Ask chef Charlie McManus a simple cooking question and you’ll get a five-minute earful about technique and history, you might exit the conversation with a much broader knowledge of something fun or complicated – like how a biga works (it’s a sourdough starter that McManus uses to give his pizzas their distinctive tang). Wife Jacqueline Plattner is a daily fixture managing the operations at Primo Grill, the Sixth Avenue Tacoma restaurant the couple opened in 1999. They also opened Crown Bar, a few blocks away, in 2007. That eatery is a pub serving high-end bar food and cocktails. Read a review published today about Primo Grill here.
Of all the chefs I’ve written about in Tacoma, McManus is the one who consistently has served diners locally sourced ingredients. He’s had a longtime partnership with Cheryl Oullette, who locals may know as Cheryl The Pig Lady, who provides McManus with a whole pig one Friday every month that McManus roasts overnight in his wood-fired oven and serves as a special all weekend. Dan Hulse, who owns Tahoma Farms in Orting, said he valued working for Primo Grill – he worked in the front of house busing tables while a college student. After Hulse started his own farm, McManus became a customer. Hulse said in a message that McManus and Plattner have made a difference for farmers who want to reach diners with their produce – a philosophy he said needs more support from Tacoma chefs. Wrote Hulse in a message, “When I started working at Terry’s Berries, a couple of years after graduating, and then when we started our own farm, Charlie and Jacqueline both have always been supportive of the local food and farming community. In a town with very few chefs and restaurants willing to work directly with farmers, their support makes a big difference. I just wish we saw more of it in Tacoma.”
I recently talked by phone with McManus and Plattner about their tenure at one of the longest operating chef-owned restaurant in Tacoma. Here are excerpts from that interview.
Q: How did the two of you wind up in Tacoma?
Charlie: We were living in Capitol Hill in Seattle in the late 1980s at the time.
Jacqueline: I was commuting to the first job I got out of college. I was working (down here). … I was familiar with the area. We went to purchase a house in 1990 up in Seattle – we were priced out of the market. So I suggested we look for a house here, that’s what we did.
Q: You’ve since moved?
Jacqueline: We live now near Titlow. … We have a lot where we’ve been able to plant an expansive garden. Friends gave us a beehive, we started the beekeeping thing. Because we’re above Titlow, we’re visited by birds. We registered the backyard as a refuge, sanctuary. It gave us an understanding about the birds and critters that are around.
Q: Jacqueline, how did you decide to quit your job and join Charlie at the restaurant?
Jacqueline: Charlie was at the Sheraton. We were working so many hours, we thought if we were going to work so many hours for other people, we thought we should work at our own business. His first and only job has been cooking.
Charlie: I was at the Sheraton, I started in (1993). I was chef at Altezzo, then chef-manager. When they renovated the Broadway Grill, they asked me to manage that, too. I had a lot of growth it was a great opportunity to work at the Sheraton.
Q: Where in Seattle did you work before coming to Tacoma?
Charlie: After I emigrated here from Ireland, I started in Pike Place Market as a dishwasher at Il Bistro (he worked his way up to cooking in the kitchen). I learned a lot and was immersed into the whole market thing. I think that’s where I got my love of cooking seafood and wild salmon. From there, I worked at Ristorante Mamma Mellina in Seattle. It was an Italian restaurant. I learned the southern Italian from them.Then Ponti Seafood Grill. I worked there one and a half years as daytime sous chef. … From there, I got the job in Tacoma. I was there six years. Always in the back of my mind was opening my own restaurant.
Q: When you were thinking of opening your own restaurant, why did the two of you pick Sixth Avenue?
Charlie: Having worked downtown at Altezzo and seeing the downtown scene, we weren’t sure about (staying there). We were looking for neighborhoods. We looked in Stadium, we looked at Proctor. We looked at UP. It seemed to me and Jacqueline that the Sixth Avenue district was a great district because it had so much history involved – Sixth Avenue being the road to the Narrows Bridge before the freeway was built. The neighborhood was vibrant and lots of people and a well traveled road and pretty distinct. We felt we could do it. There was nothing there. E9 and Lorenzo’s – there was nothing really else along the street. We thought it would work. The economy was in an upswing; it was a good time in the economy. When we opened it, there hadn’t been an independent chef-driven restaurant opening in 20 years that was well capitalized. The last one was Lobster Shop down on the water.
Jacqueline: On Sixth, what gave us confidence was Met Market opened at that time. They were able to pull a good crowd of foodies. It seemed that was a good indication that the area was ready for something different.
Q: Tell readers about your decision in 2007 to open Crown Bar, just a few blocks away from Primo Grill.
Charlie: We wanted to make a purchase of a commercial building, not to have as a business, but an investment, a retirement plan. We found out that Gary (of Gary’s Steakout) was floating the idea of selling the building. He hadn’t advertised it, we went to talk to him. We had seen the space, he did the woodwork. We thought this would make a great bar. It’s got great bones it’s got this super, super feel that’s really relaxed. … We wound up buying the building. We talked about what kind of place we wanted, while it has Irish roots in Crown Bar in Belfast, we didn’t want to be the Irish bar, known as that. … What we wanted it to be was to be a pub to have some good food. It’s more of Irish in style, not the usual bar you would think of.
Q: Tell readers about the menu at Primo Grill – have you always liked cooking a broad range of Mediterranean cuisines? Is that your favorite style of food to cook?
Charlie: It’s kind of what I do. It’s funny, as a chef, you work in various places. … The food that you work on will kind of inform your style as you pick up techniques and sensibilities. I think my time at Il Bistro and Ponti both helped me in different ways – whether it’s the feeling of how the food should taste and the ethnic style of the food, it’s what I’m comfortable doing.
Q: If you chose to cook another type of cuisine in a restaurant setting, what would it be?
Charlie: I think I would pare the cuisine I’m doing. We try and do that – pare it down a little bit and make it even more simple. … As I go along, I want the food to be a little simpler and elevate the particular ingredients. … That’s the way I’m thinking about food these days – the essence of great ingredients, big flavors and local.
Q: Can you tell readers about your wood-fired oven and grill?
Charlie: Both the oven and grill are difficult pieces of equipment for a lot of different reasons. The oven is five foot in diameter. It’s a Wood Stone wood oven – they’re in Anacortes. We’re one of the few restaurants around to have (an older one). That was 13 years ago. It’s not gas assisted at all. … The oven weighs a ton. It had to be put in the restaurant before the walls were put in. It had to be trucked in and put in place. The oven imparts a magical flavor. The way the dome works in all dome ovens of that type – the hot air and some of the smoke circulates almost 360 degrees before it goes out of it. … It’s a beehive shape. We build a fire on a certain side of the oven, that rolls around the oven and runs around before coming out the front. You can see the air rippling over the top of the food in the oven. It gives a really sweet flavor. It’s the same thing with the grill – the food, the applewood we use in the grill imparts a really sweet flavor to the food, there’s a hint of smoke.
Q: That has got to be a tough piece of equipment to manage.
Charlie: They’re completely dynamic so that all the circumstances of using them are always in flux and always changing. If you’re cooking a lot of food, it robs the heat, the fire in the oven. The actual burning flames have to be in relation to the floor of the oven. Too much fire, food will burn on top. Not enough fire, things will cook on the bottom before they cook on top. There has to be a direct relationship between the heat retaining in the oven and the fire. Same with the grill, you always have to think about the fire and understand the fire you’re working with to get the best out of them.
Q: How hot does the oven get?
Charlie: It can get as hot as you want to do. For what we do, over 700 is too hot. The sweet spot for us is 660 to 680.
Q: How much wood go through?
Charlie: It really depends on the quality of the wood. Typically three cords a month. We have multiple sources. We had a longtime source that got out of the (business). We have a new (supplier). It comes from Eastern Washington. It’s 80 percent apple, some cherry and some pear, but it’s fruit wood we use.
Q: Your pizza is thin and crispy with just the slightest tug and such a great flavor, how do you get your crust that way?
Charlie: I use a biga, a starter. We feed it, feed it, feed it. … It’s a slurry of flour water and yeast; makes a very wet sticky dough. Each day we make pizza dough, we take the biga and make the pizza dough. We feed the biga with more flour, yeast, water and salt, we keep that going.
Q: Did you intend before you opened to have an open kitchen by design?
Charlie: I always wanted one. The idea behind the restaurant was … our idea was a dinner party in a friend’s home. The party is always in the kitchen. They’re always asking if they can help. I wanted to take the cooking process to the public. When we were opening, it was before the Food TV. The culture, the phenomenon had not started. When we opened, it was dynamic and unusual. … There weren’t real kitchens where the diners sat in front of the chef. When our customers see the team in action or the cooks in action – they understand what professional cooking is all about. They enjoy the process as much as the finished product. A lot of our customers ask to sit at the cooking line to see what’s going on.
Q: Who are the people working with you in the kitchen that you want readers to know about?
Charlie: Gloria Bazan, who has been with us eight years, Taronce Bell and Steve Daniels.
Q: What do they do? What are their titles?
Charlie: everybody is a line cook. One of the things I’m not big on is titles. Don’t call me chef, call me Charlie because I want us to be the same.