For seven years, Gordon Naccarato has operated one of Tacoma's top fine dining destinations - Pacific Grill in downtown Tacoma, located inside the historic Waddell Building. Naccarato's restaurant resume is three decades deep with stops at some of the finest West Coast kitchens of yesteryear and today - he's cooked with Mark Peel and Nancy Silverton at Campanile, Michael McCarty of Michael's in Santa Monica, and Jonathan Waxman, whom Naccarato credits for teaching him to view food from a playful perch.
The following excerpts are from a series of e-mail interviews with Naccarato, who not only owns Pacific Grill with business partner Joe Hardwick Jr., but has collaborated on a number of projects with his brother Steve Naccarato. One of those projects is Shake Shake Shake, a retro burger restaurant that will open in the Stadium neighborhood later this year. Stadium, by the way, is the high school from which Naccarato graduated in 1972. Read on.
Q: Your restaurant in Aspen, Colo. - Gordon's - was that a solo project for you? What was the menu like?
A: Besides the Paltrow family that was my first restaurant. Michael Grimsley was a partner that we bought out after year one, so for the first year the restaurant was called "Gordon & Grimsley's." The menu changed every day and we were written up in USA Today as having one of the first menus that used a computer to write a daily menu. 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.
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Q: Who are two or three chefs who have inspired or mentored you or who taught you the business? Who are they and what did they teach you?
A: Michael McCarty - owner of Michael's in Santa Monica where I first learned everything about being a restaurant owner. He is gifted. He first hired me and changed my life. He helped put L.A. on the culinary map, he was young and brash and put great art on the walls and gorgeous china and silver on the table and his motto was to throw a fabulous party every day. His attitude was infectious. And he hired great people.
Jonathan Waxman - I worked with Jonathan the first four years of my cooking career. Jonathan had worked in the Bay Area and with Alice Waters and was the true Chef of Michael's. Jonathan made food I wanted to eat and literally taught me how to cook. His genius was delicious combinations and simple presentations with a sense of humor. He would do fresh lobster with sauce “Miami” - simply because there was orange juice in the sauce. Playful. He loved to party and he loved tacos.
Mark Peel — Mark had worked at Ma Maison as Wolfgang Puck’s sous chef pre-Spago days. He worked briefly at Michael’s also, fell in love with Nancy Silverton (who was our cashier and who later created La Brea Bakery). When Mark left Michael’s he went North to work with Alice Waters and learned how to make simple pizzas and then went to work as the chef under Wolf at the original Spago in West Hollywood. When I got divorced and moved from Aspen back to L.A. I went to work for Mark and Nancy at Campanile for two years before moving to Miami. Mark reinforced the aesthetic of honest food cooked simply. An amazing roast leg of lamb charred over mesquite then buried in rosemary branches ... which was set ablaze after coming out of the oven to further reinforce the smoky flavor. Or creating an amazing olive tapenade over charred ribeye served over a simple bed of stewed cannellini beans with wilted greens.
Q: After working at restaurants around the country, how did you land back in Tacoma? Was that by design?
A: I moved back here to open a restaurant with my brother Steve, which we had talked about doing for years. I was between restaurants, and the timing was right ... my brother Steve and I had both worked in some of L.A.’s best restaurants, and we always talked about doing one together. Steve also came to Aspen and helped me open Gordon’s and train the front-of-house staff. Steve was the one that convinced me to move back to Tacoma from Los Angeles. He told me with all the museums downtown, condos and so on that Tacoma was ready for a restaurant downtown. Well we had that in mind but everyone at first told us to open the old Pearl’s By The Sea. It was a great place and business was fantastic during the summer but boy did it suck come winter. It was like killing one of your children to close the Beach House. People all the time tell me how they miss it. Sad. Steve later left to pursue his photography and is now in the midst of opening Shake Shake Shake—a great new hamburger joint in the Stadium District.
Q: How do you describe your food to someone who has never been to your restaurant?
A: When we first found the spot the menu seemed to write itself. The Waddell Building reminded me of restaurants—the look and feel of NYC. I wanted it to be classic—in the timeless sort of way—a bar and grill. It was on Pacific Avenue, so I thought Pacific Avenue –Pacific Ocean Bar & Grill –Pacific Grill. I describe the food as modern American. Not modernist however - no silly foams or “caviar” made out of gels and seaweed and no “tweezer food”—achingly presented on the plate. I can eat that food and appreciate the talent, but I prefer something a little more straightforward and simple. Food that tastes great that looks like itself.
Q: Who decorated the interior of Pacific Grill? What is the booth material made from? Who made those exposed light bulb chandeliers? What mood were you aiming for with the decor?
A: Restaurants are always a grand collaboration. You bring ideas and a lifetime of eating experiences from around the world when you design a space.The great design group Achitectura was recommended by a friend in the business who had them work on the iconic Ray’s Boathouse remodel as well as the remodel of the Space Needle. They did a great job and were very open to my brother Steve - who has a great eye - and my suggestions and ideas. That was a blast designing the space! The booth material is "ostrich," but it is man-made. I had seen the original Edison light bulbs used to great effect in Tom Colicchio’s Craft restaurant so I asked the designers to incorporate them somewhere in the restaurant. Those bulbs cost over $20 apiece! The one long sleek liquor shelf against the old brick I had seen in the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona in a restaurant that served tapas in this building from the 1200’s that had added some inspired modern touches within this ancient building that just looked so right—you file that image away not knowing when you might use it but then realize how perfect it would be – even though we considered more traditional shelving climbing the wall with a complicated ladder system. The restaurant being long and narrow reminded me of so many great restaurants in Manhattan, and one of my favorites was the casual Café Luxembourg, because it was also stylish - those great bistro chairs that I had also used in my Aspen restaurant and in my chef mentor’s - Jonathan Waxman’s - New York restaurants like Jams.
Q: From whom did you get your food sensibilities? Your dad? Mom? Your Swedish Grandma who let you put the olives on your fingers?
A: Both of my parents were fantastic cooks. I think my Mom actually learned some things from my Dad as his parents had cafes in the Spanaway area when we were kids. Nana made wonderful food and Papa—fantastic Italian minestrone soup. 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.
Q: You've had a lot of different pop-up concepts and sub-menus in your restaurant over the years. They include the noodle bar and a sushi bar. Is that your way to keep interested in what you're doing? Or is that for diners?
A: I have many ideas for restaurants, so some of the pop-ups are an exploration of that concept—like Noodle Bar Menu was developed as a stand-alone concept. The all-day happy hour is a concept for another stand-alone that has a name already chosen. Fried Chicken Night was fun to do once a week. The Sushi Bar was amazing and we had a full-on Sushi Master working it. The problem was I let the genie out of the bottle and the one sushi chef was unable to keep up with the demand in the Dining room. I never should have allowed the people to order from the menu unless you were at the Sushi Bar. So some of the dining room tables were mad, and then the wait was too long. Plus we had demand for large parties that we couldn’t accommodate so we decided -regrettably- to yank the sushi for more and larger tables.
Q: If you could open any dream restaurant in Tacoma, what would it be? What would you serve?
A: The next great burger joint has always been a dream to open with my brother Steve. We literally have been talking about this for years and years. So I am very excited to see that Shake Shake Shake is getting close to opening (late this year). We all have a favorite burger that we grew up with that becomes your model against which all burgers get compared. We want to be your favorite neighborhood burger. In California it would be In & Out, in Seattle—Dick’s—here in Tacoma, Frisko Freeze or Pick-Quick. This won’t be a “chef-y” burger. This will be a straightforward, roadside diner style burger. Inexpensive but with better products like hormone-free local Angus beef from the Tri-Cities. And house-made secret sauce. Very simple menu, 3-4 different burgers, a hot dog or two, fries and great shakes with seasonal local fruit like Puyallup berries, and so on. One will be the “Tiger Shake” -since Stadium HS is just one block away - blended with Almond Roca, salted caramel and chocolate tiger “stripes”.
I would do either concepts – Noodle Bar or the all day happy hour. Also I have always wanted to do an authentic Italian "joint" like Bimbo’s which we currently don't have in Tacoma—something along the lines of what my Italian Nana cooked for us. She showed me how to make her red sauce just a certain way…There are other concepts I have fleshed out—most already have menus—it is just maybe not quite right timing yet because of the economy. We have also been approached about taking Pacific Grill to Portland and so on.