*Authors Note – Both Spur Gastropub and The Old Sage have closed in Q3 2016
It Takes Two
Dana Tough and Brian McCracken are food industry veterans that have worked in the trenches for years. They are the founders of several well-known Seattle culinary ventures including Spur Gastropub, The Old Sage, Tavern Law and, my new personal favorite speakeasy – Needle & Thread. While both started out as cooks and then became Chefs de Cuisine; they have wholeheartedly embraced the shift from working Chef to Restaurateur and are now more focused on the business of running restaurants. The key component to their success – working together, in partnership as equals without ego. A tough challenge in any business.
In business, it often takes more than two people to make anything go right. But running a restaurant is typically a one-person show. Whether it be the Chef, Owner or Chef/Owner – there’s one person in charge and who has the final say over everything. Sure, there are some great examples of collaborations in the restaurant industry with the likes of Batali and Bastianich or, locally, the Canlis brothers serving as good examples. But more often than not, the control and ego get in the way of having more than one person in charge.
Dana Tough and Brian McCracken – Birds of a Proverbial Feather
McCracken and Tough have successfully bucked the historical trend of dictatorial management in restaurants and have developed a working relationship that is reminiscent of a good marriage. They know each other’s strengths and weaknesses and they complement each other vs. contradict. It’s for this reason that they have successfully opened and run five establishments in the last seven years and are continually looking for new opportunities to grow.
I sat down with them at The Old Sage recently to talk about their working relationship, their vision and their recipe for success. Here’s what they had to say…
So how did you both meet?
Brian – We worked together at the W hotel – when Maria Hines was there and we got to know each other.
Dana – About two months after John Sundstrom left – right at the beginning of Maria’s start. Some of the team that he didn’t take to Lark stayed on. To this day, it’s still the most talented kitchen crew I worked with. There were many terrific cooks like Wylie Frank from Little Uncle, Angela Roberts from Marination, Ashley Merriman from the Waverly Inn in NY, Sue McCown was the pastry Chef, Natalie Nemeth who was the pastry chef for Heavy. We had a good crew there.
There were so many people to bounce ideas off of and it was really an incubator for where our mindset is now. We were constantly doing things better, not just ‘good enough’, and we had the tools. The experience kind of shaped who both of us are today. It’s not always about doing things the easiest way but the right way which is something we try to teach our staff.
It sounds like a terrific experience that helped shape your future. Where did you go from there?
Dana – From there, I left with Maria to go to Tilth and was her sous and then CdC. I helped bring the place to be certified organic which was cool experience and discipline. I respected it but it’s also a tough process. There’s so many beautiful and wild ingredients and you can only use like 5% of what’s available.
So do you only bring in local product for your current restaurants?
Dana – you want to be inspired all the time. I don’t think you should put constraints on yourself and I don’t think it’s the best way to operate. You should be excited about what you are doing all the time. And product should drive us as Chefs. Naturally, we buy a majority of our product locally and it’s a part of our culture and what we believe in. But the best product always wins.
Another thing we believe is that if you are paying money to come to a restaurant it shouldn’t be something you can just do at home. Whether it’s a wine shop, a restaurant, a clothing store – it should be an expertly curated experience. This is why our food tends to be more technically advanced. It’s slow and good.
Brian – speaking of organic being a brand – you can go to Whole Foods and there would be these wild mushrooms being certified as organic – you just can’t do that. We’ve always tended to be sub-seasonal with our menus and products. Every once in a while we’re going to look for our best produce – not just our local, organic products.
I remember one time we got some squash blossoms from a farmer in Carnation – they just came off the truck and were wilted and gross. Then one of our purveyors showed up with some blossoms from California and they were pristine. What do you want to serve at that point?
All bands break up after a while. So do many partnerships. How does your partnership work so well?
Dana – It’s probably been said before – why relationships work and all that. What I believe is that we’ve grown together through our ups and downs, successes and failures. And the personal side as well as we both have kids now. All of these life experiences add up.
JP – not good planning with having kids at same time eh?
Dana – no, not the best plan. Last year we were behind the scenes a lot because of the kids. Because the schedules can be so daunting – we’re both very understanding of that and if it was one or the other of us having kids I don’t know if we’d be truly understanding of the other’s constraints.
Brian – At this point we’re going on seven years. Early on we got the individual egos out of the way. Sure, there are times where we will fight and wouldn’t see eye-to-eye. But we figured out that if either one of us if we’re holding an ego over the other it didn’t end up benefitting the business.
We also figured out how to do this job together in a way that we have become very understanding of the other person’s issue at any given point. We’re able to keep those times from driving us apart and push through them together.
How have you managed the shift from Chef to Restaurateur?
Dana – we’ve also had a different agenda from the beginning. We never had the perspective of ‘I’m going to stand here and make all the decisions, create all the menus with one place’. The idea was to build a talented team around us and maybe not attach ourselves to being Chefs forever. We wanted to create jobs and a great company that people would want to work for.
Longevity is big goal and we’re creating a company that hopefully we can retire on. Looking at the big picture – I love to cook, the comradery, my friends in the industry – I’ll never let go of that. But what our job is and what we want it to be – well that’s changed.
It’s not a sustainable idea to just be stuck in the kitchen forever. We want our people to grow out of their positions and become something on their own in our company. We have to look beyond controlling the kitchens and with that; we’re able to define our roles separately and hold each other accountable.
So why did you get involved in food in the first place?
Brian – I certainly born into a family that loved food. My parents and grandparents were in the bar and restaurant business so I was around the industry growing up quite a bit. Mom taught cooking classes and I grew up cooking. My Uncle was a crab fisherman and a farmer. So I always had amazing product around. Mom gardened and we had this giant herb garden in the backyard.
I hunted and fished and established connection to product at early age. I had shot a couple of ducks and this one time I shot a duck and it clipped its wing. It helicoptered down off to the side and the dog went out to get all the other ducks when my dad told me to walk over to check it out. I remember yelled back to my dad to ask, “what do I do?” I was 12 at this point and looking at that duck that was dying, my dad said that I had to wring its neck. I swung it around and remembered it going from alive to dead.
It was a big moment for me as far as shaping me and how I treat food at this point. Really understanding that duck breast and chicken on the table or as raw product doesn’t come from a factory somewhere. It’s something to respect and care about. The next day I took the duck to this big outdoor sink we had and I scalded it, cleaned it and we had duck fajitas that night. To go from experiencing death through to eating it – that shapes someone as far as respect for animals and food.
Dana – My first job was as a dishwasher working at a private country club at Twin Lakes in Federal Way. Bill Russell, Casey Jones – all these old Sonics guys would come in. The Chef at the time was Travis Hightower. I was gaining a little interest and garnishing plates with a rosemary sprig and a lemon – stuff you did 1994 – and I wanted to learn more. Later on the Chef told me, “If you want to do this you have to fall in love with it because you’re not going to make any money doing it.” Something stuck with that and I don’t know why.
Over time I worked there, through some Mom and Pop Italian restaurants, corporate chain jobs, and finally to work at the Waterfront on Pier 70 in 1999 with Vicky McCaffrey. It changed my entire world in terms of food with product I’d never used before. Even though I’d been cooking all this time it was like the first time. I learned how to breaking down fish, flute an artichoke – more technique. This is where passion began and I had a lot of experience in terms of the physical part of cooking but now my brain was starting to become more experienced.
From there I worked at Tulio and then opened Bandol in the Smith Tower. I was 19 when I was there and I hung my first prosciutto in underground Seattle. We did beer down there and started exploring fermentation and curing and such. Bandol closed and then we went to Earth and Ocean and ended up selling them that prosciutto. I remember moving it to under my apartment sink. Craziness!
I think it is uber important for kids to know where their food comes from don’t you?
Brian – I learned how much better things are when they are fresh and done right. I grew up loving crab, but hated crab in restaurants. I was getting king and dungies from the boat from my uncle and it was so fresh. The meat changes in a matter of days – just a bit but it’s so noticeable. The first time I remember eating it in a restaurant with drawn butter I remember asking what was wrong with it. I was grossed out and didn’t order crab again in a restaurant until I was in my mid-20’s.
Dana – there’s nothing like going crabbing, filling up a bucket with seawater and eating it right on the boat! Where I grew up there wasn’t a grocery store for miles. We had a huge garden and I killed chickens at age five by chopping their heads off. I didn’t learn from that moment how to respect product necessarily but certainly when I’m hunting or fishing now I want to use everything to respect the animal.
I’d agree with Brian though – a lot of people are disconnected from their food sources and it’s really sad. It’s a form of miseducation. It would be nice if people were able to experience raising chickens. Things that we crave as humans should be taught to us early. We should be craving things that are so fresh. We should see Brussels sprouts on the stalk before we’re 30.
What do you love most about the restaurant biz?
Brian – the camaraderie and passion of 90% of the people in this business. There’s the passion for the product they are putting out and the experience they are giving to the guests. In an industry where they won’t make much money – most people are in it for the passion, lifestyle and working together. Crews really start to become family in small restaurants. Great things come about from that passion and I like being around that.
Dana – the thing that I love is that cooking isn’t so systematic that it becomes stagnant and complacent. Like many other jobs, for good reasons there are particular ways to do things. For cooking that’s not always the case. It’s always progressing, you’re always learning more, there’s always new ingredients – it’s so exciting all the time. You’ll never know it all. Ever. Not even close. How cool it that?
When we go in the kitchen – it’s not work, it’s fun. That’s the way we see it. We want to continue doing what we’re good at as well as challenge ourselves with the bigger job at hand – which is run a successful group of restaurants.
Brian – you can make something so simple that has been made a million times – and you can taste it and be like ‘fuck that’s good’. I don’t always jump on the idea of cooking as an art necessarily or as a craft – I go back and forth a bit on that. But I do think that it shares some similarities with art where it brings about emotions and thought and stimulus. It’s amazing that every day when you taste something that is delicious and so damned good and you are glad you made it. The simple parts excite me – not only something that’s groundbreaking.
What do you like least about it?
Brian – maybe it’s the fickle nature of the business. It’s pretty inconsistent where you can be busy for 3 weeks then, maybe there’s a rainstorm or something, and it can be dead. That aspect of it – the ups and downs of income for no real reason. It can be confusing and, of course, it would be nice to always be slammed.
Dana – what I hate the most is that we’re in the luxury business. People don’t need us. As I get older, I wish I was doing something that was solving a problem and making people’s lives easier. Contributing in a positive way vs. pursuing this artistic endeavor.
What’s your opinion about the role of social media in the restaurant business these days?
Brian – I think that we are, and you (nodding to Dana) are far better than I am. We’re not the best at utilizing it as a tool. I think the communication platforms like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are good. When you get direct communication with customers it’s beneficial. It’s a way of extending the communication that would be happening in the restaurant while keeping your product in their eyes and minds.
When it comes to dining you have a million options. When you go out somewhere it is likely to be whatever you thought of most recently. I think that Yelp started as something fair and good but what I think has developed is more of a platform for people to get their voice out there rather than a fair judgmental opinion of how a business was doing. There’s a bit of sensationalism in it – like trying to write a funny review. People will write about great experiences or bad and that’s what gets read – no one reads the middle ground.
Yelp has become more of an audience building tool which is unfair to the businesses. When you are talking about a business it’s not just someone cooking you a dinner and being a host – it is people’s livelihoods and everyone in that business depends on its success. Restaurant reviewers take that very seriously and have for a long time. But when it’s just someone that can say whatever they want without any backup or responsibility it becomes less useful.
Whether we like it or not, Yelp affects business ratings. I feel like this industry with the dawn of Yelp has pushed a lot of the stories around the industry into more tabloid format.
Dana – I’d say it’s a sign of our industry becoming more successful. When I was a dishwasher and prep cook it was a dropout job. Now it’s a career. I agree with Brian on the consumer social media of Yelp aspects and comments. From a business owner’s standpoint – using Yelp as a tool is important to track trends of poor service, the time period that it’s happening, who’s giving bad service and it’s a fantastic tool for gathering feedback.
To me, it seems like a very passive-aggressive way of communicating. Why don’t people just give this feedback to the Chef or FoH manager?
Brian – I agree with using it as a gauge and the fact that it’s there means you have to use it. In Seattle specifically, our servers once told us that they had had a bad experience with a customer but, by the end of it the meal they were nice, generous, cordial and they had thought they’d turned it around. Later that night, the customer wrote a one star review laid out all the same complaints we were told by our server. Clearly they weren’t on the same page.
Dana – sometimes you just want to avoid the confrontation and all that. Feedback is valuable and it hurts nothing but your ego.
What is your #1 goal with your restaurants?
Dana – I think that we try really hard to be unique and offer fine dining food with a great beverage program in a comfortable atmosphere. It’s what we go after every time. That’s our brand and I feel like the goal in that is to hopefully not be a ‘destination place’. We’d like people to come in more often and have it be accessible.
My goal is to diversify a bit as well – I don’t just want to do restaurants. Not just food products but cool, thoughtful kitchen tools and things related to our industry. I don’t want to be stuck in repetition. It’s refreshing to make the leap from Chef to restaurateur and it has been a breath of fresh air. It really lets you know that you don’t have to grind on the line for years. You can always jump out into something different and not be tied down.
Brian – Overcoming challenges is a really driving part of both our personalities. Sometimes we create those challenged to be continually stimulated. I totally agree with what Dana said. One thing, maybe to our financial detriment, is that we always go out trying to make the best product and not a profit. We’re very much product driven people and we know that we’d love to make some money along the way but it’s not the driving force and goal with these businesses.
Our goal is to not lose money and to be able to support our children. I think that both of us look at these businesses as a starting off point to be able to leverage ourselves into other industries. We want to use our reputation that we are building to do something different.
What advice do you have for people looking to get into the food business?
Brian – you have to have passion for it because you aren’t going to get quick financial rewards of any sort. You’ll need to be dedicated enough to know that you’ll be putting in very long hours compared to most other industries. And it’s not like working in a factory or manufacturing job and putting the extra hours. It doesn’t always equate to more money. You’re doing 14 hours days a lot of the time and that can be taxing on the financials, the personal life, every bit of your life except for where your passion is.
Also, always have a note pad in this industry because your mind is always going in a lot of different directions.
Dana – passion trumps everything – hands down. When you have passion for what you are doing you can then set forth your goals. It’s important to establish your goals as there are so many areas of this industry that you can be in. Decide what level of the industry you want to be in and why. Just accolades? Money? You need to understand your goals before you can understand where you need to work to reach them. That’s the most important thing.
We’ve had a lot of cooks come and go. They only get one perspective in the industry and it may have been too hard for them to want to move forward. It sucks to see people give up after trying their hardest in the hardest form of our industry without giving themselves a chance.
Tell me about someone or something that influenced who you are today as a chef
Dana – One thing I can confidently say that Maria taught me a lot about the accounting and financial parts of the business. I was really fortunate to have gotten that education on how to control food and labor costs. I wouldn’t have felt confident had I not learned that.
Food and cooking and being creative in the kitchen is something I’ve felt confident about for a long time. Whether it was good or not – my confidence was the most important thing. At the end of the day – if you aren’t impressing yourself with your abilities then that’s your benchmark. When we were just cooks both of us made a point to save our money to go to the restaurants we’d read about. The Alinea’s, the Eleven Madison Parks – you just need to experience those yourself. You eat things and realize what you can do and change with your ingredients. It’s important to find out for yourself and to build your confidence levels.
What is your favorite ingredient?
Brian – I was going to make a joke like I used to make as a younger egotistical cook – what’s your favorite word to write?
JP – ‘Me’
Brian – Honestly, I love shaved white Alba truffle – but I also love eggs because of their versatility. You can do so many things with them as a platform to do other things with.
If you had one ingredient to work with forever what would it be?
Dana – pork, naturally seasoned more, even if you don’t salt it, it still tastes good. I also love Jacobsen’s Sea Salt now. I guess you are supposed to eat it within the 360 mile radius because it has all the mineral you need. If you try it next to Maldon – the Maldon will burn your tongue. It’s almost acidic.
What trends in the Seattle food scene do you see on the horizon?
Dana – what isn’t being done right now? Everything has been done of course but I feel like ‘Hipster Asian’ is coming into style. Portland has been on it for a few years.
Brian – something that I hope happens, and I don’t know why, but maybe t’s just that I don’t see it happening soon – is the growth of the city and a stronger cosmopolitan core. Seeing the resurgence of fine dining in Seattle and the emergence of high quality options other than Canlis or steakhouses. I’d like to see some boutique fine dining restaurants downtown and I’d like to see them killing it. The creativity is present but the market has pushed for that very simplistic cooking rather than more technical cooking. A beautiful roasted beet is fantastic but it could have a bit more done to it to elevate it higher. Seattle is not a very experimental culture for dining – and is not extraordinarily supportive of risk taking in food.
Dana – I’d like to see the downtown core grown in population so that the dining scene is more supported. I mean, you have this in PDX and the support is there even though there are fewer industries there.
What word best describes the Seattle food scene?
Dana – Busy.
Brian – Fickle. It’s the ‘what have you done for me lately/what’s new attitude’. When we opened Spur and Tavern Law we were busy for 6-months plus because we were new. Now, you open a new place and maybe you get a month or two from the ‘newness’ and then it dies down.
Who is the best chef in Seattle now?
Dana – I think Rachel Yang and Seif Chirchi (Revel, Joule, Trove) are doing great things. I wish I could get out more and I want to start tasting the food from more up and coming people. I feel like you are doing a disservice not doing that. I also like Quinton Stewart’s food who is now cooking at 99 Park in Bellevue.
Brian – for lots of different reasons I like many chefs. Both of us have big respect for Maria Hines. I love having lunch at Mike Easton’s Il Corvo. Before I had a kid I called bullshit on parents who said they can’t go out. Now that I have a kid, I can’t go out and do anything.
Last question – what is your last meal?
Dana – I love traditional Japanese food – something like sushi from Jiro would be it. Something so far from what I’m doing as a chef to a point where it’s still interesting. The fact that it’s so simple and puts focus so much on the product – it’s like church for me. A really good sushi experience tops everything for me.
When Shiro was there I’d go to his place. Now, I go visit Taichi Kitamura at his place – Kappo Tamura. If he serves me a spot prawn I want to feel it pulsating. Being a chef and in this industry for so long it’s really difficult to be blown away. But with sushi – it’s all about the product, preparation and technique you’d never seen before. That’s exciting to me.
Brian – I’d combine my two favorite ingredients – scrambled eggs and Alba truffles. I’d probably finish with a really delicious Scotch and a cigar and call it good.
A Dynamic Duo
In a world and industry that has its fair share of egos – collaboration at the top is often something that is rarely seen done successfully. While Chefs and restaurant owners have to create a cultural ecosystem that works for front of house, back of house and customers; they often do so in Napoleonic fashion. There’s typically one vote that counts and that’s from whoever owns the place. Which is why it’s so rare to see two people who can remove ego from the equation and find a balance in which both excel. Dana Tough and Brian McCracken have figured out the formula to running a successful partnership and it shows at their restaurants. Try one and find out if you can see this secret ingredient in practice.
If you enjoyed this interview with Dana Tough and Brian McCracken then please check out my other articles in the series at Chef Interviews and stay tuned for future conversations with more of your favorite well and lesser known Seattle-based Chefs on The Hungry Dog Blog!
A Recipe from Dana Tough and Brian McCracken
Venison Tartare with Greek yogurt veil, Apple cider vinegar gel, compressed apple and Turkish cucumber.
Makes 4 portions
For venison tartare:
- 400 g small diced venison ( in our case, boneless leg filet)
- 12 g brunoise shallot
- 10 g minced garlic
- 5 g minced fresh Italian parsley
- 5 g minced fresh summer savory leaves
- 5 g thinly sliced chives
- 10 g Dijon mustard
- 8 g Extra Virgin olive oil
- 10 g juice from a freshly squeezed lemon
- Salt and pepper to taste
Mix all ingredients immediately before serving and set into ring or other mold and tamp until set uniformly onto a plate.
For Greek yogurt veil
- 220 g Greek yogurt (plain)
- 105 g buttermilk
- 95 g filtered water
- 3.1 g low acyl gellan gum
- 2 each sheets gold gelatin
- Salt and pepper to taste
Combine yogurt, buttermilk and water in saucepan and bring to 185 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pour yogurt mixture into a blender and bring to full speed purée.
Add low acyl gellan gum and blend for two minutes.
Pour mixture into a shallow pan and place into refrigerator to chill.
While mixture is cooling, bloom gelatin in ice water.
After mixture is completely cooled and set into a “brick,” return it to the blender and shear at high speed.
After mixture is sheared, bring up in a saucepan on medium heat and add bloomed gelatin.
While hot set into an extremely shallow pan to where it is only 2-3 mm in height.
Put pan on level surface inside refrigerator to chill.
Once chilled, use same mold as to plated tartare to cut veil to the exact shape and set evenly on top of the tartare.
For Apple Cider vinegar fluid gel
- 50 g Apple cider vinegar
- 30 g filtered water
- .14 g low acyl gellan gum
- Salt to taste
Combine Apple Cider and water in a saucepan and bring to 185 degrees Fahrenheit.
Pour cider mixture into a blender and bring to full speed purée.
Add low acyl gellan gum and blend for two minutes.
Pour mixture into a shallow pan and place into refrigerator to chill.
Once mixture is completely cooled and set into a “brick,” return it to the blender and shear at high speed.
Pass mixture through chinoise or fine mesh sieve.
Garnish plated tartare with “droplets” of fluid gel.
For compressed Apple
- 10 g brunoise Granny Smith apple
- .5 g malic acid
- Salt to taste
Toss brunoise Granny Smith apple in salt and malic acid until uniformly coated.
Add Apple to a food safe vacuum seal bag.
Compress apple on high pressure in a chamber vacuum sealer.
Open bag and garnish plated tartare with compressed apple.
To finish plate:
Garnish each tartare with sliced Turkish cucumber, Fleur de sel, savory leaves and good Extra Virgin olive oil.
Serve with freshly toasted bread or crackers.