David Van Gelder is no stranger to the exotic and curious. He’s worked his way through the food industry where he started out as a dishwasher at the fresh age of 14, to now, where as head chef of Teatro ZinZanni – Seattle he serves 285 people four to six or seven times a week. Read on as Van Gelder shares some interesting highlights from his career and talks about the “show behind the show” backstage in the kitchen.
Originally from a small farm in Mobile, Alabama, Van Gelder first learned to bake from his grandmother, Lois Mable Gartman. “She was a great cook for over sixty years. With her guidance, Pecan Pie was the first thing I conquered.”
Van Gelder moved to the Northwest and started his first job as a dishwasher at the Sun River Lodge in Oregon. He was there for five years and worked his way up to Sous-Chef and eventually the position of Kitchen Manager. After he received his degree from Western Culinary Institute in Portland, he became the head chef for Cruise West Corporation from 2000-2004. Cruise West, Inc. is a small ship cruise-line company that provides travel focused on a destination and its scenery, wildlife, natural history, and culture. “They’re sea-based, 180 guest vessels, where the staff pitches together and does EVERYTHING. Every meal is made to order. I had 18 people on my staff and there was zero turn-over in 2 ½ years. We were tight!”
During this time he also tried his hand at American Safari Cruises, which just celebrated their 60th anniversary. This was also when he earned his captain’s license. “Being the executive chef for an ultra luxury cruise line was a great experience. We were a small yacht, but for a week, someone could charter us for $100K and get 6 crew members to every 12 guests.”
Working for a cruise line may seem like an exotic and exciting experience, but it’s life on the road. “You’re always gone. I needed a break from the boats so I came to ZinZanni to ‘settle down.’” Van Gelder learned about Teatro ZinZanni from a friend who was a server and decided to give it a shot. “Going from a la carte to production was an easy transition.” Producing 285 five-course gourmet meals each night may seem like no small feat, but Van Gelder credits a lot to his staff. “I can’t look at every single plate that goes out, it’s a timing thing, so I really have to trust my amazing staff. I’ve watched them grow over the years into a finely-tuned machine. We’re a family.”
While turning out nearly 300 timed meals each night, the kitchen also customizes meals for patron’s dietary restrictions. “We do everything: Kosher; food allergies like nuts, gluten, dairy; macrobiotic, pureed raw food diets… you name it, we never say no.” Van Gelder has even gone so far as to personally run down the street to the store for special ingredients. The kitchen typically gets between 2-15 special dietary requests each night.
Although special dietary restrictions can sometimes alter the menu, there are a few staples to the menu that have become audience favorites. “Every year it’s the same: the Mushroom Strata and the Butternut Squash Soup. People come back to the show just for the those!” Those delicious signature items require the finest ingredients and Van Gelder admits to buying organic as much as possible. “It just makes better food. We really try to go for corn-fed beef from Eastern Washington, and hormone-free and cage-free eggs. We get our fish fresh from Juneau or Ketchikan, Alaska.”
Running the kitchen at ZinZanni has definitely made for some memorable moments over the years. “I love when the shows change because we do menu tastings at the Palace Kitchen.” The Palace Kitchen, along with Etta’s, The Dahlia Lounge, Serious Pie, Lola’s, and Seatown, are all owned by renowned Seattle chef Tom Douglas who designs the menu for Teatro ZinZanni. “Tom and I work closely together with the menu selections. Every time the menu changes he ups the ante and does more intricate dishes. It’s a challenge to change it up every 3-4 months, but it keeps it fresh.”
While changing the menu so frequently may bring challenges, so do special requests from the crew. Every night the kitchen prepares two different meals for the cast and crew before and after curtain. “The crew is big on salads and fruits, but there’s often requests for Blackened Salmon, Pasta Carbonara, BBQ or Mexican dishes. Each artist has a unique request too. While some artists only eat meat and cheese, a lot of the European and circus performers are very healthy and big on protein. Whatever it is, they’re all VERY hungry after the show so it has to be ready!”
And ready it always is. Whether it’s a special dietary need, a particular food craving, or just getting out the five-courses to 285 people nightly, Van Gelder and his crew pull it all off with the effortless class of true professionals. We tip our hats off to you!
– interview by Beth Brooks, Director of Communications, edited by Jennifer Watkins, Marketing Associate