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Farm to Fork Across America: Chef Tom Douglas, "Deliciousness Served With Graciousness" in Seattle

04/17/2014 11:14 am ET | Updated Jun 17, 2014

Co-authored with Lee Glenn

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Above Seattle's Palace Kitchen is the home of one of the most successful food empires in America, a nerve center for over 15 restaurants and specialty food brands created by Chef Tom Douglas. This warehouse-like space, its exposed brick walls, wooden trusses and arched windows, contain whimsical art and nick-knacks, which adorn every corner, expressing a very happy place.

In the corner of the space that acts as his office, Tom is perched, arms waving, hands gesticulating, holding forth to the group surrounding him. At 6'3", Tom is a bit intimidating. As we're introduced, his meaty hand points to a cushy, retro, brown leather couch for our interview. With child-like golden curls framing rosy cherubic cheeks and a Cheshire cat smile, he could make anyone feel right at home.

Our goal was to understand how sustainability plays a part in his empire. The conversation quickly turned to economic sustainability: "Money is like manure, if you don't spread it around, nothing grows," he comments passionately.

This is obviously a soft spot for Tom.

"How can anyone live off of minimum wage? Keeping talented passionate people in my kitchen is critical, but everything is skewed to the bottom line."

For Tom though, there is another side to economic viability and it's anything but bottom-line greed. He is one of a handful of restaurant owners nationwide to raise his minimum wage by $2 dollars. Disgusted over the resistance of chain restaurants to pay healthcare benefits by making full-time employees part-time, Tom strikes back in his own way. He provides health care for over 550 employees including those working only 25 hours per week.

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"Personal investment risk deserves reward, but a lack of consciousness and the disparity between CEOs and workers compensation is unreasonable," he rants.

Tom insists that he's not a socialist, believing business should set standards, not the government.

"Keeping talented passionate people at our company is imperative." he adds. "Sustainability includes how you run your business and my bottom line includes how you treat your people. Sustainability starts with your staff. "

Getting back to the more common approach to sustainability, Tom notes: "We are compassionate purchasers. I'm a compassionate person, so if a product is 15 percent more than what I typically pay and I see the purpose, I'll foster that kind of sustainability for the farmers/fishers."

2014-04-16-ZB5K6291.jpgFor example, seafood for his restaurants must to be endorsed by the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch for eco-friendly fishing practices. This is clearly stated in his menus. He believes informing his customers about sustainable practices is now in demand and makes good business sense.

Another part of this mission is not serving produce grown with pesticides and herbicides. To source the freshest organic produce possible, his wife and business partner, Jackie Cross, purchased the 20-acre farm in Prosser, Washington. She fell in love with connectivity to the land and Prosser Farm now has a full time staff of six. Last year they harvested 60,000 pounds of produce. This year, Tom projects harvesting 75,000 pounds. Not quite enough produce for all of his kitchens, though enough to make a pretty big dent.

2014-04-17-ZB5K63262.jpgEven with this source, Tom's chefs spend a lot of time sourcing sustainable products: "I'm working towards needing a full-time person for sourcing," he notes. "A position that will cost the business $50,000 a year plus benefits" -- a problem that could be solved by a business like the FoodShed Exchange.

Tom's benevolence doesn't stop at his kitchen door. He spreads his good fortune throughout the city on a daily basis. "Every night of the week one of my restaurants hosts an event for the city."

We thought he must have meant once a week, but he quickly corrected our assumption: "No, once a day or once a night, including school auctions, Evening of Hope for the Police Guild and events for the Liver Foundation and the Heart Foundation."

"Make enough profit to do for the city... put forth the effort to leave the place as good if not better than you found it. That is sustainability at its core," he adds.

And it doesn't stop there. Tom is on the board of the non-profit Food Lifeline: "Working with the surpluses of the food industry, we come up with creative solutions to stopping hunger, including redirecting good food from manufacturers, farmers, grocery stores and restaurants that might otherwise go to waste."

A testament to his unique business acumen, Tom was the recipient of the 2012 James Beard award as outstanding restaurateur. The award is living proof of good karma, that what you give and how you treat others comes back to you with a win-win recipe for all.

Making our way downstairs to the Palace Kitchen for a personal cooking demonstration in Asian inspired cuisine, Tom gathers the ingredients for the recipe: Whole Dungeness Wok-Fried Crab With Ginger & Lemongrass.

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Heating a large wok over a 35,000 BTU gas burner, he confesses that a wok burner is typically 85,000 - 100,000 BTUs. Peanut oil in the hot wok creates a smoky flavor: "My heat is catching up," Tom explains. "You can hear it sizzling. It's the breath of the wok which sears food when it hits the metal."

Next he added cut steamed crab to thoroughly heat it through, accompanied by an ad hoc blend of oils, chili, herbs and spices... and in a minute or two, voila, a delicious dish.

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A chef foremost, it is still in Tom's nature to feed people. After a bit of requisite photography, he sits us down at a window-side booth, adds some cutlery and personally serves his creation... with a bottle of Columbia Crest Unoaked Chardonnay to boot.

Unexpected. Generous. Hospitable.

As Tom says: "Deliciousness served with graciousness."

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