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May 7, 2012 at 9:30 PM

Seattle chefs Matt Dillon and Tom Douglas win big at James Beard awards

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When Matt Dillon’s mom heard he was a finalist in the 2012 James Beard Awards, known as the Oscars of the food world, she warned him that this was the year of the women, so to wait and see.

In the end, the awards were a win all around.

Dillon (“being a man, but from a long line of feminists”) took home the top honors and a gleaming medal as Best Chef: Northwest at the award ceremony at Lincoln Center. Tom Douglas was named the nation’s Outstanding Restaurateur, inspiring cheers and jubilation (he’d been a finalist enough times to inspire Susan Lucci references.)

Dillon was thrilled for them both — for what the honors meant for Seattle, and what they meant for the women in his life.

First, he talked to his mom. “She was the first person I called. Actually, she’s the only person I’ve called,” he said by phone from the ceremony.

From the stage, he paid tribute to Christina Choi, a former colleague and virtual family member who died this year, far too young. Her wonderful Nettletown restaurant had operated in the original Sitka and Spruce after Dillon moved his first restaurant to Capitol Hill. “Having Christina pass away this year…I couldn’t think of any more reason to set my thoughts toward bringing (the award) home,” he said. “She understood hunger and how to feed people in a way that I don’t think many people really know…Hunger is the reason we do all this stuff, it’s the reason restaurants exist, and she had a hold of that.”

And he thanked Emily Crawford, his co-chef at The Corson Building, who he called “100 times the chef I’ll ever be.

“She’s always changed the way I thought about food, and I would be nowhere if it wasn’t for her,” he said. (I had to disagree about that part, admire Crawford as I do.)

“It really was the year of the women.”

And for him?

The Beard is an honor, he said, but “I’m just a representative of the city.” And he’s happy to see the validation for Seattle, after all the times he’s visited New York or Paris or other leading food meccas and thought what we had was every bit as stunning. “Seattle’s got it,” he said. And I’ll say it for him, so does he.

“I cook for the people that come into the restaurant…” he said. “I want people that are hungry to feel fed. That’s what it’s all about.”

Here’s a list of national winners, and our coverage of the earlier awards for journalism and books, which included a Beard for our own Maureen O’Hagan. Seattle’s only other finalist was Jason Franey of Canlis, who was up against Dillon for Best Chef: Northwest, along with Portlandites Christopher Israel of Gruner, Naomi Pomeroy of Beast, and Cathy Whims of Nostrana.

Photo courtesy of Nancy Leson (yes, of course she was there!): Dillon at the awards ceremony with friend and forager Jeremy Faber.

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