The spicy scent of Asian-braised short ribs fills the air in Wolfdale’s kitchen on a quiet Friday afternoon before opening time. Douglas Dale, renowned Tahoe City chef and restaurateur, points across the lake toward the tip of Glenbrook, Nev. and tells me this building used to be a logger’s home, which was towed across the lake to Tahoe City. Douglas and his wife, Kathleen, bought the historic building on a whim in 1986 after they outgrew their previous restaurant in Homewood. At that time, they were considering a move to San Francisco, but when their low-ball offer was accepted the next day, the couple decided to stay in Tahoe City, a decision that has benefitted not only food lovers, but also the entire community.
Moonshine Ink: Can we start out with a little background information about you?
Douglas Dale: I was born and raised in Buffalo, New York. As a teenager, I bussed tables and worked in the kitchen at The Club Sheridan in Buffalo where my dad conducted a band, sang, and tap-danced for over 25 years. People still remember him. That made me feel very comfortable in the restaurant business, though I never had any intentions of becoming a restaurateur. I went to Antioch College in Ohio, which had an exchange program with Japan that Robert Kennedy started. In Tokyo, I went to Waseda University where they beat the language into us. I also took a martial arts class called aikido, and I do it to this day, and teach it. Then I became an apprentice to a potter in southern Japan where the mother of the family was a chef, so I’d come home and help her cook. When I returned [to the U.S.], I sold some ceramic ware to a Japanese chef in Boston, and suddenly I realized I wanted to learn more about what he did, so I became his apprentice for a year-plus.
MI: What brought you to Tahoe?
DD: My sister Deborah moved from San Francisco to Tahoe and asked me to help her, her husband Jerry, and my brother Tim start a restaurant. The four of us opened Wolfdale’s in Homewood in 1978. (The name is a blend of Jerry’s last name, Wolf, and our last name, Dale.) In six months, they realized they hated the restaurant business, so I bought them out.
MI: Was there a magic moment when you knew you’d be staying?
DD: I remember first coming up from the Reno airport over Mount Rose. I looked at the lake and my jaw dropped. I was just bedazzled. Remember, I had been living in large cities. I have to admit it has been the people that have kept me here. Meeting my wife, training my staff, becoming friends with customers, everything clicked for me socially. I felt there was a need for me. Nobody was doing anything I was doing when I got here, none of the Japanese classics. It took about two years, but my restaurant in Homewood was turning people away.
MI: How did you adjust to the changing economy?
DD: I made a very distinctive right turn into consistency. Before that I was doing whatever I wanted to do. The food world was exploding with ideas and innovation, so I was very liberated to cook, experiment, and not just do Japanese. When you’re experimenting with food, there’s always some percentage of waste. In the last handful of years I don’t know if I would have survived if I didn’t own this building. I care about the food, the wine, the service, the staff, the property, how it looks.
MI: It sounds like you had a natural instinct, which blossomed when you started this business.
DD: It takes self-reflection, durability, and a real determination to survive and get better. I’m finally at a place in my life where I’m trying to reflect and put things in perspective. The last few months I’ve been writing a cookbook. It’s also a memoir.
MI: You serve on the board of the Tahoe Truckee Community Foundation. Do you have another favorite local organization you like to support?
DD: Our personal one is the abalone dinner the last Monday of September, which benefits a different cause each year, and the Farm to Table dinner at Commons Beach in July. Tell people to come see me. I’m not done yet.
MI: Who would you recommend we interview next?
DD: Graham Rock of Graham’s at Squaw Valley. I think I gave him his first job around here. He’s very generous. He’s a great local business man.
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