A new cookbook shares the recipes and the art
enius is not too strong a word to describe Tom Douglas, but it may not be descriptive enough. Douglas' food, his restaurants and now his cookbook, "Tom Douglas' Seattle Kitchen," are all masterworks, but the artistry in them is a composite of several very different talents coming together to focus on that peculiar medium known as restaurateuring.
Like any other art form, the art of the restaurant involves bringing together several disciplines and making everything work together seamlessly to produce a whole that feels greater than the sum of its parts; it's an endeavor few understand, and even fewer practice with the consummate skill that Douglas has applied to the craft over the last 20 years.
Douglas is a great cook, but he's also a great manager of people, something of a marketing whiz, and first and foremost, a kind of bon vivante who celebrates life and generates gladness in those who enjoy his company and his creations.
What made Douglas stand out in the first place was a freewheeling style that incorporated Asian ingredients and locally produced foodstuffs into easy-to-understand and easy-to-enjoy homestyle cooking. That description could apply to any of half a dozen chefs who started cooking professionally in the Northwest at about the same time he did, but no one did it better than Douglas. And with three successful restaurants - Dahlia Lounge, Etta's Seafood and Palace Kitchen - no one has brought the new casual style into the kitchen and dining room more successfully or with more finesse than Douglas has.
Douglas is the first to insist that his accomplishments are those of an entire team. Think of Dale Chihuly and his army of glass-blowers producing globes for one of the lobby chandeliers of Benaroya Hall. That's Douglas creating and executing the menu at any one of his restaurants, or the recipes in his book. His style is so assertive and his staff is so well versed in that style, that, even though each dish is an original, Douglas himself need not have touched a particular plate or a particular page to put his stamp on it.
As Douglas writes, "I have surrounded myself with many people I consider tops in the business." One of those is of course Jackie Cross, Douglas' wife, who designed the interior for each of his restaurants. Another would be Steven Steinbock. Steinbock was hired as the original chef at Cafe Sport and Douglas was to be his sous chef, but a long delay in opening that restaurant sent Steinbock looking for another project and left Douglas at the helm. Now, Steinbock has worked with Douglas for more than 20 years and continues to shape and be shaped by the Douglas school of cooking. Two other important members of Douglas' staff, Shelley Lance and Duskie Estes, are co-authors of the book.
Lance started working for Douglas when he was the wunderkind behind the old Cafe Sport. (Douglas left Sport to open Dahlia Lounge, and years later when Sport closed, he leased the space for Etta's Seafood.) She served for several years as executive pastry chef for the three Douglas restaurants and now is a kind of food scholar in residence, spending a few hours in each restaurant every week.
Estes, chef at Palace Kitchen, met Douglas through Operation Frontline, an organization that teaches people on public assistance how to cook. Douglas was volunteering for the group, Estes was the program director, and the two developed a camaraderie that grew into a lasting working relationship.
Together, Estes and Lance helped develop and test the restaurant recipes for the home cook.
"We brought in a home range and installed it on the line right here at Palace Kitchen," Douglas explains, "and they cooked every recipe independently, then pooled their notes and cooked again."
A third collaborator on "Seattle Kitchen" was Denis Kelly. Kelly, a veteran of the cookbook world who co-authored three books with Bruce Aidells, including "Real Beer and Good Eats" and "The Complete Meat Cookbook," recently produced "Pacific Grilling" on his own for Sasquatch Books. Kelly, who teaches Greek and classical studies at St. Mary's College in the San Francisco area, has reputation for making all of his books extremely reader friendly. He helped bring Douglas's voice to the page.
Years ago, Douglas read a restaurant review by the venerable Mimi Sheraton. "She said something about an untrimmed duck," he recalls "and ever since, I've been making sure every duck served in one of my restaurants is perfectly trimmed." The same kind of thing haunted Douglas when he read a review of Emeril Lagasse's first book. "The reviewer made a remark about some of Emeril's recipes not working, and I made up my mind then and there that when I wrote a cookbook, I would make sure every recipe worked." They do.
Several recipes in Douglas' book, such as those for Dungeness Crabcakes, Kasu Zuke Black Cod and Triple Coconut Cream Pie, have become Seattle classics. Versions of these dishes have been circulating for years. Douglas' crabcakes are not necessarily the best crabcakes in Seattle; they are simply the crabcakes in Seattle. He brought his East Coast version from his home in Delaware to Cafe Sport in the early 1980s and they have become the standard by which all others are judged.
Douglas learned to make Kasu cod from Harry Yoshimura at Mutual Fish shortly after he enjoyed the dish for the first time on his 22nd birthday. His coconut pie was developed after a recipe by noted cookbook author and baking instructor Jim Dodge, whom Douglas considers a personal friend. Each of these dishes has become as reproduced and as imitated as any dish in American cookery, yet each is as distinctly Douglas' own as "Starry Night" is Van Gogh's.
Other recipes, such as Pit-Roasted Salmon with Grilled Shiitake Relish, Spicy Peanut Noodles or Long Bone Short Ribs with Chinook Merlot Gravy, are poised to become classics. I started making variations on that delicious pit-roasted salmon right after I tasted it a few years back, and I made the spicy noodles as soon as I got my hands on the unbound galley proofs for this book.
I have yet to try the Long Bone Short Ribs at home, but reading the recipe makes me really hungry. So do Douglas' recommendations for other places to eat and places to shop for food. Making people hungry is something Douglas does very well. In fact, a considerable portion of the book consists of recommendations for things to do and see in the city, kind of a food lover's guide to Seattle, all seen through the spice-rub-colored glasses of our celebrated gastronome.
One recipe that has always struck me as distinctly Douglasian is Kasu Zuke Black Cod. With only seven ingredients and a few fairly simple steps, the recipe is not complicated, but the flavors and textures that emerge from the broiler when the fish is done are elaborate indeed. Like any work of art, it is definitely greater than the sum of its parts.
"Tom Douglas' Seattle Kitchen,"
Sasquatch Books, Seattle, 2000.
Kasu Zuke Black Cod
Kasu is the is a pasty sediment left behind after making sake. It can be purchased at Mutual Fish Co. or at Uwajimaya. The fish has to marinate for two days, so plan ahead if you're going to prepare this dish. Mutual Fish also sells fish already marinated in Kasu. Douglas recommends serving the fish with Ocean Salad, a pre-made salad of seaweed in rice vinegar and sesame oil available at Japanese groceries.
1 quart plus 1 cup water
2 tablespoons kosher salt
1 pounds black cod, cut into four 6-ounce steaks or filets, preferably with the skin on
1 pound Kasu
cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 tablespoons light miso
cup mirin or sweet sake
1. In a large bowl, combine one quart of the water and salt and stir until the salt is dissolved. Add the black cod, turning to coat both sides. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes. Remove the black cod from the brine and pat dry with paper towels. Discard the brine. (The brine causes the fish to release water, which makes the fish more firm and the finished flavor more intense.)
2. In another large bowl, combine the Kasu, the remaining cup of water, the brown sugar, miso and mirin. Add the black cod, turning the pieces to coat all sides. Cover the bowl and refrigerate for 2 days.
3. Preheat the broiler. Oil a baking sheet or spray with nonstick vegetable spray. Scrape the excess Kasu mixture from the black cod, leaving a thin coating of the marinade. Arrange the fillets on the baking sheet and broil on both sides, 10 to 12 minutes total cooking time per inch of thickness. (The marinade contains sugar, so it will brown well, but be careful not to burn it.)