge. We spent so many years cooking together, making amazing food, and training amazing chefs who went out and did amazing things. I would love to cook through a busy service with him again...maybe this will happen someday.
Craziest work story that can be committed to print: Working on a private 150-foot yacht in Desolation Sound, cooking for four guests and six crew—an incredible yacht in an amazing part of the world. As usual, the guests visiting the yacht wanted to partake in the harvesting of Dungeness crab. Every day the same ritual, bait the pots with various fish scraps from previous days meals, drop them via yacht tender in areas easily accessible to us later in the day...then wait. Every evening we would send the tender after the pots and bring aboard about 30 keepers. This I would turn into various things daily: cocktail, crepes, salads, tacos, dips, and the list goes on. For anyone who has cleaned crab, you know that it is messy and time consuming. By the end of the first week my hands were torn up, I hated crab and was starting to curse the existence of guests.
While in port in Vancouver for supplies the next day all my problems were solved. Upon procuring 20 pounds of picked Dungeness crab meat our yacht became a strict catch-and-release vessel from that point on, unbeknownst to the guests. I kept the crab they caught alive until dark when I would slip out back to the swim deck and release them back into the water. No one knew, until now.