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Tom Douglas Talks Cookbooks & Mistakes Many Authors Make

Seattle's best-known chef shares favorite recipe books from throughout his career.

Renata Steiner

Tom Douglas needs no introduction in this town. The chef and restaurateur owns and operates over a dozen restaurants, bakeries, and cafes, has penned four cookbooks, produces a line of spice rubs, and recently opened a cooking school -- The Hot Stove Society. And he isn't slowing down, with a new cantina-style restaurant scheduled to open soon. Eater recently sat down with Tom to talk about cookbooks, learn what he takes into consideration when writing his own cookbooks, and check out some of his favorites.

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How long have you been collecting cookbooks?

I've collected cookbooks for years. Early on, they really helped me expand my culinary horizons. We hosted cookbook dinners when I was at Cafe Sport, many years ago. I'd say I was more into collecting them at that time. We were doing dinner with stuff like Paul Prudhomme's Louisiana Cookbook -- that was a big one at the time. As a result of all those dinners, now I have some fairly valuable cookbooks that are kind of interesting.

My all time favorite is the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. That's the first time that I was really inspired to think about cooking across the dinner table, and to think about restaurants in a different way. The book is from some of the very first years at Chez Panisse, and very thoughtful and focused menus. The book doesn't really have a lot of recipes, it's more about thinking about the dishes you want to feature on a menu.

Do you think any cookbooks are still capturing that same spirit?

Well, Renee (Erickson's) new book that just came out, it's also full of story and thoughtful insights and menu ideas. People tell me all the time what they like about my cookbooks are the stories. We just interviewed Kate Lebo on the radio show about her new book Pie School, and it certainly has a lot of great stories in it. Edible Selby, the Canal House books. It was really fun to read Shiro's story in his book Shiro.

I'm not trying to open a Rick Bayless style of restaurant. I'm trying to get to a Seattle-Mexican restaurant.

How do you use cookbooks?

I've used them as a resource over the years when I'm thinking about menu items. We're opening this new little cantina [Cantina Lena], so it's great to have five or six Mexican standards to refer to, to see what method Diane Kennedy uses, and if that goes with how I'm thinking about it in my head. When developing a new restaurant, my staff and I will go out to eat at different places, and then work on what I'm conceptualizing. I'm not trying to open a Rick Bayless style of restaurant. I'm trying to get to a Seattle-Mexican restaurant.

What are some of your favorite cookbooks, or ones you like to revisit?

Some of my most treasured cookbooks are ones from friends that have passed, or have passed beyond their prime. I'm not usually a star fucker, but it's fun to have an autographed copy of Jacque Pepin's La Technique, for example. I think some of the early California cuisine books were kind of fun, and really led the nation in the whole farm-to-table movement. It's fun to revisit those and recall how they inspired you as a young cook. I love Blue Trout and Black Truffles by Joseph Wechsberg. I used to have a bunch of copies, because I'd just buy them and give them out as gifts. He was a writer for The New Yorker, and that book is a compilation of his stories.

When I am looking for something really Northwesty, I still go back to books like Northwest Bounty by Schuyler Ingle and Sharon Kramis. Schuyler used to write for the Seattle Weekly. Sharon actually used to be a student at James Beard's cooking school in Portland. Great Meals from the Northwest by Judie Geise; she used to work at DeLaurenti. Those are fun to go back and revisit. John Sarich, of course, who just passed away. His Food and Wine of the Pacific Northwest is a classic.

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Any books that were particularly influential?

Definitely the Chez Panisse Menu Cookbook. China Moon is probably the one we use quite a lot. Barbara Tropp lived in China for years -- but you know, back before that was a cool thing to do. And she later had a restaurant in San Francisco that my wife Jackie and I loved. Early on, Thrill of the Grill was fun. It was already a style of cooking that I was doing, so that was fun to see in print.

What are some of your most valuable books?

Edible and Poisonous Mushrooms, by M.C. Cooke. I think I spent about $350 on that, but I love the illustrations. A Common Place Book of Cookery by Robert Grabhorn with a foreword by M.F.K. Fisher. For old classics like these, I seek out first editions.

What are some considerations you keep in mind when writing your own cookbooks?

When I read cookbook reviews, it really makes me think about what I DON'T like in cookbooks. Shelley Lance coauthored all my books, so we remind ourselves to not make mistakes others have. Some of the authors that get the worst cookbook reviews are Emeril and Martha, because people find that the recipes don't work. And that means they probably weren't well tested. When we write our cookbooks, Shelley and I are very committed to testing every recipe multiple times. That's something we're very cautious about. The recipes have to work in your home kitchen.

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Photos: Renata Steiner

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