Features Keeping Employees Motivated Through Tough Times: An Interview with Christine Keff of Flying Fish—Seattle, WA
Keeping Employees Motivated Through Tough Times: An Interview with Christine Keff of Flying Fish—Seattle, WA
July 2009

Chef Christine Keff has been running Seattle’s Flying Fish for 14 years and counting, but this seasoned chef knows how to keep things fresh. With a large sustainable seafood selection and a committment to using local, organic produce, Keff has long been ahead of culinary trends in her efforts to produce consistantly high quality food that keeps people coming back.

While other restaurants have been struggling to stay open during the downswing in the economy, Keff’s primary concern has been keeping her well-established restaurant on the cutting edge of the Seattle dining scene. And what she’s done has worked—the economy is looking up and Flying Fish has successfully weathered the storm. We talked with Keff about her plans for keeping the restaurant exciting, how she’s survived in this economy, and what she wishes she’d done differently.

Antoinette Bruno:  I was curious about the artwork in your restaurant. Tell me about the photography.
Christine Keff: I collect a lot of photography so we have it all over the restaurant. These were the first ones I bought. The artist is a crazy photographer in Oakland. He was the photographer for the Monterey Jazz Festival—that's Billy Holiday. Most are from the 60's.

AB: I noticed a lot of Asian flavors with your food. Where did the influence come from?
CK: I travelled a lot to Southwest Asia and Indonesia; those flavors really work well with seafood. I spent six months in Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, and Japan.

AB: What is American cuisine to you?
CK: It's an attitude. The fact that we are not bound by tradition, it gives us the freedom to fool around.

AB:  Are you cooking with sous vide or using any of the new technologies?
CK: I'm interested in sous vide, but I’m not using it at the moment. We don't have a place for it right now.

AB: Do you have any regrets? If you could do something over what would it be?
CK: You know I had Fandango; originally it was sort of a smaller, less formal restaurant. I got carried away and made it too fancy. I think if I would have done it as I originally envisioned it we would have survived the downturn. You get tempted sometimes into being flashy. That's the one regret I have.

AB: What is the hardest thing you've had to do in your career?
CK: Oddly now is one of the hardest times—how to position a 14-year old restaurant.

AB: What has been the biggest accomplishment in your career?
CK: Being here for 14 years. This restaurant is really the biggest thing I've done in my life. Making a thing, a community; [the restaurant has] a life of its own, and it’s important to so many people. It's kind of awesome—and an awesome responsibility for all my staff. We are lucky.

AB: How is Flying Fish fairing in this economic downturn?
CK: We’re down like everybody and tightening our belts. We were in a pretty good position before it hit, which will help us ride it out.

AB: What have you done to help you get through it?
CK: The hardest decisions we made at the beginning were to cut staff. It was our responsibility to make the hard choices; it helps with the stress. This way we can give the remaining staff enough shifts and enough hours. We did this earlier rather than later; I learned that at Fandango. Timing was everything and it was very important that those decisions to get lean were made at the beginning and we didn't drag our feet. When we made those choices early on, it made the staff pull together. When they saw we were doing everything we could for them, they appreciated it and put in their all to make it work.

AB: What else are you doing to motivate your employees?
CK: You have to stay positive for your staff. They take the lead from us so you need to encourage them as much as you can. Also make staff meal as best as you can—it really counts now.

The good weather and the tourists are in Seattle, so things are looking up. We're taking our staff on a lot of field trips to places like wineries and oyster farms. We’re also having a few parties to keep everyone up. And it's summer here—hard to be unhappy.

AB: Who is the coolest chef you've ever worked for?
CK: Seppi Rengli. He was the executive chef of the Four Seasons Restaurant in New York.

AB: What did you like about him?

CK: I got my commitment to quality from him. He was an absolute stickler when it came to product but he was also a kind man.