Serious Eats

Critic-Turned-Cook Searches for Signature Dish

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[Image: Robyn Lee]

What's your signature dish? You don't have to be a four-star chef to have a dish that defines you. My grandmother was famous for her baked beans, fried chicken, and snappy dill pickles. Like the scribbled handwriting that has become illegible over time, my signature dish has shifted through the years.

It started when I was 10 and became obsessed with making a meatloaf like my mother's. In college, I must have eaten 10,000 bowls of wildly embellished ramen before graduating to Julia Child's version of chicken nuggets. (White meat marinated in lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil before being dipped in bread crumbs and showered in shredded Parmesan. You can find the recipe in From Julia Child's Kitchen.)

In recent years, my signature dish has been a little flavor bomb I call Memphis wontons: pulled pork in wonton wrappers and served with barbecue dipping sauce. I couldn't be more pumped to be associated with this deep-fried "fusion" food.

Still, in the professional kitchen, you don't always get to pick the dish that sticks to your culinary resume. Do you think at some point Paul Prudhomme cursed that blackened redfish? Or that Wolfgang Puck wished he'd never see another gourmet pizza? Daniel Boulud's vast repertoire would make Escoffier proud, but he's always going to be known as the chef who tucked foie gras into a burger, put his initials on it, and charged $32 for it.

The Making of a Signature Dish

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[Photograph: Tom Douglas Restaurants]

My very first cooking job was working in the Tom Douglas pastry kitchen, a sugary hive of activity that produces goodies for five restaurants and the Dahlia Bakery. The uber-talented crew makes beautiful cookies, tarts, cakes and pie. Incredibly creative stuff like blue cheese panna cotta with Coke-candied bacon and sous vide Pink Lady apples.

But the coconut pie reigns supreme here. Customers are clearly cuckoo for the coco pie. Say "Tom Douglas" and fans think "coconut pie."

I had always been indifferent to its charms, but after working in the pastry kitchen, I developed a new appreciation for it because I saw the true team effort that went into making that mother. Carol is the pie crust queen—yes, there's even coconut in the crust. Jake Ulii is the custard king. I got to take a turn piping whipped cream rosettes on top. The dishwasher often shaves the white chocolate that is sprinkled over the finished pie. A whole lot of folks have their hands in that Tom Douglas coconut pie.

Does it bug Tom that his legacy is tied to a coconut pie? Heck no!

"That pie is magic," Tom said when I asked about his relationship to the pie. "Some chefs go their entire careers without having a dish that becomes iconic."

Come to think of it, I bet any chef or home cook, for that matter, is pretty darned tickled to have a signature dish.

About the author: Former Seattle Post-Intelligencer restaurant critic Leslie Kelly has been apprenticing in professional kitchens since the newspaper folded in March 2009 and chronicling her culinary journey from pen to pan for Serious Eats. Inspired by Michael Ruhlman, she recently started a new project on her personal blog, exploring "An Egg A Day".

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