Critic’s Notebook

What Do Tom Douglas and Matt Dillon Have in Common?

More than shiny new James Beard hardware, it turns out.

By Kathryn Robinson May 14, 2012

A week ago tonight the James Beard Foundation handed out the awards widely heralded as the Oscars of the restaurant world. Matt Dillon (Sitka and Spruce, Bar Ferdn’and, Corson Building) won Best Northwest Chef; after years of nominations, Tom Douglas (Dahlia Lounge, Ting Momo, and 13 joints in between) finally took home Outstanding Restaurateur—which, in Oscar parlance, is as prestigious as Best Director.

I’ve been a judge in this contest for years and I’ve seen a lot of worthy superstars win the Best Northwest Chef prize, among them Maria Hines (Tilth, Golden Beetle) in 2009 and Jason Wilson (Crush) in 2010. Those winners gratified me. This year’s thrill me.

Why? Because they reward the right thing—vision.

Admittedly, at first glance the upstart idealist Dillon and the savvy magnate Douglas would seem to have little in common. Dillon was the first chef around here to enshrine the “Un-Restaurant” concept; the idea that a restaurant’s highest value derives from its support of responsible food sourcing and a communitarian, share-food-around-the-table ethos. Both Sitka (which Dillon conceived as a “food salon”) and Corson (which he conceived as a food-based community center) rocked restaurant conventions from the get-go, pioneering such then-shockers as shared tables, no reservations, family-style dining, and prix-fixe nights.

Douglas, by contrast, has made a perfectly-oiled machine of restaurant conventions—then ridden it to stardom as Seattle’s most prolific restaurateur and food personality. Since the Dahlia opened in 1989 his restaurants have set the bar for authentic, hospitable, empowered service; his business models have become the envy of entrepreneurs across the food world. He has grown his empire to 15 food businesses within the space of one square mile of downtown real estate. A chart illustrating the tentacles of his influence and mentorship to other chefs in the region would stretch the limits of a magazine foldout.

Both the hugely creative acts of hugely creative men.

As both of their stars rise, it’s easy to forget the culinary gifts that started it all for them—but they are both, first and foremost, chefs. Dillon, a culinary savant, appears to layer flavors and textures in obedience to some unseen muse; what he can do with nutty fried paneer, a perfect steaky Northwest tomato slice, cumin-bright greens, and pine nut butter transcends not only the sum of the parts—it transcends every expectation you’ve ever brought to those ingredients. Matt Dillon is an artist.

So, for his part, is Tom Douglas—the visionary who first brought Seattle such now-standards as Asian fusion and gourmet burgers. Since then he has sophisticated the pizza, globalized the dumpling, and given Seattle its first taste of biscuit sandwiches. And that’s just South Lake Union.

These guys are deserving—an accolade even their peers would agree on, having voted both Dillon and Douglas the Most Admired Local Chef title in our Chefs Bite Back poll last year. (They tied.)

I love it when James Beard gets it right. Here’s to ya, gents.

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