Wednesday, July 10, 2002 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Taste of the Town / Nancy Leson

As a mentor, Douglas has shaped many careers

When executive chef Tim Kelley left the Alexis Hotel to take a job in New York, hotel management saw the loss as an opportunity to give their signature restaurant a new signature. Matt Costello signed on for the job.

Busy since May in the Painted Table's kitchen, Costello is preparing for a brief late-summer closure and relaunch of a restaurant soon to have a new name, a new menu and a new concept. The name is still under negotiation. The concept is a move away from the arty-elegant Northwest tone that drew hotel guests to this upscale dining room but held waning interest for local diners.

"We're going to lose the tablecloths and go casual," says Costello, architect of the nascent menu, which he describes as "Americana" and expects to debut after Labor Day.

Among the seasonal offerings, we might find New York steak with thick slices of heirloom tomatoes and blue cheese gougères, herb-roasted chicken on fresh corn polenta, whole grilled trout or wild Alaska salmon. Entree prices should top out at $20.

If the name Matt Costello is lost on you, it's worth noting that Costello joined the kitchen staff at the original Dahlia Lounge in the early '90s before moving on to open the Palace Kitchen as lead chef. He returned to the Dahlia several years ago to build a solid transition team, heading up the kitchen when the restaurant moved to its new quarters at Fourth and Virginia. For nearly 10 years, Costello worked among an ever-growing constellation of stars who have shined in Tom Douglas' firmament. Many of those stars have since taken on projects of their own.

When Costello joined the cast in the kitchen at the original Dahlia he was in good company. That company included the terrifically talented Eric Tanaka, now executive chef overseeing all three of Douglas' restaurants. Among their kitchen cohorts: Holly Smith, owner/chef of Kirkland's Cafe Juanita; Philip Mihalski, owner/chef of Nell's at Green Lake; and the Dahlia's longtime lead chef Johnathan Sundstrom, now at the W Hotel, where he is executive chef at Earth & Ocean.

Ask Tom Douglas where he learned his craft and he'll tell you, "I went to the school of every chef and co-worker I ever worked for or with."

Take a look around the Seattle-area restaurant scene and you'll find more than a few former employees who've graduated, with honors, from Tom Douglas University.

Thomas and Jessica Price spent years working for Douglas (Thomas as bar manager at Etta's Seafood, Jessica as a server at the Dahlia) before opening their Polynesian-inspired restaurant and bar, Luau, near Green Lake. Across the street from Luau, you'll find Amy McCray and James Hondros, owners of Eva Restaurant and Wine Bar. McCray did a turn as sous-chef at the Dahlia; James worked as a line-cook at Etta's.

Other Douglas alumni include Babe Shepherd, owner of Red Mill Burgers, who waited tables for Tom when he ran Cafe Sport and again when he opened the Dahlia. She credits her former boss for helping concoct Red Mill's killer onion-ring recipe. Kendell Sillers, owner of Ballard's Market Street Grill, had a lengthy serving tenure at the Dahlia. Chris Hunter, who opened Madrona's hip neighborhood restaurant Supreme (and left it in the hands of his former business-partner Tova Cubert late last month) spent five years as lead chef at Etta's Seafood.

Travel to California and you'll find Duskie Estes (former corporate sous-chef for all of Tom Douglas' restaurants) and her husband, John Stewart (who cooked at Etta's), in the kitchen at their new restaurant, Zazu, in Santa Rosa. Need a caterer in Boston? Joan MacIssac, chef at the Dahlia Lounge for five years, now owns Boston-based Ruby Chard Catering. MacIssac, along with the many other food-focused individuals who've worked for Tom Douglas, have taken away more than a pumped-up résumé upon their departure. As restaurateur, entrepreneur, boss, friend and mentor, Douglas has helped pave the way for a talented group of chefs and restaurant professionals.

With an ever-growing empire that includes three restaurants, a line of spice rubs, barbecue sauces and a fast-selling cookbook, Tom Douglas is no stranger to us. Tomorrow night he'll be in the national spotlight, reaching a hungry audience on a segment of the Food Network series "My Country, My Kitchen" (airing at 7 and 10 p.m.). The show, which highlights food personalities around the globe, will introduce viewers to Tom Douglas' world: one that revolves around family, friends and a big dose of Seattle flavor.

Nancy Leson can be reached at 206-464-8838 or More columns at


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