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Seattle's Josh Henderson on Leadership & Culinary School

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Photo: S. Pratt

Seattle restaurateur Josh Henderson is in the midst of a major expansion kick right now, having recently opened up both a diner and a lakeside seafood restaurant before turning his attention to a whiskey-fueled tavern, a pastry shop, and more. Yesterday, in the first of a two-part interview, Henderson explained his philosophy behind this rapid expansion and why he thinks it's important not to micromanage his team.

In today's interview Henderson goes into a little more depth about what he thinks makes for good management, as well as the growth of the dining scene in Seattle. He also shares his thoughts on the rising costs of culinary school and minimum wage, arguing "you have to make people angry in order to get change."

Tell me more about Seattle as a food city.
I think we want to be a great food city, which helps. But I think we're a great food city for the way food was in the 2000s or maybe the 1990s. I want to see little neighborhood restaurants popping up everywhere. We've got big restaurants. We've got obviously the Tom Douglases of the world. But I want to see the little owner-operator chefs that have decided they want to open up in Ravenna or in Queen Anne or whatever. The best food block to me in the city, or one of them, is where Delancey is at up in Ballard: You've got Delancey, you've got a great bakery, you've got a little bar, you've got a little Italian joint, four or five little things that are just perfect. I just think we need to see more of that.

It seems to be centered a lot around downtown and Capitol Hill, but I think that in the next 10 years hopefully we start seeing it spread out to every part of the city. That's going to happen from chefs that work in these existing restaurants that want to go do their own thing and have the ability to do that. Portland kind of has that, but they're a smaller footprint, so they're able to do that. For us, we're a little bit spread out. So I want little neighborhoods to really kind of pop up. Those happen because you've got great bars and great little restaurants and things just percolate out from there.

Is it starting to happen?
Totally. I feel like this could be a part of that. [Westward is] not a small restaurant, but I don't think we're that large. We're a part of the neighborhood. This is not a conventional place to open a restaurant. There's no major work development areas around here. We're banking on being a neighborhood joint to a degree. That's where the oyster bar comes in.

I think that becoming the fabric of a neighborhood is an exciting thing. Someone said in the next 30 years Seattle will absorb the amount of population that Portland has. So over the next 30 or 40 years, we're going to bring another 1.5 million people into the city. What that's going to mean is that the density of the neighborhoods is just going to go up. So the neighborhoods need to be able to be a part of that. In my neighborhood, I would love to have a little grocery that I would walk to and get a growler. I'd love to have a little neighborhood bar that I could walk to and get a pint or a great burger or something. And then maybe I'd also love to have a place where I can go get a nice meal on a date with my wife.

So in your expansion, are you trying to go into different neighborhoods as you open?
It's not neighborhood specific, it's more project specific. I do think that Tom's model of having all his restaurants within a block or two of each other makes some sense. I'm not going to do that necessarily on a block level, but I'd like to be north of the city. I'm not going to probably open something in Tacoma. I'd probably keep it up north of the city. I mean, Woodinville is tough, but I think Woodinville is going to be a great market.

Westward, Seattle. [Photo: S. Pratt]

I thought it was interesting reading your profile on the Skillet website where you said that you went to the CIA and then realized you didn't want to be in restaurants.
I didn't want to work on the line in a restaurant, yeah. Ultimately, it just took me a long time to figure out I didn't want to work for anybody. That was the thing. (laughs) That took me about 10 years to get to the point where I could say that and actually do it. I've just never been really good at working for somebody. It's a control thing.

So how was it becoming the boss then and developing management skills?
I was kind of thrown into being the boss early on, right out of culinary school when I was working for a catering company. If you have leadership tendencies, they tend to kind of show up in a room pretty quickly. That's what ended up happening. So I'm comfortable being a leader. But I also realize what things I should and shouldn't be doing. I know the areas that after 40 years I'm not going to probably change.

The biggest piece of leadership to me is knowing what a business needs to be successful and then being able to put people in the right positions. It sounds very cliche, but it's letting [people] do what they do and not constantly being like, "Are you doing it? Where are you at with that?" I mean, people fucking hate that. If you work in a job and you feel like your superior trusts you, there's an amazing amount of freedom. I've worked in jobs where I know they don't trust me, regardless of what I may have shown or not shown. It's like walking around with cement on your feet. You cannot operate. The minute you can feel comfortable in your job is when people will succeed and thrive. That's what I want to create. I want to make sure we have a group of people that truly are able to thrive.

The last thing I want to ask your thoughts on your experience with culinary school.
One of the greatest experiences of my life was going to the CIA. I loved it. I loved everything about it. But I think I just paid off my student loans. Which is crazy. The student loan thing, that's the next financial crisis. Everybody knows it. It's coming. There is such disparity between a cook who has $60,000 to $80,000 in debt coming out of culinary at the CIA and then makes $12 an hour. There are so many things wrong about that on so many levels. Culinary schools are doing a complete disservice to people by charging that and capitalizing on this whole food thing and really just taking advantage of people. I think it's complete bullshit.

The best culinary school we have in town is our community college, Seattle Central. Hands down. Not only are they the best at what they do, but they also charge an appropriate price. A cook is still going to learn how to make a chicken stock wherever he goes. He's going to know how to filet a fish, he's going to know how to do mirepoix, make a brunoise, all these different things. Obviously there's different levels. At the CIA, it is the best cooking school in the country, bar none. But you also pay for it. And you're not paying for learning how to make a chicken stock. You're paying for that name and the connections that you get for going there. Which is fine. It's the same thing at Harvard or anywhere else. But the rest of the schools in the country, you're not going to go in there and come out an executive chef.

So I think all schools should go to a four-year program, whether it's four-year or a two-year. It should be two years of mandatory school and then two years that you pay for that you work in a restaurant or two restaurants. Because right now [internships are] just three months, but you do not get the level of experience you need by just working for three months and then having two years of school in any program. I just think there's not enough restaurant experience for these cooks that come out of here. There's very few culinary graduates we hire.

Ballard Skillet Diner, Seattle. [Photo: S. Pratt]

Is that on purpose?
There's not enough cooks in the city. That's going to be the case for the next 10 years. When Tom Douglas hires 75 people for his new space, that pretty much depletes the market. So it's going to be an interesting next five to 10 years because you're going to need good cooks, you're going to have to pay them more, and then the talent isn't necessarily there yet. It's always this sort of push and pull of where the market is at and where the inventory is at.

So culinary schools, I think they're necessary... But it's really disheartening to think how many people a) actually cook after they go to culinary school, b) default on their loans, c) cook and don't default on their loans, or d) don't cook and don't default on their loans and just pay that for the next 20 years. It's stupid. It bothers me a lot. As you can see.

Yeah I can tell.
There's nothing wrong with what you learn in a culinary school. It's always what you get out of it. The only reason I did well in culinary school is because I was 100 percent committed. I made a commitment that I was going to learn everything I could. And it was, for me, the tipping point, the reason that I'm here. But there's like out of 10 people in school, there's going to be one or two people that are really successful in culinary school. But then there's different levels of success. Maybe someone's going to be a food and beverage manager for Aramark at the convention center. That's a great job. But everybody goes into school looking at Tom Douglas and they're like, "I want to be a chef at my own restaurant." I don't think there's enough clarity and realism.

What is the rate for line cooks here?
$12 or $13 to start. But it's going to go up. Tom Douglas said he's going to start paying $15 minimum wage for his cooks. I think that needs to happen. This gets to a greater social question, but it bothers me that in 1950 or 1960 as a teacher you could buy a home and have a family and maybe your wife or husband could stay home. And now even with two salaries teaching you still can't buy a home.

I think we need to push things. I don't know where you push because all the money is going to the top. So by increasing the minimum wage, I don't know if that puts it on the backs of the consumer. But, I mean, you piss off the consumer enough, maybe then they'll also push back against the top? I don't know where you effect the change to make people angry enough to cause change. But you have to cause change and you have to make people angry in order to get change. It's not going to happen from the government. It's not going to happen from us passing laws. It's going to happen because somebody's fucking pissed off.

The problem is it's so hard to connect that.
Yeah. It's not one issue, you fix that and it's all good. With street food and us, it was the same thing. There was no street food policy in Seattle [when we started Skillet]. I knew we were going to piss some people off. We got shut down a ton, the health department didn't know what to do with us. Seattle Department of Transportation didn't know what to do with us. We were out there doing street food in the city when there was nothing happening. And now — I'm not saying we're the only reason — there's 30 or 40 trucks here in town, probably more, that legally vend in Seattle. And that wasn't the case five years ago. So change happens because you make people mad and you cause them to take a step back. No one ever will do it on their own.

How is the food truck scene going here?
It's kind of defining itself. It will for I think another five to 10 years. Food trucks, to me, the market sort of sets it. If you have six crepe trucks in town in a very young market, in two or three years maybe there's only one or two because they're the best at what they do. So the market hasn't really sort of fleshed itself out. There's a lot of trucks that probably won't be here in a year or two or three, but that's just the way the market works. I think people realize that it's an entry level to brick-and-mortar. It's a great way to go. It gives you the ability to see if people like your food. Whereas you only lose $150,000 versus a half million if you go out of business.

A better risk.
Yeah exactly. Lower barrier to entry.

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2501 n northlake way, Seattle, WA

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