Cooking in the shadow: Crab cakes with thyme aioli

Listen to John Handy’s Hard Work by clicking on the post title.

I was fifty when I finished my final shift working for Tom Douglas at the Dahlia Lounge. I punched out, changed my sweat-soaked socks, let myself out the back door, and limped down Fifth Avenue to the #118 bus stop. Every morning when I rode in to work from Vashon, my bus passed through Pioneer Square, and every morning I saw an old breakfast cook, hair stuffed under a baseball cap, wearing a grease-stained apron, leaning against the alley door of a downtown dive bar smoking a cigarette. And every morning, I thought, “If I’m not careful, that will be me.”

I was tired, my knees ached, I lacked the energy to participate at full steam, I had no real enthusiasm for the daily menu meetings, and later that month, my culinary career ended. On the day I left, the Dahlia’s menu included Potato Gnocchi with Roasted Tomatoes and Gorgonzola Cream, Tuna Sashimi with Green Onion PancakesLobster and Shiitake Pot Stickers, Dungeness Crab Cakes with Thyme Aioli, and Coconut Cream Pie—all Tom Douglas creations.

My career began twenty years earlier in the Vashon Elementary School lunchroom kitchen. On the day I started, the menu included peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, fish sticks, Tater Tots, and Jell-O Surprise—all recipes from the federally-funded Food for Schools Program. In the years between those two commercial kitchens, I became a skilled line cook, a competent kitchen manager, and an adept interpreter of someone else’s passion.

In a Seattle Times article charting the connections that created Seattle’s modern restaurant scene, John Sundstrom (one-time chef at the Dahlia Lounge and current chef/owner of Lark) said, “People expect Tom Douglas to be in the kitchen cooking their crab cakes. When you work for Tom, you’re in his shadow as a chef. When you start influencing the menu and having more creative control, you want to be recognized for it.” For Sundstrom, cooking in the shadow was a temporary but necessary stopover that fueled the passion to open his own restaurant. For me, and for most professional cooks, cooking under a known Chef provides a reliable income in a stable but chaotic work environment.

During my twenty-odd years in the back of the house, I worked for a variety of chefs: some consistently inspiring, some erratic and temperamental, all of them driven and passionate about restaurants. They learned their way up from the dish-room or they graduated from a culinary institute, but either way, no one got to be the Chef without years of hard work—in a restaurant kitchen there is no easy way to the top.

As a housewife in the 1960s, I cooked because we couldn’t afford to eat out; I cooked because it made my husband happy; I cooked because I grew up in a house where the Mom cooked. In the 70’s, I cooked in restaurants because I needed to pay the rent, not because I had a passion for food. Four years as an English major instilled a love to read, but didn’t provide a career path to self sufficiency.

When I needed a job on Vashon in the 70s, my choices were limited to sanding skis, bottling cider, pressing tofu, or emptying bed pans at the nursing home. In 1974 during a routine shopping visit to Minglement, Vashon’s natural food store, the owner mentioned the new restaurant he was opening with friends and offered me a job as a lunch cook. I was over eighteen (well over), I didn’t smoke weed, and I was reliable—three big ones in the restaurant world. With one summer as a car hop, one Christmas vacation as a Trim-A-Tree sales clerk, six months as a key punch operator, ten years as a home cook, and one school year as a lunchroom worker under my belt, I became a line cook. That first restaurant job offer became a defining connection—the first in a string that lasted for twenty years, put me behind swinging doors in Vashon, Los Angeles, and Seattle, and narrowed my life’s work to the kitchen.

Tom Douglas’s Dungeness Crab Cakes 

  • 10 slices supermarket white bread (about 1/2 loaf)
  • 3/4 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
  • 1 large egg yolk
  • 2 teaspoons fresh lemon juice
  • 2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons hot pepper sauce
  • 7 teaspoons Dijon mustard
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon celery seeds
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 5 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 pound fresh cooked Dungeness crabmeat, picked over for bits of shell and cartilage with claw meat and large pieces left whole
  • 1/4 cup chopped onions
  • 1/4 cup seeded and chopped green bell peppers
  • 1/4 cup seeded and chopped red bell peppers
  • Unsalted butter, for pan frying, about 6 tablespoons
  • Tear up the white bread and pulse the pieces in a food processor to make fine, soft crumbs. (You should have about 6 cups crumbs.) Remove the bread crumbs to a shallow pan and mix in 1/2 cup of the chopped parsley (reserving the remaining 1/4 cup for the crabcake mixture). Set aside.
  • In a food processor, combine the egg yolk, lemon juice, Worcestershire, hot pepper, mustard, paprika, thyme, celery seeds, and black pepper and pulse to combine. With the motor running, slowly add the oil through the feed tube in a steady stream until the mixture emulsifies and forms a mayonnaise. Remove the mayonnaise from the food processor and refrigerate.
  • Place the crabmeat in a cheesecloth-lined sieve set over a bowl. Pull the cheesecloth tightly around the crabmeat and squeeze out as much juice as possible. Place the chopped onions and bell peppers in a sieve set over a bowl and use your hands to squeeze out as much juice as possible. In a large bowl, combine the onions and bell peppers with remaining 1/4 cup parsley. Add the chilled mayonnaise and crabmeat and toss lightly to combine. Add 1 cup of the bread crumbs-parsley mixture and combine. Do not overwork the mixture or the crabcakes may get gummy. Gently form 8 patties and roll the patties lightly in the remaining bread crumb-parsley mixture. Leave the crabcakes in the pan of the bread crumbs until you saute them.
  • Preheat the oven to 425 degree. Using a nonstick saute pan and butter as needed, panfry the crabcakes, in batches, until golden brown on both sides and place them on a baking sheet as they are browned, put them in the oven until they are heated all the way through, 5 to 8 minutes.
  • Serve 1 crabcake as an appetizer or 2 as an entree. Serve with a ramekin of cocktail sauce and a lemon wedge.
  • Cook’s Note: The crabcakes hold together better if prepared a day ahead and stored in the refrigerator before cooking. Store them in the pan of bread crumbs, covered with plastic wrap.

Thyme aioli  

  • 1 large whole egg 
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice 
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard 
  • 1 garlic clove 
  • ¼ to ½ teaspoon salt (to taste) 
  • ½ cup canola or grapeseed oil 
  • ½ cup extra virgin olive oil 
  • 1 Tablespoon fresh thyme, leaves and blossoms only 

In a blender, combine whole egg, lemon juice, mustard, garlic, and a little salt. Pulse until combined. With the motor running, pour the canola oil through the feed hole in a slow drizzle, followed by the olive oil, also in a slow drizzle.

The mayonnaise will start to thicken and when you hear the sound change, it’s time to turn off the blender. Scrape down the sides and add the thyme. Pulse a few times until everything is combined. Transfer to a bowl, cover and chill until ready to serve. 

Or, just stir up some bottled mayonnaise, add a squeeze of lemon juice, a bit of mustard, some minced garlic, a teaspoon or so of fresh thyme, and call it good. 

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