If you don't think chefs get emotional about their cookbooks, then you haven't talked to Matt Dillon about his eclectic collection. Stop by Sitka &...

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If you don’t think chefs get emotional about their cookbooks, then you haven’t talked to Matt Dillon about his eclectic collection.

Stop by Sitka & Spruce, where he keeps his cookbooks on display in the restaurant’s minuscule dining room, and you’ll find titles from near (“The Herbfarm Cookbook” by the Northwest’s own Jerry Traunfeld) and far (“Crazy Water Pickled Lemons,” by British food writer Diana Henry). As well as an entire section devoted to the woman he calls “the most influential cook the country’s had” — Alice Waters — and her restaurant, Chez Panisse.

At Greenwood’s Da Vinci Bakery & Café, regulars come in for gluten-free pastries and panini, knowing they can also devour baker Kaili McIntyre’s beloved cookbooks — a veritable lending library for her customers. One of whom borrowed her “Larousse Gastronomique” a couple of months ago and has yet to bring it back.

Sit at the counter at the Steelhead Diner in Pike Place Market, and you can peruse “The Zuni Cafe Cookbook.” Thumb through it (but wipe your fingers on your linen napkin first!) and you won’t have any trouble seeing why chef Kevin Davis is passionate about the culinary techniques of its author, Judy Rogers.

So, why are these tomes — once reserved for the confines of the kitchen — doing double duty as dining-room décor? How is it that chefs are not only bringing their most precious books to work but generously keeping them within arm’s reach of their patrons?

Dillon, recently named one of Food & Wine magazine’s 2007 Best New Chefs, helps explain this predilection by recalling the day a customer came into Sitka & Spruce for lunch, pulled Claudia Rodin’s “Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey, and Lebanon” off the shelf, and sat down to read it.

“That’s one of the reasons I have them here,” he says. “I think that maybe, if someone takes a look at a book and goes home and cooks for their family, then that’s part of extending our philosophy about food and the social culture that surrounds food. It’s a way of extending that culture into people’s lives and into their homes.”

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Seattle Times restaurant critic Nancy Leson’s commentaries on food and restaurants air on KPLU-FM (88.5) at 5:30 a.m., 7:30 a.m. and 4:44 p.m. Wednesdays, and at 8:30 a.m. Saturdays. (This week’s topic: More on coffee!)

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McIntyre is less philosophic. “Books are comforting to me. And besides, the customers love them,” explains the baker whose cafe shelves house everything from “The Gluten-Free Gourmet,” to “The Voluptuous Vegan,” to Food Network star Tyler Florence’s “Eat This Book: Cooking with Global Fresh Flavors.”

In addition to her at-work library, the self-proclaimed cookbook fetishist has more than 100 more piled up at home. “Those are the ones I like the least, or the ones without pictures,” says McIntyre, whose favorites include “The Pastry Queen: Royally Good Recipes from the Texas Hill Country’s Rather Sweet Bakery.” That book, she says, is notable not only for its plethora of photographs and a recipe for “Texas Bighairs” (lemon tarts with a meringue upsweep) but for the “goop” encrusted in and on it after years of frequent use.

“I buy cookbooks based on the pictures,” she says, “and then maybe the recipes. It gives me visual stimulation and makes me want to cook.” And when it comes to cookbooks, these culinary voyeurs say that inspiration — not imitation — is key.

“I’ll take a recipe from [Jerry Traunfeld’s] ‘The Herbal Kitchen’ and get ideas,” McIntyre says. “He had a sage and grapefruit cocktail recipe, and I turned that into a sage, grapefruit and pear bundt cake.”

“Jerry’s books are really important to use in the kitchen,” agrees Dillon, who, earlier in his career, worked alongside that award-winning chef and cookbook author. “But I don’t take any of his recipes and pull them out of there. It’s more about ideas — and the beautiful photos.

“I’m not a big ‘recipe person’ — except for baking,” he admits, “but I like to look through recipes. As a working chef, you can’t go out and eat everywhere all the time, and by looking at those books, it’s like ‘going out’ for me. It’s seeing other people’s approach.”

One of the chefs whose approach he admires is bad-boy Brit Marco Pierre White. “His cookbooks are amazing,” says Dillon, who owns a rare, first-edition of “White Heat” and notes that White will be in town next month promoting his latest effort, “The Devil in the Kitchen,” at a Cooks and Books event held at Union Restaurant May 14.

Just like the rest of us, chefs aren’t immune to the thrill of meeting their favorite cookbook authors. While working as executive chef at Seattle’s Oceanaire Seafood Room, Davis played host to San Francisco-based Judy Rogers at a seafood event where he learned why the recipes in her “Zuni Cafe Cookbook” work so well.

“She’s meticulous and a perfectionist,” he recalls. “She’d count everything: items, plates, ingredients, over and over and over. If you read her cookbook, it’s not just, ‘here’s the recipe.’ It’s very detailed. And your finished product is not just something good — it’s something great.”

At their Richmond Beach bistro Hills’ Food & Wine, chefs Celestino Jimenez and Chris Hill keep dozens of cookbooks in the dining room, including such modern classics as David Thompson’s “Thai Food.” In addition to providing ideas for dipping sauces, says Jimenez, that book comes in handy when a customer asks, “What, exactly, is lemongrass?”

But he saves his highest praise for “Culinary Artistry,” used as a reference for food-pairings. “If I have a pomegranate, it will tell me what goes with it, what’s available that time of year,” says Jimenez, who bought six copies of the book to give away last Christmas.

Laurie Riedeman favors the food pairings and seasonal suggestions in “The Anatomy of a Dish,” a book she keeps handy at her tiny wine-soaked hideaway, Elemental@Gasworks. “It’s also a great menu-building cookbook,” says the self-taught chef and former waitress. “I’ll use that if I’m doing a private party because it says, ‘Do this salad with this soup.’ “

On the shelf in her open kitchen, patrons can view — and peruse — what she refers to as her “basics”: “Baking Illustrated,” “The Gourmet Cookbook,” “Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone” and “Martha Stewart Living,” from which she gleans recipes for “everything from the best pie crust I can make, to an elegant entree.”

For reference, Reideman keeps “The Complete Encyclopedia of Vegetables and Vegetarian Cooking” close at hand. Dillon’s go-to reference is Harold McGee’s vaunted “On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen,” a book he says deserves a shelf of its own.

Davis frequently turns to “Mushrooms Demystified,” which he describes as the Moby Dick of mushroom identification. But it’s the “Food Lover’s Companion,” a dictionary of food, drink and culinary terms, that you’ll find on the counter at his Steelhead Diner. That compact guide is there, he says, because “chefs are terrible spellers. When you write a new menu every day, it’s easy to misspell. And if I blow a round of menus, it costs me $25!”

Like those of us whose tattered copies of cherished cookery books — grandma’s “Joy of Cooking,” a dog-eared “Silver Palate” — chefs clearly have an emotional attachment to their favorite cookbooks.

When Riedeman moved into her first apartment, her mother gave her that copy of “Martha Stewart Living” inscribed, “To Laurie Elizabeth, love Mère et Père.” And when Dillon left the Herbfarm, he received a parting gift he’d never part with: a torn-up copy of “Feasts for All Seasons,” by Roy Andries de Groot.

What made the book so special, Dillon recalls, was that it was a gift from an elderly berry forager named Roy Beaman — a man “with a subtle passion” for blackcap raspberries and huckleberries. Though Dillon keeps that heartfelt gift at Sitka & Spruce, he admits “I’d probably make people wear gloves if they wanted to hold it.”

Nancy Leson: 206-464-8838 or nleson@seattletimes.com

More columns are available at seattletimes.com/nancyleson