Have you attended a Sur La Table cooking class? Followed recipes in our cookbooks? Watched your favorite chef in action at one of our stores? Meet the person who made it all possible: Doralece Dullaghan. After 23 years, it’s hard to say goodbye to one of Sur La Table’s most influential team members. Before she starts the next chapter in her life in July, we asked her to share some of her favorite memories (lunch at Jacques Pépin’s house!) and funny mishaps (The Typo that Ruined Christmas) over the past two decades.
Can you tell me a little bit about yourself and how you came to work at Sur La Table?
First I was a customer of Sur La Table. That was when there was only one store in Pike Place Market. I would go there on vacation and I shopped the catalog.
I had worked for the March of Dimes for 24 years and decided that I wanted to change from my vocation to my avocation. I had heard about a Sur La Table store opening up in Berkeley, and I thought, “Oh! I love Sur La Table! I could work there.” So I called them up but was disappointed to learn it wasn’t happening. Then on my birthday, I was at Sur La Table in Seattle and this woman said, “Can I help you?”
And I said, “Yes, I really wanted to be manager of the Berkeley Sur La Table that you were going to open but now you’re not.”
She said, “Oh! We are now, and I’m the hiring manager.”
What a coincidence!
Yes! So they hired me to be opening manager of the Berkeley store on September 11 in 1995, and I’ve now been with Sur La Table for 23 years.
What’s your secret to staying with one organization that long?
Flexibility, I think. One of the things that SLT is really good at is recognizing the talents that people have and giving them work to do that makes them shine. I’ve enjoyed working on a variety of projects over the years. I started the culinary program when I was the store manager at Berkeley and then worked for the corporate office to expand cooking classes across the country. I also worked on store openings and events in the stores and eventually joined the marketing department.
During my time at Sur La Table, I’ve developed relationships with a lot of people in the culinary world—chefs, cookbook authors, and food organizations, I’m a member of like the International Association of Culinary Professionals, the James Beard Foundation, and the Southern Foodways Alliance. Now as Director of Strategic Partnerships, I can get my tentacles out there to connect Sur La Table with influencers in the food community.
Can you tell us about some of your favorite projects over the years?
I was the project manager for 10 Sur La Table cookbooks, two of which were finalists for James Beard and IACP awards. And The Art and Soul of Baking won the IACP award for Best Baking Book in 2009.
Photo excerpt from The Art and Soul of Baking.
It was such an invaluable experience to work with photographers at the photo shoots. I came to the conclusion that when you hire a photographer, really what you’re doing is renting their eyes. It’s the way they see things that you may never even notice. It’s amazing what an art form photography is. Now when I’m taking pictures on my phone, I’m going, “Oh! I could do this…”
Our book Eating Local featured 10 farmers who had community-supported agriculture programs across the country. Meeting those farmers was one of the high points of my career because I learned so much, and they were so inspirational. Farmers are the ultimate risk takers because their whole life depends on the weather, which they can’t control.
How did Sur La Table’s Jacques Pépin collection come about?
Jacques Pépin book signing at the Pentagon Row store. Left to right: Doralece’s husband, Doralece, Jacques Pepin, Jacques granddaughter, Shorey and daughter, Claudine.
Jacques was on a book tour, and I set up a Q and A and book signing at the Sur La Table corporate office. Our CEO at the time was looking through Jacques’s cookbook and said, “Oh, this artwork is so lovely. Do you think we could create a tabletop collection using his paintings?”
So I called up Jacques’s agent and said, “Here’s this idea, what do you think?” And the rest was history.
About two weeks ago I had the opportunity to go to Jacques’s house and he made lunch. That was one of those peak career experiences.
What did he serve?
He made this delicious tomato soup that had mascarpone swirled into it. His wife likes sushi so he had a rice dish topped with fresh fish, caviar, avocado, and sesame seeds, along with some sauces to eat with that. He had a cheese plate and then creme caramel for dessert. He also served edible primroses that he’d pressed, dried and sugared.
Jacques house is very homey. It’s totally unpretentious. It’s not like a palace. He’s lived there 42 years. Plus, he has a huge metal sculpture of one of his roosters in the back yard.
Do you have any stories about Julia Child?
There’s one incident I’ll never forget: Julia was set to do a book signing at the opening of our store in Cincinnati, but we were told we couldn’t do it inside because of a safety issue. So we moved everything outside. Then they said, “You can’t do it out here either.”
About that time a woman who managed a bookstore in an adjacent shopping center said, “You can have your event in our store.”
I said, “Yes, but we have to sell our books.”
She said, “That’s not a problem.” So we moved all the books along with our POS system, just as the sky was getting ready to unload torrential rain.
I called Julia’s assistant to say, “Don’t go to Sur La Table! Go to this other location!” But by that time Julia’s driver had gotten to the store and the police said, “You cannot go into this parking lot!”
When Julia finally arrived at the bookstore, she walked right up to the signing table, sat there and signed books as if nothing had ever happened. We were all losing our minds, stressed to the max and Julia just rolled with it, calm as a cucumber.
Dinner with Julia Child.
How about any memorable interactions with customers over the years?
During the holidays back when I was manager of the Berkeley store, a customer brought back a roasting pan. She said it was warped, and she didn’t like it. The salesperson who was helping her thought we shouldn’t take it back because clearly the pan had been used many times. But we’re known for really good customer service so I told him, “Just give the customer her money back.” So he did, and she was fine. We couldn’t send returns back to the vendor, so eventually I wound up with that roasting pan. And 23 years later, I still use it every Thanksgiving.
Have you noticed a lot of changes in the culinary world during the time that you’ve worked for Sur La Table?
I would say that the Food Network has created more attention on cooking and food as entertainment. PBS also has been one of the stalwarts of cooking on television, but their shows are more technique-focused.
Do you have favorite cooking shows that you watch?
I don’t even have time to watch television. My granddaughter watches more food TV than I do. But I’ve always enjoyed watching Anthony Bourdain—I could just turn the TV on before I went to bed, and there he would be eating food in some strange place where I have never been before. So many people lived through him. We used to do events with him in our stores. I expected him to be outrageous like he was on TV, but he was this quiet, unassuming person. After he passed away, one of my Facebook friends who used to manage Sur La Table’s Pine street store posted the cover of one of our catalogs that he’d signed and drawn cartoons on.
Rachael Ray and Doralece.
Can you talk a little bit about your interest in food?
I have five bookcases of cookbooks. So I love to cook. Well, I’m really more of a baker than a cook. My father owned an Italian restaurant that seated 250 people, and I grew up there. My father’s family loved to cook, loved to eat. He was passionate about it and cooked every day of his life. My mother was the opposite. Her favorite phrase was, “I eat to live; I don’t live to eat.”
Last year I won a pie-making contest that’s put on by a newspaper here in Virginia. I won for Best Pecan Pie. I adapted the crust recipe from the Tartine cookbook. It works every time and comes out really flaky, almost like puff pastry.
Doralece’s award-winning Pecan Maple Pie with Orange Zest and Smoked Maple Bourbon.
What do you like to make for family and friends?
When I have people over for dinner, I always make things I’ve never tried before. I like to test recipes out on friends—that way I can make something that serves six but not have to eat it for three days.
One of the things I made for my husband before we got married was a cake that was on the cover of Chocolatier magazine. It looked like a chocolate box that was open. The bottom was a heart-shaped chocolate cake that was topped with raspberries. For the lid, you had to create a half-inch thick piece of chocolate in the shape of a heart and then prop it up at an angle so that the raspberries were falling out of the chocolate box. I made that cake twice. Never again! My husband was very impressed, but it was a lot of work.
Julia Child once said that “Any disaster is a learning process.” Do you have any memorable kitchen mishaps you could tell us about?
When I was managing the culinary school for Sur La Table, two different chefs (Barbara Tropp and Hugh Carpenter) told me about the same technique: As soon as you bring out something you’ve made, taste a little piece and say, “Oh! This is fantastic! You’re gonna love it!” That way, nobody will ever say anything is not good. No disaster is ever a disaster because you’ve preempted the conversation.
Julia also said, “Never apologize for anything you make.” Chances are the people you’re cooking for aren’t going to know the difference, and they probably wouldn’t have gone to the same amount of work that you did to make it.
Oh, but I do have a perfect disaster. One year on Christmas, I was making an upside down cranberry ginger cake. When I saw the amount of baking powder in the recipe, I went, “Hmm, that doesn’t look right.” But it was Christmas so what could I do? I couldn’t call anybody.
After it had been baking a little while, I thought “What is this SMELL?” I go into the kitchen and open the oven and there’s cake ALL OVER the inside of my oven! It’s turning black. It’s sizzling. It was horrible, horrible. The next day, I sent the cookbook author an email and said, “What is WRONG with this recipe??”
She says, “Oh, there’s a typo in there. In the subsequent ones we fixed it.”
I say, “Well, I got one of the ones that wasn’t fixed and that typo gave me a DISASTER in my oven for Christmas.”
Do you have a favorite tool you reach for every time you’re in the kitchen?
A 6” Shun classic serrated utility knife. It’s fantastic. It has a really fine serrated edge, and the knife isn’t really huge. I love it. I use it every day.
What do you think no kitchen should be without?
You need three great knives: a chef’s knife, utility knife and paring knife. If you like to bake you should have a stand mixer. I’ve had the KitchenAid tilt-back one for more than 30 years, and it still works perfectly fine.
We use our Vitamix every single day. I make protein drinks for my husband. What else? A half sheet pan—you can use them so many ways. A good cutting board. A 10” to 12” sauté pan with a lid so you can do multiple things with it. A stockpot. We have a Breville toaster oven—there are lots of things you can do in it so you don’t have to turn the oven on. You know I probably have more stuff than most people…
Hazards of the job…
You’re right. When I first started working for Sur La Table, my husband said, “I didn’t think you were going to leave your paycheck at work every single time.”
What are some of your proudest moments during your time with Sur La Table?
One of the things I’m proudest of is the cookbooks we created. I learned so much by making them. Not only did I feel happy about the way they turned out, but they also won awards.
Speaking of which, I won Sur La Table’s first CEO award in 2011. That was a high point.
I knew a chef in Washington, DC, who put me in touch with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History—the one that features Julia Child’s kitchen. They wanted to do cooking demos for the public so they built out a demonstration kitchen and I approached our vendors to stock it with their products and our products. Then I worked with them to on their program called Cooking Up History. Each month, different chefs talk about American cooking traditions and demonstrate a recipe. A resident chef from Sur La Table does a demo on Julia Child’s birthday every year to honor her legacy and one other time during the year.
One day, I was talking to a curator at the Smithsonian and said, “Why is there nothing about Sur La Table in the Food History exhibit in the museum?” I put them in touch with our store’s founder Shirley Collins and she donated a handmade paté mold that had been made by a Seattle artist and given to Julia Child to use at the demo she was doing in Seattle. I’m proud to have influenced Sur La Table being recognized for that contribution to food history at the museum.
What are you looking forward to after you leave Sur La Table?
Finally having more time to bake—using my shelves of cookbooks for inspiration. I’m going to really enjoy making things I haven’t tried before. I like recipes that have multiple steps because that way I learn new techniques.
What’s your best piece of advice for home cooks?
Don’t worry about making a mistake. You learn from every single thing you do. Use every cooking experience as a lesson for what to do next.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.