Chefs Brian McCracken and Dana Tough
Spur | Seattle
Brian McCracken and Dana Tough opened Spur Gastropub in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood in the summer of 2008. The friends’ collaboration dates back to their time in the kitchen at Earth & Ocean restaurant, where they worked together under chef Maria Hines (2009 Rising Star Sustainability Award winner).
Tough, a Montana native of Cuban heritage, has spent a dozen years cooking in the Puget Sound region. After graduating from the culinary arts program at South Seattle Community College, he began with the opening of Waterfront Seafood Grill with his first mentor, Vicky McAfree, and in 1999 went on to Tulio with Chef Walter Pisano. From there, Tough was sous chef at Bandol and then lead cook at Earth & Ocean. When Hines left to open Tilth, Tough came along as chef de cuisine.
McCracken was born into a family of fishermen, farmers and restaurateurs. He graduated from Western Culinary Institute and has staged at Eleven Madison Park in New York and worked at Silks in San Francisco, Restaurant Nora in Washington, DC, and at Earth & Ocean in Seattle. Prior to opening Spur with Tough, McCracken launched Flyte, a catering company which offered tasting menus for private dining experiences on location in Washington State.
Spur is considered a bar by Seattle law and as such is 21-and-over, hence the “gastropub” title. The food, however, can reach a level of creativity and elegance that makes for a highly evolved and exciting gastropub experience.
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Heather Sperling: How did you two meet?
Dana Tough: Brian and I met while working together at Earth & Ocean at the W Seattle (under Maria Hines). I left with Maria to open Tilth, and Brian opened his own catering company called Flyte. I was chef de cuisine at Tilth.
Brian McCracken: Flyte was a small catering business; we did tasting menus on-location that were always fairly formal. I came across this space while looking for a location to run the catering out of. Dana and I had been talking about this concept for a long time, so I called him up, and we started talking, and we decided to move forward with it.
HS: How do you come up with the menu?
DT: It's totally collaborative. It's very seasonally driven. We deal with a lot of farmers locally, and fisherman. We're not strictly local…
BM: It's about the best product we can find. And we get the best by dealing with the producers directly themselves. We both do desserts.
HS: What is your creative process?
BM: One of us will come up with the idea most of the time…
DT: …and then we'll tweak it together…
BM: …and make it the best dish we can come up with.
DT: It's very spontaneous. I feel like being spontaneous…
BM: …it helps to cook from the heart. We don’t over-think things.
DT: Portions of our menu are very much classic combinations – done differently.
HS: When did you start playing with new techniques (sous vide, encapsulation, etc)?
DT: At the W, actually, in 2003/2004. We were involved in getting the sous vide machine in there, the Thermomix…
BM: That was the good thing about working in a big hotel like that. There was money to get the tools.
DT: We didn’t play around with a whole lot of additives. Maria’s style was very organic. She enjoyed eating those kind of things, but not putting them on the menu…like spherification.
HS: What techniques are you into right now?
DT: We’re beginning to play around with Activa.
BM: …papers, glass….
DT: A lot of that stuff is showing up in our desserts a bit more. We made the chocolate soil by melting it into tapioca maltodextrin.
HS: What are your favorite culinary resources?
DT: We’ve been checking out post-modern pantry on the Alinea Mosaic, WillPowders, Texturas. And then a whole lot of trial and error.
BM: We do a lot of internet and cookbook research. We spend a lot of time reading and a lot of time at markets. We have farmers that pull up in the alley and we hop into their truck and pick out what we want.
DT: Annie, one of our farmers, drops off 20 varieties of heirloom French melons. Some of them are musty, some smell like bubble gum. So a lot of ideas come from the products we get—how we can manipulate them, or keep them in their natural form.
BM: We approach each product like a wine tasting—picking out the aromatics and character and then moving on from there.
DT: We’re doing pralines with desserts—caramelized black pepper with the melon sorbet—that was inspired by WillPowder.
BM: The main thing with incorporating new techniques is not to use them just to wow diners—it needs to make sense with the dish.
DT: [The technique] can’t be the star; and there should always be recognizable ingredients on the plate.
HS: When did you open?
DT: The third week of July . People are responding really well. It’s a funny neighborhood—a lot of foot traffic on the weekend, but not the week. People are really surprised. A lot of industry people come in.
HS: Who do you consider influential?
DT: Maria Hines—I really learned the management side of things from her. I spent a lot of time with Walter Pisano and Vicky McCaffree as well.
BM: I really look up to Danny Meyer. He’s able to put together so many great restaurants that stay open and do well. I look up to Ferran Adriá, Wylie Dufresne, Heston Blumenthal. They are able to extend the reach of what other chefs are able to do. My biggest mentor is my father. He’s a restaurateur in Seattle. When it comes to business and management, he’s been a huge mentor in that regard.
HS: What are some ingredients that you like to work with?
BM: In this area it’s always, like, take a couple of Northwest staples and call it a day.
DT: Like heirloom tomatoes. But beefsteak tomatoes can be even better, because they have higher acidity…
BM: …if they come from a great farm! Our bison burger is one of the most simple burgers out there—just a nice burger patty and peppercorn aioli and provolone, but between the cheese and the meat is a huge slice of beefsteak tomato that is almost as thick as the burger itself.
DT: It breaks up the richness.
BM: Yes. Acidity, in general, is underutilized. Brightness of flavor—it keeps you wanting to eat.
HS: What is one big challenge of running a kitchen together?
DT: There’s always the challenge of consistency. Communication—when we have days off and don’t see each other, but for the most part we work incredibly well together.
BM: Keeping in contact with each other is the biggest challenge. We want to give each other real days off, completely away from the restaurant. We worked four months without a single day off, so we’re trying to let each other recoup. And we’re so used to being in the groove together and being together when decisions are made, but now sometimes it’s a challenge.
HS: Where will we find you in five years?
BM: I have the goal of opening restaurants.
DT: That’s the goal.
BM: I want three restaurants in the Seattle market in five years. I have plans for other markets… but we’re still young. We got time!
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