Anthony Hubbard, 39, is executive chef of CHOW Foods, a Seattle-based management company with five neighborhood restaurants, including The 5 Spot in Queen Anne. CHOW’s restaurants are not glitzy, cookie-cutter copies. Walk into The 5 Spot, for instance, and you step into a comfortable, neighborhood diner that’s been in Queen Anne for decades. There’s vinyl-upholstered booths, a curving counter and locally-made original art displayed around bright, mustard-colored walls. The art and menus proclaim The 5 Spot’s food theme -- South Carolina. But that’s about the change.
Q: Do I understand that The 5 Spot is going through a menu change?
Anthony Hubbard: Your timing’s perfect. We change our menu three times a year. We’re just wrapping up Charleston, S.C., and getting ready to launch Cuba. This is exciting. This is our first non-American menu.
Q: So this new Cuban menu is rolling out when?
Hubbard: Wednesday, July 6.
Q: I see you’ve got art up that evokes South Carolina. Will the art change?
Hubbard: Absolutely. Everything changes. From the menu cover to the decor. Some of this art was even done by people who work at this restaurant. We also have a long list of local artists. We send out an email: “OK, everybody, our next theme is Cuba. We’d like a picture of, say, Fidel Castro, or of a 1957 Chevy.” Send us your idea and we’d be happy to put your art up on the wall.
That’s so cool.
Hubbard: Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. It adds some authenticity and a little something extra that other theme restaurant don’t always have.
Q: How do you work with Jim McCarthy, The 5 Spot’s chef, to develop menus?
Hubbard: Jim and Holly Olson, the (general manager) at The 5 Spot, they get to choose where they want to go. The 5 Spot’s mandate is to represent the foods of America. We try to migrate around the country, based on the season. So Jim and Holly will say, “OK, it’s summertime. It’s been awhile since we’ve done a Latin-inspired menu. We’d like a nice, bright menu.” So they select Cuba. Then myself and Peter Levy will get together and discuss the merits and potential drawbacks. Once we come up with an agreement, then Jim and his staff will start developing the menu. They tap into their creativity and do their research on the region. And every week, they’re tasting concepts dishes. They’ll bring a new dish to the table, they’ll talk about the inspiration, they tear it apart, retool it. Then, a couple weeks before the menu starts, we bring in the entire staff and they taste the whole menu.
Q: Tell me about your background. What drew you to CHOW Foods?
Hubbard: I’ve been cooking professionally for 25 years. I’m from Seattle originally. I moved away, went to culinary school. Cooked all over the hemisphere, basically. I came back home because I had the opportunity to open my own restaurant. This was in 2000, 2001. We had a tech bubble here at the time, and all this Microsoft money was creating a false positive, if you will.
After I failed spectacularly at my own venture, I took stock. CHOW Foods was opening a restaurant every 16 to 24 months. I said, “It’s time to learn what I don’t know. Time to get in with a good operator.” You know, honestly, my intention was not to stick around for a decade and a half. It was to learn how a successful business is run from the ground up. I took a job as a sous chef and I’m still here.
Q: What was the name of your restaurant?
Hubbard: Harbor Place. It was a bit of a flash in the pan. Down on First and Union. Prior to that, I was a chef in New York. I did a lot of traveling. I was a chef on a private luxury train for a number of years.
Hubbard: That probably is the job that most influences me in the work I do here with CHOW Foods. Because I did a lot of traipsing around the country, I’ve worked with local chefs and vendors in Charleston. I have literally been to all these places (featured at The 5 Spot).
Q: Were there Seattle-area chefs that you worked with that influenced you or mentored you?
Hubbard: Yes. Rut Polidatmontri. He was a Thai chef, a partner in Harbor Place. He taught me a lot about flavor building. We have a saying: You don’t go to culinary school to learn how to cook. You go to culinary school to learn how to be professional, to learn the basics of the techniques, the vocabulary, the product categories. But there’s no substitute for actually working and learning in the field. And he’s the guy who taught me how to make delicious food.
Q: Tell me about your culinary school.
Hubbard: I went to Johnson & Wales University in Providence, Rhode Island. Two years, very intensive, classic French technique.
Q: What advice do you give to people who say they want to be a professional chef?
Hubbard: Work, travel, read.
Q: What do you recommend for reading?
Hubbard: Start with the classics -- “Larousse Gastronomique,” Madeleine Kamman’s book, “The Making of a Cook.” It’s like any other field. If you want to broaden your horizons, you’ve got to keep absorbing information. There’s so many great ideas out there. There’s no one way to cook, no one overriding philosophy we all subscribe to.
Reading is also the flip side of the coin to working. Any chef will tell you same thing — you wake up, go to work, go to sleep, and that’s it. Any creativity energy you have gets tapped at the restaurant. Your opportunities to learn become limited. You’ve got to be actively look for more data entry, more stimuli, and reading is the best way to do it. When I interview somebody, I always ask them, “What are you reading?”
Q: So what are you reading right now?
Hubbard: I’m rereading Danny Meyer’s book, “Setting the Table.” I’m reading a lot about Latin cuisine. And I try to balance it with some non-culinary stuff.
Q: So what do you do when you’re not working? Do you have a family?
Hubbard: I have a wife, a 7-year-old daughter, a 3-year-old son, a 1-year-old dog.
Q: Do you spend time with them?
Hubbard: I do. You know, being the family of chef is not the easiest thing. When I’m working on new projects, sometimes they have to come to work to see me. Because I go to work before the kids are awake and I don’t come home until after they are asleep.
Q: So when you’re off work, who cooks in your house?
Hubbard: I cook. (Laughs) Oh, yes. That never turns off. Both my kids love to cook, so they’re in the kitchen, cracking eggs and making omelets. My daughter spent a couple months making salad dressing. I’ve got a menu for her “restaurant” on my cell phone that we work on every week. She loves it.
Food’s a big part of my life whether I’m in the restaurant or not. Generally, on the weekend, I’ll take a day and prepare the basics for a week’s worth of meals. I’ll make a batch of chili or brine a couple chickens or rub a pork loin, so in those limited hours a do have, I can come home and make good food.