How to Write a Cookbook: Shelley Lance on Her Collaboration with Tom Douglas

By: 
Leslie Kelly
Tom Douglas Shelley Lance cookbook Dahlia
Tom Douglas hugs his cookbook co-author Shelley Lance

Sweet! The Dahlia Bakery Cookbook is a huge hit! In addition to being on bestseller lists, the goodie-filled tome showed up over the weekend on The New York Times Book Review's list of great holiday gifts and it's featured in this month's Martha Stewart Living.

While most everyone is familiar with Seattle's most famous chef/restaurateur, Tom's co-author flies under the radar. Well, unless you count her fine contribution to our recent cupcake taste-off. So, let's take a minute to get the skinny on co-author Shelley Lance, who has been working with TD for more than 25 years and also co-wrote Tom Douglas' Seattle Kitchen, Tom's Big Dinners and I Love Crab Cakes.

How did you meet Tom?
In 1986, after graduating from cooking school in San Francisco (the California Culinary Academy in the early pre-corporate-buy-out days...when it was much smaller) and after spending a few years helping a friend open her own restaurant in Alaska, I moved back to Seattle looking for a job as a line cook. I ate a meal at Café Sport (now home to Etta's) and decided the food was the best in townexactly the type of food I wanted to learn how to cook. Café Sport was hot in those days. It had a modern vibe that I thought was similar to the culinary excitement of the Bay Area. Afterward, I looked at the Café Sport review in my copy of Seattle Best Places to find out the name of the chef. The very next afternoon, I walked into Café Sport and asked if I could speak to Tom Douglas. To my surprise (I had feared a brush-off), he walked out of the kitchen, offered me a coffee, and sat down for a chat. In a way that was magical to me at the time, he hired me on the spot and hasn’t been able to get rid of me since. That was almost 27 years ago.

Do you miss working on the line?

Every day. That’s the truth. I can’t do it anymore; it’s a young person’s job requiring great physical stamina. But the excitement and satisfaction of cooking on the lineif you love itis like nothing else.  I especially miss working on the line right next to Tom Douglas. I consider myself lucky to have that memory.

What’s the most challenging part of writing a cookbook? And the most rewarding?

There are many challenges. Getting the concept in focus for a new cookbook is a difficult process requiring much thought, many false starts, many fresh starts, and much back and forth with Tom. After I finally get the proposal written for a new cookbook, a proposal that Tom and I both feel good about, there’s a sense of relief. (The proposal is what you send the publisher to see if they will give you a book contract.) If I can write a good book proposal, then I have a road map that will take me all the way through the rest of the process.

The actual testing of the recipes is a long, difficult slog (and we tested in both volume and weights for this book!) Recipe testing and writing is all about the details, and keeping track of those details can feel overwhelming at times.  I’m obsessive about trying to figure out the places a home cook might misinterpret a recipe and therefore not get a good result; it’s a challenge to figure out the best way to explain things without coming across as too intimidating. Also, I always worry that a mistake in the testing or writing could escape my notice.  So there’s much testing and retesting, writing and rewriting, and much obsessing.

I try hard to give the reader home-friendly recipes, but the truth is, I’m starting with professional restaurant recipes and many or most of them aren’t that easy to recreate at home, so that’s a balancing act and a challenge.

As for rewards, I do love the actual writing, writing the text of the recipes, working on the fun stories and headnotes with Tom. I very much enjoyed all the technique and equipment and ingredient writing that I did for Dahlia Bakery Cookbook.

But the biggest reward is finally getting that first copy of the book delivered to my desk, opening the mailing envelope and holding it in my hands.  No matter how many times I have read and re-read all the word documents and all the galleysthere’s nothing like seeing your book for real for the first time!

Is there another project in the works? An update of Seattle Kitchen? 

Tom and I are already talking about another cookbook. I hadn’t even finished Dahlia Bakery Cookbook when Tom started teasing me about getting going on the next one. We’re still in the early stages of tossing ideas around. We have three different concepts we’re thinking about but I can’t let the cat out of the bag yet!

When you walk into Dahlia Bakery, what’s the one treat you have to order?

Most of the time I’m tasting something I need to taste, because it’s a new item or because I’ve heard there’s a problem (I’m Quality Control Chef for the company, so that’s my job). An indulgence? I’m a cookie person. A chocolate chunk cookie occasionally calls out my name too distinctly for me to resist.  Also I love our breadsa loaf of the pecan flax bread for morning toast is a real treat.  Once in a while I get a bag of granola; our Dahlia Bakery granola is the greatest.

Shelley will be appearing with Tom Douglas Tuesday at the annual Cookbook Social at the Palace Ballroom. Tom's appearing at 7 p.m. Monday (tonight) in The Den at Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park. Tom is also doing a demo and signing at 1 p.m. Saturday at the Lynnwood Whole Foods.