Tom Douglas and the Dahlia Bakery Cookbook

Melody and I went to see Tom Douglas speak at the University Bookstore the other night. Most of his dozen properties are restaurants, but one is the Dahlia Bakery; he was at the bookstore to promote the new Dahlia Bakery Cookbook. As can be expected he was very personable and entertaining. He recently won the James Beard Award as Best Restauranteur, and that day had found out he was the Puget Sound Business Journal's Executive of the Year. Tom started with some remarks and then took questions from the audience. It was the latter part where he really showed his people skills, and was interesting because was able to circle back and touch on the topics in his remarks.

 Tom Douglas and the Dahlia Bakery Cookbook

Tom Douglas and the Dahlia Bakery Cookbook

Nora Ephron

Tom brought a selection of cookies from the Dahlia Bakery. He had the usual chocolate chip, oatmeal, and chocolate cookies, but he also had a peanut butter sandwich cookie which he called the Nora Ephron Cookie. He was asked why it was named that, and he talked about his relationship with the late writer.

Tom first met Nora Ephron in the early years when he was approached for using the Dahlia Lounge for a scene in Sleepless in Seattle. They wanted to know how much he wanted to close the restaurant for two days, and figuring he would lose about $2,000 of business, he thought he shot high when he asked $3,000 for each of two days. They readily said OK and he realized that he could have asked for a lot more.

Lots of different takes were done in the restaurant. The whole scene was controlled; even the cars and pedestrians outside the window were staged. The window coverings were open for some takes, and closed for others, and in the resulting film, the coverings were closed, so all the outside activity never made it into the movie.

So back to Nora Ephron. Tom became friends with her, and had heard her say the peanut butter sandwich cookie was the best cookie she ever had. When they were preparing the book, Tom called Nora to ask if he could use her name, which she readily agreed to. Little did he know, she was sick and died not long after that phone conversation, so that was the last time he spoke with her.

Coconut Cream Pie

Someone asked Tom to name his three favorite items on his menus. one of them was the Coconut Cream Pie, a staple at the Dahlia Lounge. He admits that you can get a whole pie elsewhere for as much as the one slice costs, but stands by the fact that it's not only a lot better, but truer to the ingredients. He explained that at first it probably won't taste like coconut, but as you continue, you realize that's how coconut is supposed to taste, not like suntan lotion.

Across from the Dahlia Lounge is Lola, where the pie is the best selling dessert. What's surprising is it's not on Lola's menu. The staff goes across the street to get the pie when people order it, because that's the kind of service they promote. The staff keeps asking Tom if they can put the pie on the menu, but he resists, explaining that the customers get a good feeling when someone goes across the street for their piece of pie; it gives them a good story to tell people.

How to learn to cook

One question was from someone anting to learn to cook. Tom's first tip was to use a kitchen scale to weigh things, especially flour; all the recipes in the Dahlia Bakery Cookbook have weights in addition to volume measurements.

Right now I happen to reading the book Consider the Fork by Bee Wilson. She also talked about measuring by volume vs. weight, and how cookbooks outside of the U.S. use weight measurements. It was Fannie Farmer who started the trend of using volume measurements, because she felt it made the recipes easier and more repeatable for home cooks, as long as one remembers to completely level off with a straight knife. What she didn't realize, however, is a cup of flour can vary greatly in weight depending on how it's scooped into the measurement cup.

The other beginner's tip that Tom had was to use an oven thermometer since home ovens can be way off. He's not the only one; I've heard several other cooks advise to calibrate one's oven.

Tom then went on to say that people are often afraid of cooking things because they think it's too hard. His example was fish, explaining his secret is to get an instant read thermometer and cook the fish until it's 125°F in the middle. It doesn't matter how you cook it, or even the cooking temperature.

He also mentioned that for things like salmon, simple is best. He reflected about his appearance on Iron Chef where he did a very simple salmon dish while Masaharu Morimoto did a very complex treatment, which is why Tom believes he was able to win.

Getting the business started

Another question was about how Tom got started. His first job was at the Hotel du Pont in Delaware, where he was a cook's assistant for an extremely low wage. Eventually they offered to send him to the Culinary Institute of America, but they wanted a five year commitment after he graduated. Being 18 at the time, that seemed like forever, so he chose to get in his car and start driving, and he ended up in Seattle.

When he first opened his restaurant, he had a hard time making payroll. He ended up having to let almost half his staff go. Getting the Sleepless in Seattle location gig certainly helped a lot.

Tom also talked about borrowing money, and that you should only do so from people who are in a position where they can lose the investment. In Tom's case one family member really wanted to invest, but Tom kept saying no because he didn't feel comfortable about what would happen if the money were lost. He did, however, accept money from another family member, who ended up investing in half the company. When Tom kept rolling money into newer restaurants, he realized that it would be better for him to buy out the partner, who ended up getting a 15 times return on his investment.

One thing that Tom pointed out is many people who want to start a restaurant are so concerned with finding the lowest rent, but they are missing the big picture. In general, rent amounts to about 2% of a restaurant's expenditures. Almost half is for staff, and about a third for the actual food. Being overly concerned about rent ends up making a very small difference in the end.

Naturally, the restaurant business is very competitive. It's no surprise that Tom wants to hire and keep the best staff possible, and keep them happy. Among all his properties, about 15,000 family meals (for the workers) are served each month. That's more than some restaurants serve for customers!

Dahlia Bakery Cookbook

Of course, the common thread throughout the evening was the cookbook. Tom stressed that the recipes were tested several times, by both amateurs and professionals, all in home kitchens. He's also a big believer that people should follow each recipe exactly, at least the first couple times. After doing that, a home cook knows enough about the recipe to be able to change things up.

Someone asked if any of the recipes he uses are inspired by other people, and he didn't hesitate to say yes. One example was the Schnecken (sticky bun) recipe from the book, which he still calls "Grandma Douglas' Schnecken", even though the recipe is completely different than when he started. It's his way of honoring where the recipe came from.

As things were wrapping up, he emphasized that he was doing the appearance at a local bookstore, not a big chain, and to buy a book from it every now and then. It was nice of him to mention that, since some local bookstores have been having a hard time lately.

Last month there was an article about Tom in the San Francisco Chronicle covering the business side of his restaurants.