At lunchtime, Peter Miller could choose between pizza or Thai, bakery goods or burritos, or many other options within a short walk from his Second Avenue shop. Or he could pull out a lunch box and unwrap a sandwich from home.
Instead, there he is, as he has been for so many years, putting together a quick noontime meal at his architecture and design bookstore. He is squeezing a fresh lemon, rasping a shower of fresh Parmesan, washing handfuls of bright green arugula and spinning them dry.
Miller and his staff make a point of preparing a quick lunch to eat together every workday. It’s an important dividing line, he writes in his personable and precise new cookbook, “Lunch At The Shop” (Abrams, $24.95), creating “the separation between the front of the day and the back, a narrow strip between stretches of work.”
Miller’s recipes are simple. Lunch might be openfaced tartines, or lentils livened up with mustard vinaigrette and feta cheese and red onion, a “lovely white bean soup with garlic and sausage,” a tangle of pasta (prepared at home the night before) dotted with parsley and clams. One day last week the highlight was a standby sandwich of split Macrina rolls spread with butter and then a rounded spoon of almond butter, a smear of soft Fromager d’Affinois cheese, a crisp layer of thin apple slices, a generous heap of the arugula and a splash of the lemon. It was picnicworthy on its own and a bright spot in the day.
“The hardest thing about it is washing the arugula,” Miller said.
Seattle residents can see how Miller makes the daily lunch happen and imagine that it might be possible to duplicate. He describes how business was so heavy one day that he and his employees simply couldn’t leave the shop to eat. Instead, he walked to Frank’s Produce in nearby Pike Place Market (the bookstore has since moved a few blocks away) to purchase salad fixings, with oil and vinegar and bread from DeLaurenti. He borrowed a dented stainless steel bowl from the Virginia Inn to mix the dressing.
After seven years, he now has the meal down to a science, advising readers on the simple supplies to have on hand (storage containers are key, as are a refrigerator and microwave. A panini press would be a nice plus.) He warns that to make a consistent habit of lunch, leftovers have to be kept under control. Frequently on Fridays he heats a stack of corn tortillas from the Mexican grocery nearby and sets out leftovers that won’t last the weekend for makeshift tacos. The entire spread cost far less than buying a restaurant lunch or coffeeshop salad.
“Of course it’s cheaper,” Miller said. “But I didn’t want that to be the motive.”
He wrote, “By giving lunch some form and detail, you give it grace. By sharing the responsibility, you have the strength of numbers, diversity, and company as well.”
Miller originally made the lunches in a backroom with no oven or formal kitchen. Last year, the shop moved to a new location in a building shared with the Suyama Peterson Deguchi architecture firm, with a small Wolf gas stove in the basement and a long table that can be covered with brown butcher paper to easily seat 12.
When it’s time for the break, the staffers leave their computers and desks and clatter downstairs to the kitchen, where Miller is at the stove, reserving a bit of pasta water in case he needs a touch more for the sauce. “Is this the same butter we had the other day?” one asks, recalling the cream that Miller had enriched it with.
Forkfuls of pasta and scoops of lentils disappear along with conversation about basketball tournament brackets, the logistics of Powerball, the benefits of mahogany versus walnut for a project.
“Thank you, Peter,” one diner from the architecture firm said. “Thank you so much,” said another.
“A pleasure,” he replied.
“Anything left?” one worker said, rattling down the steps 15 minutes into the meal.
At minute 18, the first person looks at a watch, but stays seated, asking a table mate, “Can you pass those cookies again?”
Twenty-four minutes after the first bite, the spread has been stripped down to two lonely sandwich quarters. Chairs are pushed back, plates scraped and washed, the collegial talk ceases and the workers separate once more.
“I don’t mean it to be anything more than 10, 20 minutes,” Miller said. “You can do this.”