Seattle's Culinary Queen -- A Rare Gift For Food Led Shirley Collins To Create Sur LA Table, Crusade For The Market

An eclectic mix of stainless steel and copper - pots, pans, gadgets, linens, books and food processors - fill shelves and hang from racks.

Do you have pale blue food coloring? A lemon zester? Fish rack for grilling? Candles, napkin rings, antique French silver?

Of course! (Make that mais oui!)

This is Sur La Table, the digs of Shirley Collins, 58, Seattle's grande dame of kitchen utensils and table tops, culinary queen, and high hostess of visiting dignitaries, creator of a bustling business with 45 employees, annual sales in excess - well, she won't say on the record - and every year at least a 25 percent growth. The growth was further strengthened by the addition of a mail-order catalog.

It's enough to keep its owner in European shopping trips, scouting the factories, the flea markets, the farmer's stands for ideas, for unique products - antique silverware is a particularly good seller - and to have her shop and home featured in national home and culinary magazines.

The New York Times magazine said she presides "over the closest thing we have to a culinary salon."

Despite the numerous products made in France and the French name of the store (literally "on the table"), Collins is more Texan than French.

Her Northwest adventure began back in the late '50s when she moved here to work from a small town in southern Texas, later married her journalist husband, Alf Collins, and fell in love with Pike Place Market. She has made preserving the Market one of her crusades.

It was reminiscent of the Mexican markets - home of glossy peppers, round, flat dishes of ground spices, handmade tortillas and roasting coffee beans - to which she and her family traveled across the border when she was a child.

"The Market is a real place in a phony time. The market is our history," she says. "It's become a lot busier since I started. There are more stands, more craftspeople but more farmers, too."

Collins was a Market advocate before she opened Sur La Table, and with Peggy Golberg started the cottage-venture Duck Press. She also worked as the executive secretary of the Seattle Chapter of the American Institute of Architects and was one of the founding officers of Friends of the Market

With both a love of fresh food and markets, it seemed natural for her to enter some form of the food industry.

Maximilien-in-the-Market's Francois Kissel, who says Collins "has a gift for food that not many people have," once advised her if you like to cook, don't do it for a living. She took his advice, locating her first shop in 1973 at 78 Stewart in what had once been a speakeasy and part barber shop - just east of the original stalls of her beloved Market and just north of today's location, 84 Pine.

Originally she thought of calling her kitchen shop the Collins Company, but Alf convinced her that something with more flair was needed. With a $12,000 loan Sur La Table was born. While cities like New York and San Francisco had shops for years, Collins' shop was the first of its kind here.

"Until I opened, you couldn't buy a pastry bag in Seattle."

Even from the beginning, "I was so jazzed," she says. Six days a week, even when it snowed, she would slide down the hill, hang out her sign and feed a family of kittens that lived in the shop.

"We made money the first year," she says. But that required her to work without a salary for five years, pouring all profits back into the business.

Not long afterward, Seattle department stores caught on to the new trend and provided Sur La Table with "friendly" competition.

By the mid '70s the gourmet cooking concept was well under way in mainstream Seattle, and St. Mark's Cathedral Associates sponsored a cooking class featuring Julia Child.

Collins, who had learned to cook from Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," was in the audience, too shy to stand up and tell the crowd that the new, state-of-the-art Cuisinarts Child was talking about were available exclusively at Sur La Table.

The next year, however, when the cooking class came around, Collins was involved, her shop was a Cuisinart mecca, Child came to do book signings and the two formed a friendship.

"She's wonderful and her cooking store is one of the best I know," says Child. "She really knows food and cooking utensils. If you go into a department store you get just clerks who don't know what they're doing. I've been to Shirley's shop a number of times. It's always been a great deal of fun."

During one of Child's visits the flamboyant pillar of French cuisine was demonstrating a pie-dough crust when she demanded: "Got any heely-flappers?"

"I was just so embarrassed. I had no idea what they were," Collins recalls. "Then all of a sudden one of her staff said, `Why, here are some heely-flappers' " and reached under the counter to pull out two stainless-steel slides that slip under the crust to help turn it.

After serving their purpose, the "heely-flappers" - Child's own term - sold at a Pike Place Market Foundation auction for $25 each.

Child is only one of many visiting authors and culinary experts who come to sign cookbooks and keep the store elbow to ice-cream-maker with fans, ranging from pros to the culinary curious.

When road-weary visiting authors come to town, she often prepares meals for them at her vintage 1907 Capitol Hill home, a task she manages well by keeping meals simple.

When Italy's famed Marcella Hazan calls from Venice to arrange a Seattle stop, the request for a Collins-house meal is simply "mounds of crab and good bread." For visiting Alice Waters, Collins sauteed sausages, served with sauteed apples seasoned with rosemary and glazed in apple cider. She made a spoon bread out of polenta and grits, served chard, a wild salad and "some kind" of dessert.

"I knew she was relaxed when she began eating off the plate with her fingers."

As far as Collins is concerned you can't have a love of fresh food without loving markets.

When on shopping trips to France, the markets there are favorite stops.

"I go to the markets and listen to the women talking, `Isn't it a good year for walnuts?' "

The crops mark the seasons.

"It's the song of life, the rhythm of time as much as the holidays. I mark the year by the first cherries that come in," she says.

"Food represents more than just filling you up. It can be delightful, fun, fanciful, make you happy.

"If I had my way, I'd have a kitchen off a bedroom with a side sofa and fireplaces and dining room table in between. Because everybody wants to be in the kitchen. There is a warmth about kitchens," she says. "A certain spark happens there that doesn't happen in other rooms. Besides we all have memories, good memories about kitchens."