A simple potato gratin can help you be your own best caterer at holiday time.

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I met Gretchen Mathers in the early 1990s when I was helping a friend run a cooking school in Friday Harbor, and I wanted a professional caterer to teach our students something about holiday entertaining. I knew Mathers had launched Gretchen’s Of Course Catering Co., and I thought she was a likely candidate.

In fact, Mathers had recently entered into a partnership with Schwartz Brothers Restaurants and was overseeing 135 people who made and delivered some 6,000 box lunches every week through Gretchen’s Shoebox Express. She was also responsible for food service on the Spirit of Washington Dinner Train. I doubted she would be able to get away.

“Of course I’ll come!” she said. “I’ll teach them how to entertain like a pro.” The event sold out, and was more like a party than a class. Gretchen recommended ham for the holidays. “It’s easy, it’s affordable and it’s huge,” she said. “You never want to run out of food.” She also made a Scandinavian potato gratin with anchovies called Jansson’s Temptation, and offered an ongoing stream of anecdotes and advice that practically amounted to a class in how to live.

“For appetizers,” she said, “don’t mess around with fancy hors d’oeuvres and those awful canapés you see in magazines. Just put out bowls of nuts and olives. Everyone loves them, and they are so easy.” After graduating from Garfield High School in Seattle, Mathers earned a degree in foods and nutrition from Washington State University, then accepted a job with Stouffer’s Restaurant Group in New York City. Later she went to work for General Foods. When I asked Mathers what she did for them, she said in her self-deprecating way that she “made up things to do with Jell-O.” Later I learned she’d helped develop Cool-Whip.

In 1966, she came back to Seattle as the first female food-and-beverage director for Western International Hotels (now the Westin Group). But she eventually returned to General Foods to work on the Maxwell House brand. “I was hoping we could launch a line of gourmet whole-bean coffees a la Starbucks,” she once told me. “But it just wasn’t happening there.”

By 1979, she was ready to get off the corporate wagon to launch her own business, and even though interest rates on business loans were soaring at 23 percent, and “women just didn’t own their own businesses then, especially restaurants,” Mathers refinanced her home and opened Gretchen’s of Course.

In 1987, she accepted an offer from Schwartz Brothers to merge her company with theirs and manage their catering division. By the time she came to Friday Harbor to teach a class with me, she was something of a local legend. She’d been president of the Washington Restaurant Association and in 1989, helped launch the Seattle Chapter of Les Dames d’Escoffier, an international organization helping women in the culinary professions.

“The key to a great party,” she told our students, “is simple: Never run out of ice. Make sure everyone has something to drink, and let people help you cook. Some people just want to be in the kitchen.”

The last time I saw Mathers, we were seated next to one another at a conference dinner to celebrate Les Dames. I’d spoken on a panel at the conference, but there were not a lot of men at the event; she wanted to make sure I was comfortable. A mutual friend had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, and Gretchen was offering reassurance as she poured wine at the table. “I dealt with that 20 years ago,” she said, “when I was launching Gretchen’s of Course, but I couldn’t let it slow me down. I had work to do.” Another woman confided that she, too, was a survivor.

“We’re going to have to make you an honorary dame,” Mathers said brightly. “Seriously, though, every day since I was diagnosed has been a gift, like a bonus. I figure I’ve had 20 extra years, and I’ve loved every one of them.” In the spring of 2007, Mathers was diagnosed with a recurrence, and she passed away in the company of family and friends that August. Many of us feel that knowing her was the bonus, her friendship a gift.

Greg Atkinson is a chef instructor at Seattle Culinary Academy. He can be reached at greg@westcoastcooking.com. Ken Lambert is a Seattle Times staff photographer.

Jansson’s Temptation

Makes 12 small servings

Most versions of this Scandinavian potato gratin call for potatoes cut into julienne strips, but Gretchen Mathers taught me to make it with potatoes cut into thin slices. “Serve it with Swedish meatballs,” she said, “for a late-night supper, like on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Eve. Everyone will love it.”

2 tablespoons butter

2 pounds (about 6 medium) Yukon Gold potatoes

1 medium onion, peeled and sliced thin lengthwise

2 cups half & half

1 (2-ounce) tin anchovies in oil, mashed

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Rub a shallow, 2-quart baking dish with the butter.

2. Using a mandoline or a very sharp knife, slice the potatoes as thin as you can manage. Toss the potatoes with the sliced onions and pile the potatoes and onions into the buttered baking dish.

3. In a saucepan over medium heat, combine the half & half with the anchovies, salt and pepper and cook until the mixture is steaming hot, then pour the hot cream mixture over the potatoes.

4. Cover the dish with baker’s parchment, then aluminum foil, and bake the gratin for 40 minutes.

5. Remove the parchment and the foil and continue baking until the potatoes are very tender and the surface of the dish is delicately browned, about 15 minutes more.

Greg Atkinson, 2008