Thierry Rautureau, the “Chef in the Hat,” knows a thing or two about food. After growing up and studying in France, he came to the United States, making his way to Seattle in 1987. He owned the now-closed Rover’s, and currently heads Luc, a fabulous bistro, and Loulay, a stylish, modern brasserie. In addition to his restaurants, Rautureau hosts a radio show with fellow Seattle-food-scene-king, Tom Douglas. Where sat down with Rautureau at Loulay, his restaurant in the Sheraton Seattle Hotel, to get his take on the Seattle food scene, then and now.
What was the food scene like when you first got here?
The food scene was very sparse. … It was very different than what it is today. The rising of the demand of the customer and the arrival of many chefs and many younger generations of chefs who created all those new restaurants was not there at the time.
I think the late ’80s was when it grew up. It just started slowly but surely growing up and then it burgeoned in the mid-90s to 2000. It totally exploded and started going the way that it’s been going now. I still think there’s more restaurants today than there were then by a lot. When I started, there were 37 wineries in Eastern Washington, now there are 850, so it feels kind of the same way in the restaurant business. Not quite that drastic of a change, but very much exponential changes. It’s been a little bit busy of an area, I think. I’ve embraced every minute of the changes and the upcoming changes. I think it’s very good.
Seattle has a lot of neighborhoods. How do those affect the restaurant scene here?
I think that the beauty of Seattle dining is it’s very much based in the neighborhoods. Even downtown, Ballard, Fremont, Madison Valley, all those different pockets have picked up everywhere. Capitol Hill—everything has become very much defined in an area, and each of those areas has pushed a rubber band as much as possible for the explosion of numbers of restaurants that can possibly be in one area. I mean you look at Ballard—there are always restaurants opening. Fremont and all those areas, it’s constantly moving. It’s pretty cool.
Is Seattle getting enough attention for its food?
I think it's creeping up slowly but surely. People do pay attention much more than they used to. They used to not pay attention until recently. They’re more and more paying attention to what we’re doing, to the point where if you go around the country, all the new restaurants try to emulate the—I call it the unfinished restaurant. The exposed pipe, the noise, the cheap seats, whatever. I go around the country and I’m like "no, no, stop, stop. This is not … we did that for a few restaurants because we didn’t have any money!" It’s kind of interesting how they picked up that as the Northwest style. "That’s the Seattle restaurant style, we have to put that in our city." I’m like, "Hmm, you could pick some other things."
Does Seattle have any food trends?
It’s true of every movement: When you have an artistic movement, things explode, go up in the air, and a couple things come back and that’s what you’re going to use from that movement.
I think it’s cool when there are movements like this, and I think it’s fun. Some good trends will stay. Most of the trends are not meant to be good, they’re meant to be fast, furious, exciting and fashionable but a lot of them don’t stay. Just a little piece of it stays. So, it’s good.
What does Seattle do best?
Small, [chef] owner-operated restaurants. Works well with local, seasonal ingredients … well-crafted. I think what’s great about that is the craftsmanship that shows up is really cool because we all use the same ingredient eventually. It’s what we do with it. So everybody has their signature on the same piece of salmon or whatever. I think that’s the beautiful thing about Seattle. It’s very artistic, often, and very crafted. Many cities don’t have that. They have only big restaurants. [In] many parts of the country they have nothing but big chains.
What about international cuisine?
I think the international cuisine style has changed. I think the style of Seattle, which also is very cool is, we’re kind of like a new city, a new area, so there’s a very low barrier for foundation. People pick from left and right and right and left. It’s really a real melting pot … You're going to see the cross-over from other cultures that we’re faced with in Seattle. The king of that is Tom. Obviously, Tom Douglas is the king of opening 12 different restaurants, each one of them different and all picking from left and right, from many different places. None of his restaurants are just one thing in one way. It’s pretty cool. I’ve always admired the way that Tom looks at food. He looks at food in general. He looks at food as in, everything is the same.
For me, I was trained as French … I look at it as French then classic, and then move on to contemporary and then adapt it to the local and seasonal scene. It’s fun. … Ethnic food in Seattle is everywhere … This is the best city to cook in in America. We have everything so close by. Close proximity of all this product makes it so incredibly beautiful and fun to work with.
What is your advice to visitors in the city?
You need to have, obviously, shellfish and fish in Seattle, so oysters, salmon—you must have salmon if you come to Seattle, obviously wild salmon.
If you can’t eat shellfish, well, we have plenty of other things to eat. There are lots of vegetables and a beautiful array of herbs and vegetables and greens, mushrooms. It depends on what time of the year you come in … I could go on to name restaurants, but I don’t need to do that. There are tons and tons of great places. I think Seattle is very fun to visit, and I would also definitely do wine country if you can. Either Woodinville if you don’t have the time or the eastern part of the state.
Seattle’s a pretty casual city. How does that influence restaurants?
If you’re into eating and drinking and touring and having a good, normal, casual time, [and] you’re not looking for fancy chi-chi Las Vegas stuff, we’re a great city for that. If you’re looking for the Las Vegas stuff, you’re not going to find that here.
It is part of what we do. Does it affect it? You always get affected by your surroundings. I believe that, strongly. Yeah, it does affect it, but not in a negative way. It is what it is and that’s your surroundings. As soon as you’re aware of that, that’s what you do. You play with your surroundings. It’s not an issue to me. I think there’s room for everyone standard-wise. You can go from the most serve-yourself casual place all the way up to Canlis. We do have a spectrum that is there.
At Loulay here, it’s kind of in-between. We basically try to provide many points of access for your dining experience at any time of day, breakfast, lunch or dinner. You can come here for a burger and a beer or you can be here for three, four courses, it depends on what you feel like. It can be a lover’s night, or it can be a party night. It can be you dining at the kitchen counter or at the bar, or having a private party upstairs. There are many, many options. You can’t have a standard for everyone. That doesn’t work anymore. You need to have many options.
Is Seattle a good place to be a chef?
I think it’s the best place in the country because of, again, going back to the goods. When you look at the proximity that we have of all the product here, the availability that we have, it’s so incredible. I want to be a chef here, for sure.
What are your thoughts about the next generation of chefs coming up?
It’s nice to see the evolution and to see all those new people coming on the market. … In general the talent is really incredible. There’s a lot of talent in this town. Especially in the style of what we do. Maybe not old European standard, but very much in tune with today. Which is very important—you need to move on. The wheel keeps on turning.
What’s in the future for the Seattle food scene?
I think in the future it’s going to be into the same momentum that started a few years back, which is simpler, good standard, good product, local and seasonal even more than ever. The clean product and the intention of really educating the public about what good products are. And ultimately, we’re all ambassadors, so the more we do good food, the more people are going to request it. So when they go shopping, they’re going to go "Ah, no I can’t do that, the chef said that’s no good." As long as we can help promote the farmers markets, buy seasonal, buy local.
Sum up the Seattle food scene for me.
Real, seasonal, local.
We’re definitely one of the best cities to cook in. I’m pretty sure some other cities would say that, too, but we have the goods to back it up. And that’s what makes it so great. It’s a fun city to cook in. It’s really, really, really fun. It's not boring, that’s for sure.
The Chef In The Hat’s Seattle Picks
Have some time? Here are a few spots on Chef Rautureau’s must-list.
Pike Place Market, First Ave. and Pike St.
Matt’s in the Market, 94 Pike St., Ste. 32
Restaurant Marche, 150 Madrone Lane N, Bainbridge Island
Space Needle, 400 Broad St.
Snoqualmie Falls, 6501 Railroad Ave., Snoqualmie
Gas Works Park, 2101 N. Northlake Way
Westward on Lake Union, 2501 N. Northlake Way
Shilshole Bay Marina, 7001 Seaview Ave. NW
Alki Beach, 1702 Alki Ave. S