I noted it on my first visit to Matthew Dillon’s Bar Sajor a few months back: rows of dog-eared cookbooks, openly displayed near the kitchen. It immediately transported me to his first Sitka and Spruce, the tiny original in the erstwhile Eastlake doughnut shop, where Dillon kept tons of cookbooks on the shelves between dining room and kitchen.
That space went on to become Nettletown, which the late Christina Choi stocked with her own cookbooks; then Blind Pig Bistro, where chef Charles Walpole continues the tradition with his own collection. As for Dillon, he divided his favorites among his current Sitka at Melrose Market, the Corson Building in Georgetown, and now Sajor.
These include the Roy Andries de Groot classics Auberge of the Flowering Hearth and Feasts for All Seasons—the latter of which he particularly prizes, as it was a gift from berry forager Roy Beamon upon Dillon’s departure from the Herbfarm.
Which itself keeps a library of cookbooks—like everything else at that Woodinville marvel, extraordinary in its scope. This only makes sense, says Dillon. “Auberge of the Flowering Hearth,” the 1973 classic on the joys of eating with the seasons, “is why the Herbfarm even exists.”
Why display them? “It’s like your kitchen you have at home,” Dillon muses. “You’re not doing it to make it look pretty—you’re using the cookbooks. They’re practical." Clearly chefs have moved away from the myth that perfect innovation can only spring whole from the creator's imagination, and toward the reality that innovation flowers amid inspiration. "You’re getting ideas from the cookbooks," Dillon explains. "You’re getting inspiration, maybe from a picture, maybe even from an idea you want to change. I’m an avid cookbook buyer.”
Clearly a lot of other chefs are too--for as I eat around, I can see that we're in a golden age of cookbooks in restaurants. Madison Park Conservatory has its collection upstairs. MistralKitchen stores them over by the Jewel Box Kitchen. Tilikum Place Café keeps its library across from the bar. (“We don’t use any particular one, but the Zuni Cafe Cookbook is one we like a lot,” attests one Tilikum staffer.)
Sometimes the cookbooks displayed function as a useful billboard for what the diner's about to enjoy. The admirable Gastropod—the dining room arm of the Epic Ales Brewery in SODO—has a bunch in its rec room of a restaurant, including (surprise, surprise) Garrett Oliver’s Brewmaster’s Table. The Matt’s in the Market pork emporium, Radiator Whiskey in Pike Place Market, also keeps them (among the Bibles and other classics, that is, which they hollow out as secret hiding places for regulars’ flasks). Here you’ll find Stephane Reynaud’s Pork and Sons (surprise, surprise), among many others.
The biggest collection I’ve seen lately fills a bookshelf in the lobby area outside TanakaSan, Tom Douglas’s and Eric Tanaka’s new Asian-fusion collaboration on the ground floor of the Via6 Apartments. There you'll find classics from Douglas’s own 20-year collection. Nowhere near the cooks in the kitchen, mind you, nor for sale in one of the many commercial areas in the huge food-and-sundries operation Douglas calls Assembly Hall--these cookbooks aren't for on-site use or for customer purchase.
Instead they constitute the foundation of a cookbook lending library that Douglas and Tanaka envisioned for the apartment dwellers upstairs, who may want to borrow a book to try out a recipe in their own apartment. Look for this to start up after Assembly Hall gets a little more mileage under its considerable belt.