Mark Peel, the James Beard award-winning chef, describes Tacoma restaurant owner Gordon Naccarato as a chef with an intuitive understanding of food.
"He's an incredible chef with a marvelous sense of taste, and an incessant curiosity, " said Peel, who worked alongside the Tacoman 30 years ago in the formative years of Naccarato's career in Los Angeles restaurants.
Peel recalls when Naccarato took his first cooking position at Michael's, a California restaurant that three decades ago became a launching point for American chefs such as Peel, Nancy Silverton and Jonathan Waxman.
"We needed someone in the kitchen; in the pantry position. Gordon was like, 'I can do that.' He took a two-third cut in pay, " said Peel of the sacrifice made when servers leave behind tip-supplemented paychecks.
Naccarato "got really interested in what was going on, how things worked, " said Peel. "He started in the pantry and he very, very quickly went up in the hierarchy. I left and went to Chez Panisse." Naccarato then took over as lunch and then sous chef. Later Peel and Naccarato would work together at Campanile, Peel's landmark Los Angeles restaurant that operated from 1989 to 2012.
Today, Tacomans know Naccarato as the owner of Pacific Grill in downtown Tacoma. And now he has added Smoke + Cedar, which opened last week at the Allenmore Golf Course. How Naccarato went from waiting tables to working at the country's most acclaimed restaurants is a three-decade story that might never have happened if Naccarato had stuck with his original plan to attend law school.
Naccarato, a 1972 Stadium High School graduate, left Tacoma as a cum laude graduate of the University of Washington bound for Loyola Law School in California. After two years in law school, he chose instead to climb the culinary ladder of California, starting with Michael's, eventually cooking in Miami and New York.
Naccarato cemented his name in culinary circles when he landed in Aspen, Colo., where he earned a coveted "Best New Chefs" award from Food and Wine Magazine in 1988 - the first year for the awards - for his restaurant, Gordon's.
That restaurant drew culinary acclaim because of Naccarato's affinity for using seasonal, locally sourced ingredients, but also because of his modern and unfussy approach to American cuisine.
At the time, an article in USA Today lauded the restaurant's use of a computer to create a daily menu - something expected now, but a novelty in the 1980s.
Naccarato described that period in his life, "Being in Aspen where the passes can close at a moment's notice, and the airport is shut down for three days because of a blizzard, I had to have the flexibility to write a daily menu. It was really fun. I got a woman to grow lettuces for us in the summer, and she even got wild watercress from a hot springs off of Mount Sopris in the dead of winter."
Return to Tacoma
In 2002, he was lured home to the South Sound, at the urging of family - his brother Steve, specifically. With all the development downtown - including the University of Washington campus and museum openings - Steve Naccarato thought this area was primed for fine dining.
"I remember that (Gordon) was trying to decide where he wanted to move to next as his longtime best friend and roommate was taking a job out of town and was relocating, " recalled Steve Naccarato, a Tacoma artist and restaurant owner.
"I honestly never expected that he would move away from LA. He loved it there, still does, but I guess I was pretty persuasive and sold him on the idea of coming to Tacoma and we could create some great restaurants together and be closer to family. Seems to have worked out pretty well, although I know he misses LA at times."
The Naccarato brothers are sons of longtime Tacoma sports promoter Stan Naccarato, whose parents were restaurant owners in Spanaway.
"Nana made wonderful food and Papa - fantastic Italian minestrone soup, " wrote Gordon Naccarato in 2012 when asked about his family's history with food.
Good eating distilled from his maternal side, as well. "My Grandma Wallsten was from Sweden, and she made amazing cookies year-round, and her Swedish pancakes were amazing. She also hooked all of us kids on coffee at a very young age. To this day the smell of coffee reminds me of walking into her home."
The brothers first opened the Beach House at Purdy in 2002, followed by Pacific Grill in the historic Waddell Building in downtown Tacoma in 2005, with business partner Joe Hardwick Jr.
In 2008, the brothers closed the Beach House at Purdy, finding it difficult to attract diners outside the summer dining season. Gordon Naccarato describes closing that restaurant as a painful moment in his career.
But in 2012, Naccarato opened Classics by Pacific Grill, a cafe at LeMay-America's Car Museum. Next followed Shake Shake Shake, a retro-themed burger restaurant. Naccarato is a partner at Shake 3 with his brother and Tacoma artist Robert Stocker. Gordon Naccarato helped design the simple menu of straightforward, roadside burgers served with fries and shakes.
His decade-long restaurant tenure has earned Naccarato respect and accolades from locals entrenched in South Sound food culture. John Idstrom, who works as a fundraiser for nonprofit organizations and also publishes a cooking blog called Meezenplace, struck up a friendship with Naccarato.
Idstrom, an inquisitive home cook looking to perfect his techniques, mentioned always wanting to work in a professional kitchen, but without taking on cooking as a career. To his surprise, Naccarato told him to secure a food handler's card and come practice in the kitchen at Pacific Grill.
Idstrom immersed himself in 10 sessions, a valuable experience not often relegated to an amateur cook, Idstrom said.
Idstrom said he was struck by Naccarato's attention to technical detail and how he motivated his chefs.
"I went into his kitchen relishing the experience and thinking it'd be like Anthony Bourdain's Kitchen Confidential - with all the sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll. Gordon's kitchen couldn't be more unlike that. Very rarely a raised voice; very professional, " said Idstrom.
"Guys like Gordon really have excelled at the transition, from cook to businessman, " said Idstrom. "He'll go out to the dining room and answer everybody's (questions) with a smile on his face, with grace and humility. That's what makes him so great, plus his impeccable standards."
His latest endeavor
Naccarato's new project, Smoke + Cedar, is a less upscale concept than Pacific Grill, a handsome destination as much for business meetings as anniversary celebrations.
Instead of calling it fine dining, Naccarato calls Smoke + Cedar "fun dining, " a golf course restaurant that feels nothing like a country club, despite its locale. (The building belongs to the Elks Lodge, which moved to Allenmore after selling its property across the street to developers).
The building's architecture looks to be a Northwest-style lodge from the outside, but Naccarato wanted a different take inside. He hired designers at Seattle's McVey Oakley Design Studio, a firm that also helped Naccarato design Pacific Grill as well as Seattle icons SkyCity at the Space Needle and Elliott's Oyster House.
"The bar is gorgeous and is my favorite - massive rough-hewn alder bar top with a natural edge. Pressed tin ceiling that is painted red, a wall has a whimsical elk smoking a pipe. There are two art pieces that have painted tree trunks arranged on the wall. The carpet is a riot of color as I want to be able to serve breakfast in there on a cold rainy winter morning and have the place still feel cheery, " wrote Naccarato in an email.
The food also was created through the lens of a modern Northwest lodge. Named with a nod to its location on Cedar Street, the other half of the restaurant's name is taken from the on-site smoker and Naccarato's appreciation for smoke-infused foods.
Diners will find cedar-planked salmon, blow-torched prime rib and smoky bourbon chicken wings. House-smoked tomatoes fuel the ketchup on the house burger, smoked onions flavor the jus for the French dip, and smoked martini olives are served in specialty cocktails.
Also on the menu: Naccarato's penchant for modernizing American diner food. Chicken fried steak shows up twice - with herbed fries and sawmill gravy at dinner and as a sandwich at lunch. Appetizers include something that sounds straight out of a 1970s housewarming party: pimento cheese dip. It also happens to be a riff on the cheese spread served in Augusta at the Masters golf tournament - another nod to Smoke + Cedar's golf course home base.
With his latest restaurant opening behind him, ask Naccarato what it's like and he'll be honest by calling it "grueling." "The process is long and frustratingly slow, but it is always that way."
Restaurant openings are an ever-evolving learning process. Take, for instance, Naccarato's decision to at first open Smoke + Cedar only for dinner and only by reservation, eventually opening for lunch and breakfast after the initial week or so. That decision was a response to his brother's Stadium neighborhood burger restaurant opening that yielded lines out the door, a burdensome situation for any restaurant owner to manage.
"It is always chaotic when you first open a new restaurant. It is all about choreography. Where does everything go? I liken it to an out-of-town tryout before moving the play to Broadway. In today's social media world, it is hard if not impossible to have a soft opening, " he wrote via email.
Is he looking forward to the next restaurant? That might not be a good question to ask Naccarato right now: "Whoever thinks opening a restaurant is fun is literally mad, " wrote Nacarrato by email, signing off with a smiley face emoticon.
Sue Kidd: 253-597-8270