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Interview: Tom's Big Dinners | Tom Douglas

THE BOOK Tom's Big Dinners: Big-Time Home Cooking for Family and Friends by Tom Douglas with Ed Levine, Shelley Lance and Jackie Cross (Morrow), $32.50, 278 pages, color photos.

THE GIST More than a dozen festive and delicious menus, from a Puget Sound crab feast to a Chinese extravaganza.

THE IDEAL READER The cook who loves to entertain large groups of friends and family.

THE EXTRAS Detailed wine pairings and cocktail recipes to match each menu.

BACKGROUND Born in Cleveland; grew up in Newark, Delaware; lives in Seattle.

EDUCATION "I was never formally trained as a chef. I had two helluva good grandma cooks; plus my mother, who raised eight children, was a great cook. When I was young I would make my parents breakfast in bed on Saturday mornings. Later I realized that they really wanted to be making love—my dad was a traveling salesman who was on the road Monday to Friday. In high school I took home economics courses and worked as a cook at the Hotel du Pont in Wilmington."

EXPERIENCE "I was driving around the country when I was 19 and happened to run out of cash in Seattle, so I settled here. I got a job working in a kitchen, but I also built houses, sold wine and cut steel on the railroads. Eventually, I lost one job and couldn't get another, so I borrowed 50 grand and in 1989 my wife and I opened Dahlia Lounge. Etta's Seafood, Palace Kitchen and the Dahlia Bakery followed. Now we also have a catering company."

WHY HE WROTE THE BOOK "We heard that people were getting together and having what they called 'Tom Douglas Big Dinners,' inviting five couples who would make a dish from my first book, Tom Douglas' Seattle Kitchen. So Tom's Big Dinners came next, focusing on simple menus for a home setting, with do-ahead ideas and tips, rather than recipes from the restaurant."

MENU INSPIRATIONS "The Chinatown menu is based on recipes we always made at home, like shrimp rolls and ribs. We created Grandpa Louie's Dream Greek Vacation for my wife's grandfather Louie. His wife was not too enamored of his Greek heritage, so Louie never had the chance to revisit his homeland before he died. Louie's menu includes dishes that he would have eaten on a trip back to Greece."

COCKTAIL INSPIRATIONS "Most of the themed cocktails, like the Santorini-tinis, were invented for the book. But the Bianco is something we make at home every summer, putting herbs like rosemary, lemon balm and lemon zest in white wine and letting the drink sit for three hours."

HOW TO USE THE COOKBOOK "Don't get bogged down in a menu. If you're having a cocktail party, select appetizers from different chapters."

FAVORITE BIG DINNER "There's something majestic about a 30-pound Chinook salmon roasted and served whole—people get excited when you present it with the head and tail on. It has beautifully browned skin and extraordinary bright red flesh when you cut into it."

HOW TO PLAN A BIG MEAL "Think like a chef: Prepare everything you can in advance like a short-order cook does. Then you can just reheat food rather than do all the cooking at the last minute."

HOW NOT TO GET STUCK IN THE KITCHEN WHEN GUESTS COME "Have them help with the cooking. If you're having 10 people over for dinner, everyone will say, 'What can I bring?' and if you say, 'I can manage' or 'Just some wine,' then you're stuck preparing 10, 20, 30 plates of food."

ESSENTIAL INGREDIENTS Ginger, lemons, soy sauce. "Fish from a good fishmonger is absolutely essential, too."

MOST UNDERAPPRECIATED INGREDIENT Pork butt. "It's underutilized and it's cheap: The other day I saw it in an expensive store for 99 cents a pound."

ESSENTIAL EQUIPMENT A bamboo steamer. "They're only about 10 dollars and they make beautiful servers as well. At home we use one for everything, not just Chinese dishes. Sometimes we'll buy fresh tamales and steam them in it."

BEST WAY TO SERVE A BIG GROUP "I won't put out just one bowl of mashed potatoes. I'll have two smaller bowls at either end of the table. It's much simpler, and because people aren't waiting for food to be passed, they're eating hotter food."

FAVORITE PLACE TO EAT OUT WITH A BIG GROUP Seattle's Sea Garden, a Chinese seafood place. "I love the round tables with lazy Susans in the middle."

TOP TIMESAVER "Be sure to read a recipe all the way through before you cook. The time it saves you in the long run is invaluable."

COOKBOOK TREND "Every chef is writing a book. It's a chef-y thing, having the insatiable ego to imagine people can't live without us."

Published November 2004
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