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July 11, 2018, 6 a.m.
Terry Stearns, Executive Chef

Terry Stearns — Vermontian, chef, musician — joins the show in the middle of the last afternoon of his last day, after 19 years of making us wonderful lunches and dinners.

Show Notes:

We will miss him, and we wish him all the best in his next adventure. We’re so glad to get his voice on the record, and to bring a little bit of Terry to you.

Some other people, places, and things mentioned:


Brent: You're listening to The Omni Show. Get to know the people and stories behind The Omni Group's award-winning productivity apps for Mac and iOS. Music.


Brent: I'm your host, Brent Simmons. In this studio with me is Terry Stearns, executive chef. Say hello, Terry.

Terry: Hello, Terry.

Brent: Thank you. So we're interviewing Terry in the last minutes of his last day of 19 years at The Omni Group. That's a long time. We have employees who are just barely over 19 years old it seems like. You've been here a while.

Terry: Yeah. Since 1999.

Brent: 1999. Wow that's a whole different century — millennia! Wow. Let's talk about the early days. So when you started here the company must have been seven-ish people. What was it like cooking then as opposed to now?

Terry: Yeah, it was more like being a personal chef for a small group of people. And it was definitely different. It was a small house over in the University District and we only did dinners, and it would all be put out at like 6:30 at night. And when I started I had just been out of regular restaurants, so I was trying to be fancy and stuff like that, but I realized that they kind of want more just food that isn't gonna scare you, that you're gonna eat every day and you're gonna be happy. The mac and cheese, and the hot dogs, and tater tots, and all of that.

Brent: Fewer snails.

Terry: Yeah. And then of course, throw in some other, nicer things on occasion. It was the friends and family, and everybody actually ate at Omni usually then too.

Brent: Oh, that's cool.

Terry: Which is different now, 'cause a lot of people take the food home.

Brent: Yeah. For lunch we all eat together.

Terry: Yeah.

Brent: When did lunches start?

Terry: I think they started like a month in or something. When I originally started working, I was talking to Wil Shipley, who had hired me, about the things and I said, “well I would really prefer to work four days a week.” And he said, “well, four days a week would be fine but I would have to throw in two lunches.” 'Cause they hadn't really done that. And most people came in later than that anyway and worked later at night. The hours weren't strict or anything. It was kind of people just doing their thing and gaming and such. And so we did the lunches and then that was really successful so we kept adding lunches in until we had the full week together.

Brent: One of the first things that happened to me when I started working here, I noticed that the food was great. And I just really liked lunch every single day and I still do after almost four years. But one of the first things someone said to me, “beware the Terry Ten.” And what is that? That is that you put Ten pounds on because the food is so good. I think I made it the Terry 20, but I hope you take that as a compliment rather than a ...

Terry: Oh, yeah, yeah. It's definitely that the people wanna eat the food. Sometimes I feel a little guilty, like maybe I should be making things that are less to make you put that kind of weight on. But I think the thing is with the endless buffet of food sometimes it's hard when it's really good. You just wanna eat a lot. So I always take it as a positive thing.

Brent: It is meant that way, for sure. I never in my life had a corn dog before. I come here, and now I'm like, corn dogs? These are good!

Terry: Yeah, I'm not necessarily the corn dog person or whatever, those guys usually do all that. I never really got the corn dog. But everybody here, it's like one of the happiest days — and you can always tell at lunch what meals people like because they'll all go through the line and sit down, and then it'll be quiet for about seven minutes. And that means that the food is really good.

Brent: So that's a skill you've developed then is like reading the room, partly by listening to the room.

Terry: Yeah, and we used to kid too. When OmniGraphSketcher was new and everything and people were excited about that, we were like, we're gonna graph out all the different responses that people had, depending on what happened. But yeah, a lot of it is reading the room and trying to create a good environment for people, positively. The morale. Especially when it's around a deadline and people are stressed out, it's like they want something that's gonna make them feel good. And that's how we do it.

Brent: I've had days where, literally, the pancakes that day saved my day, because there's a lot of work to do and it's stressful. It's pancakes day! Everything is happy.

Terry: Yeah, that was a big thing too, was the breakfast for lunch. And until recently we did it every Wednesday, and I didn't know when I stopped it if I would have a revolt, 'cause everybody loves the breakfast Wednesdays. But now we do it every once in a while and it's kinda more special. But I think the big thing is bacon. Omni runs on bacon.

Brent: That reminds me of a story I heard about the Nisqually Earthquake and some bacon that needed saving. So this would've been in 2001.

Terry: Yeah. We were in the Blakely building, and I was in early because lunch I think at that point in time was at like 1:30. And it was just me in the building, and I think Wim was upstairs, and that was it. The kitchen was in a like ... on stilts, kind of a carport over the bottom part of it. Very flimsy. I know that you're supposed to stay in the doorways or whatever but I was like, I'm out of here, and I ran out the front door. And it locked behind me and luckily Wim came down and let me back in and I didn't burn the bacon. I think it was BLTs that day actually.

Brent: I'm sure the bacon was perfect.

Terry: Oh, yeah. But it was different then too 'cause that was when we were in the Blakely building just a very, very small kitchen with a home electric range, too.

Brent: Oh wow.

Terry: So everything was a little tricky back then, but it seemed to work out.

Brent: Jane mentioned that you don't refer to recipes... Well, maybe refer to them, but not necessarily strictly. That your style is kind of improvisational, to a degree, in the kitchen.

Terry: Yeah, I would say that. I have a background in — whatever, I've been playing music for a long time, and when I was a kid I played a lot of jazz. So I would say it's like that. It's like on a theme or standard and then chicken parmesan or whatever, and try to make it kind of your own, and whatever is fresh at that point in time, or whatever I'm just feeling. Or maybe I'll get like, some kind of wild idea in my head of how to make it a little bit different and better. And I like to do that, and I try to encourage that in the whole staff too. Which is kinda hard, 'cause a lot of people, it is very strictly recipes, and they follow a very strict formula. In baking that's definitely necessary, but in foods and sauces ... and that's just how I came up, working with guys in restaurants on the East Coast when I was a kid. They all were kinda like that too.

Recipes are a reference to work from and then you create and make what your own thing is. And also, I was on the East side for like seven years working as a sous chef at the Yarrow Bay Grill, and there I was the guy that would write all the specials and everything like that. So it's kind of ... it's just my general thing of how I do it. And I like to also, 'cause I can use up stuff that other people would just throw away or whatever. And I'm like, well there's something good that can come out of that as well.

Brent: This and that, didn't think of that. That works.

Terry: But yeah, that's how I do it.

Brent: And at the end you still don't scare people, everything's delicious.

Terry: Yeah, you definitely ... there are some times, that recently I think in the last six or seven years or whatever, I feel like I have been consistent. But as a person that's cooked for a long time, it feels like certain times you go through a situation where your food sometimes gets off or whatever. But now even when I'm off I feel like I'm pretty close to the center of whatever it is. And it's weird too, I can make something. I can do it differently, not even do the order of operation the same. And just because I'm doing it and I know where I wanna go with it, it always comes out pretty similar. Which is interesting over time.

Brent: So how'd you get your start in the cheffing business?

Terry: Well, I grew up in Killington, Vermont, which is a ski area town. And my mom worked at a hotel and they needed somebody to be a bellhop. So I started doing that for a while. I would carry all the luggage on Fridays and Sundays and help the chambermaids strip the beds and stuff. And then one day the dishwasher didn't come in and they pulled me in there, and then they enticed me to keep working in there. And then just little by little I did dish washing and breakfast cooking and pantry and line cooking until I was ... I became a sous chef basically in there off and on between going to college and high school.

Brent: Oh, okay. Just very organic, just started at the bottom?

Terry: Yeah, I guess ... I think I was was kind of a natural I guess is the thing. And I think that's probably the improvisational period of it all too. I mean, I guess part of that goes back to like when I was a kid with my grandmother. She would let me cook in her kitchen, and I could do whatever I wanted and I would just throw all kinds of crazy stuff together. And the rule was I could do whatever I wanted, as long as I would eat it at the end. And sometimes that wasn't so good. But luckily now, I've had enough trial and error.

Brent: That's a great way to learn though. I love that, “do whatever you want, but you have to eat it.” You learn what works that way. So back to the early days, Andrew Abernathy wrote me mentioning that back at the Blakely building, you would actually grill outside sometimes, and then it was right by the Burke-Gilman trail, apparently. So bikers, people walking by would be all envious of the food and I just love that image. I think that's great.

Terry: Yeah. It was kinda interesting there 'cause the building had ... it was on a street behind the University Village and then the Burke-Gilman ran right against the parking lot in the back area. So lunchtime, the guys that worked there would play hacky sack down there and then eventually, Wil Shipley was ... I dealt with him mostly at that period in time. And I was like, I like to grill stuff. So he went to Sutter Home & Hearth and bought this really cool, fancy grill that we could have outside-

Brent: Sounds like Wil.

Terry: Liz was just telling me today that she remembers how that when I started up there would just be a whole bunch of smoke coming up in front of the windows where they all work. But we would get steaks and chicken or whatever on there and then people on the Burke-Gilman that were exercising, some were a little put off and some people were like, “hey, can we join?” That kind of thing. It was fun for me too, 'cause I could get outside and do stuff in the middle of the day. And it was also, people from the Omni staff would come down and hang out and we would all talk and cut it up and stuff like that. So it was kind of a nice ... it built a lot of community.

Brent: So you've seen a lot of growth and a lot of change and a lot of stuff over the years you've been here. 19 years. When you started, Steve Jobs had come back to Apple but it hadn't been long, I imagine?

Terry: Yeah, when I first got to The Omni Group, the first computer we had in the kitchen was a NeXT. And then after that it was shortly those ... the bubble, whatever the iMacs, the colorful ones, we got those and everything. When I first got here they were working with other companies, AT&T or whatever, I can't remember exactly who they were with. So they did a lot of that and everything, and then at one point they decided to start working on all of the products that we have now. And we would get all the products like the iPod and the iPhone and all the different things would be coming through, and we get to play with them and stuff, and kinda see how that stuff developed.

And then once the apps started to take off here, it was pretty exciting for the most part. Especially with the iPhone 'cause everybody was like new ventures and stuff like that.

Brent: The iPhone just must've seemed to Omni — I wasn't here yet, but — wow, we can finally put this code that we've been ... or at least the kind of code that we've been writing for so many years, finally on this giant mass market device. Had to have been hugely exciting.

Terry: Yeah, I think there's ... people were definitely really ... it was good. Everybody was really enjoying themselves. It just seemed like there was a lot of promise, and a lot of places to go back then. I went to the one Macworld where the iPhone was ... they unveiled it, with these guys 'cause they let me go one time just to see what it was about. And I just remember the people standing around the, under the glass, the iPhone spinning, and everybody just staring in awe.

Brent: Yeah, I was there. I saw that too. That was quite the moment. I remember looking at it and thinking, everybody in this giant room is gonna have one and around the world people are gonna have one. But for right now, there's on this one that we can look at.

Terry: Yeah, that was interesting. It was like ten deep sometimes of people doing that. And then I remember ... I can't remember, was that the second version? The first one had a camera right? Did it?

Brent: I think it did. Yeah, probably.

Terry: But I remember being at the Paramount, at a Flaming Lips show, and the first time that I saw that everybody in the crowd was using their phones to take pictures of everything, for things like that. So it was kinda interesting how that all transpired. When we were over in Blakely we were right behind the Apple store opened there, so we were like in walking distance, so that was kinda cool too, 'cause we could walk down and get our iPhone, get in line and get the iPhone down there. Brought down a bunch of pizzas and stuff like that. Get the party atmosphere going.

Brent: So you're moving on, you're moving to Oregon. What's this all about?

Terry: I'm moving to Astoria, Oregon. Which is at the mouth of the Columbia, and it's about 20 minutes from the beach there and everything. Just myself and Deborah who is my partner. We lost our lease and we're getting into that thing in Seattle where rents are just moving up and up and up —

Brent: It's crazy.

Terry: ...and wanted to get off that cycle for a bit and try something else. I'm 53, so I figured if I don't start doing something now, then, you know. Something different, just to try some stuff. And then her daughter just graduated, so it was time that we could do that. We looked around the Northwest at places close by and far away, and Astoria was the one that kinda spoke to us.

And then we serendipitously met a surfer real estate agent in Gearhart. We started looking at properties and we found the that one we settled on. And we like it down there, it's a pretty cool spot.

Brent: I haven't been but I hear it's awesome.

Terry: I've been going to the Oregon Coast for about ... I've been out here for 27 years I think and I've been going down there for 24. I just love it.

Brent: I keep meaning to go. I've been out here since the mid-80s. I have yet to see the Oregon Coast. Flown over it. But people say it's awesome. Do you follow baseball at all? Have you followed baseball?

Terry: I don't as much now, but I used to when I was a kid.

Brent: So maybe you're familiar with ... a baseball player may have a few different teams throughout his career. But when he enters the hall of fame he'll be wearing the uniform of one specific team. Like wherever he was the longest, usually, or wherever he did his best work. So I'm saying, when you enter the chefs hall of fame, you'll be wearing an Omni Group t-shirt?

Terry: I would imagine so. I mean, this is the thing I've done the longest in my life. 19 years. I think the longest I worked in any other place like, seven years or something. The hotel where I came up, I guess would get an honorable mention, because I worked there off and on from when I was a kid, and a little bit as an adult, and that's kinda where I grew up. So I'm sure, the Summit Lodge in Killington Vermont or whatever you know? And it's still there.

Brent: Oh, that's cool.

Terry: Yeah, I mean, Omni's definitely the place that I've spent the most time. And it was a home for me, 'cause the restaurant industry, it's a difficult place to be. And this is a little bit better set up for most people. Not as much grind.

Brent: Yeah, and feeding the same people every day. Getting to know them. Not having to work Saturday nights and stuff.

Terry: Yeah, well I thought in the beginning, because it was just the same people all the time, I figured that the job would last maybe like two years, and then everybody would get sick of me, or I'd get sick of them. But it never really happened. As the company's grown, too, it's just been waves and waves of ... all the people that seem to gravitate towards Omni are pretty good people. So that's really nice, too. Makes it a lot easier to do your job when you like the people.

Brent: For sure. You wanna feed those people. So, I expect I'm gonna miss your taste in music from the kitchen. I'm betting that some of the songs that I really like hearing were your choices. But it reminds me that you are also a musician.

Terry: That's true.

Brent: Tell me about that.

Terry: Well I've been playing music off and on since I was like ... I guess six years old. Pots and pans first and then guitars that came home with my grandfather from yard sales and stuff like that, and old beat up pianos. And then eventually when I was in school I played horns, I played trumpet and trombone and baritone and tuba and different things. And then I eventually became a bass player in jazz and stuff. So I enjoyed that.

And then I kind of didn't do anything in that for a while but then later once I moved to Seattle... I moved here in the early grunge days and everything, but I wasn't really interested in grunge music all that much. I was interested in a lot of other things. So I played in all kinds of different bands from rock bands, folk rock bands, and did solo stuff, and also played in some reggae and Indonesian bands, and African bands.

Brent: World music.

Terry: Yeah. Anything that I was interested in doing. I just love music and I've always been collecting music. I used to have a huge record collection, and I was a DJ in college on the radio station. I like a lot of different music, but it's gotta kinda resonate with me, that it's something that moves me on a certain level. But it's all different genres, I'm not very specific. I don't know if I really care for as much of modern pop music, as it just doesn't move me quite as much.

Brent: I admit that's a common story right? People—

Terry: I'm probably getting old!

Brent: .... in their fifties don't keep up with pop music and it just doesn't sound that great. But everything else is wonderful.

Terry: I just think that the modern music too, with the production on it, there's just not enough air. Everything's compressed, and all the air is sucked out of it, so it doesn't really seem like it's happening in a time and in a space, you know? Which is fine. I've definitely spent a lot of time working with DAWs and Ableton Live and things like that, and I enjoy it, that's fun to do. But it's like, at the same time, I kind of like that whole thing of musicians working together, and how the tones blend in the air and stuff like that, and how the harmonics work, through good microphones and such.

Brent: And frankly, I still like to be able to picture — the music I'm listening to, I like to be able to picture them up on stage in a bar or something. Just like some intimate setting that's real and I like to imagine this thing could actually be performed that way.

Terry: I agree.

Brent: Speaking of performing, since you're a musician and we do have a guitar around here somewhere. I wonder if you'd might play us a song. The old saying is, “leave 'em with a song,” right? So you could do that.

Terry: Alright, I guess we'll try that. We'll see what's gonna ... [Singing 00:20:34 – 00:23:51].

Brent: Lovely. Thank you so much. So you're gonna find a new band, start a new band, I hope, when you're down in Oregon?

Terry: I hope so. I did recently, when I was walking around there at night, I met a guy that was pedal steel player, and usually up here I've been playing with a woman that plays lap steel and harmonizes and stuff. I was kind of missing her on this song, 'cause there's parts that she does, and I'm like, “uh, what do I do there?” But yeah, I certainly hope so 'cause I've enjoyed music, definitely for years in Seattle, not recently, but for years I had bands that were successful. And I enjoyed the performance part of it a lot.

Brent: Cool. Well it sounds like your life in Astoria is starting off already. You're already meeting a steel guitar player. Sounds good. Well I think we'll close it here. Thank you, Terry.

Terry: Thank you.

Brent: I'd also like to thank our intrepid producer, Mark Boszko. Say hello, Mark.

Mark: Hello, Mark.

Brent: And especially I want to thank you for listening. Thank you. Music.