Tom De Paolo is the author of four cookbooks, all written after his 75th birthday. That’s because he didn’t learn to cook until he was 78. We interviewed him at his beachfront home on a lovely cove in South Laguna where he has lived for 30 years.
Gracious and charming, he seems surprisingly youthful for his 81 years.
He regaled us with stories of his large Italian family in Roseland, N.J. As a small boy visiting his grandmother, he remembers there was always a house full of people. It was quite common to have at least 15 at every meal. His grandmother did nothing but cook. After breakfast she went shopping for lunch, and after lunch she shopped for dinner. Everything had to be fresh.
He attributes his love of wine to the tiny thimbleful he was given as a child, so he could participate in the toast that began every meal. Of course, at the time, he really didn’t like it. Then, as he grew older he realized that his grandfather’s homemade wine was “really rather dreadful."
Wine-making, however, did become a family business. Uncle John owned a vineyard in Napa. During prohibition, he sold “sacramental wine" out of the vineyard’s 12-car garage to the church but also by the case to anyone else who was in the know. Tom eventually inherited that winery but sold it awhile ago.
He grew up in Hollywood. His colorful, “crazy Italian" father was a famous racecar driver who won the Indy 500 in 1925. His mother, with a very different temperament, taught ceramics at USC. He ended up with a career in marketing at J. Walter Thompson and later with the Disneyland Resort, where he worked until he retired.
For Tom De Paolo, retirement and then the death of his wife, three years later, made for a difficult time but it also created new opportunities and tapped into resources he never thought he possessed.
When Tom retired, his very savvy wife realized that golf alone would not be enough to keep her husband busy, so she suggested he take up painting. He had never picked up a brush in his life but she had noticed he doodled all the time when he was talking on the phone or watching TV and she thought the drawings were quite good.
Several lessons later, he was hooked.
The other thing he discovered (necessity being the mother of invention) was that his love of good food meant he had to learn how to cook. He simply couldn’t exist on the store bought stuff because his wife of 52 years had spoiled him with her excellent cooking. Being the resourceful gentleman that he is, he taught himself how to cook by watching the Food Network, using his wife’s recipes, reading cookbooks and, very soon, combining bits and pieces of each to create simple recipes of his own.
Actually, when he was first married, he had wanted to cook and was encouraged by the production of a successful soufflÃ© on his first attemp; it quickly became apparent, however, his wife was an amazing cook, and so he left the kitchen behind.
As Tom developed a repertoire of simple but tasty dishes that didn’t require a lot of cleaning up afterward, he decided to write a cookbook for other people who found themselves in his position. He says a lot of people don’t know how to cook, even some who say they do.
The book was titled “The Suddenly Single Chef." It combined his talents for cooking and art. He did all the illustrations himself. His friend Nancy Milby of the Laguna Culinary Institute tested all the recipes. He then self-published it and used his marketing skills to sell the book.
Its success encouraged him to write another cookbook, this time with recipes children could cook called, “Sheff Cooks for Kids." Recipes included s’mores and grilled cheese sandwiches and were tested by a group of chefs-to-be aged 6 to 8 at the Culinary Institute.
“Laguna Cooks," the third book, branches out to include recipes from restaurant chefs in town, his own recipes and a few from local residents. It is illustrated with his landscape paintings of Laguna as well as simple drawings.
This was his most difficult endeavor because getting recipes from chefs is no easy thing and getting those chefs to reduce them down to family size was, to say the least, an ordeal. Also, finding recipes that were simple enough for home cooks presented a challenge. Again, Tom, Nancy and her crew tasted many times before getting things right.
You can find Coyote Grill’s ceviche, Sundried Tomato’s spring rolls with honey cilantro pesto, CafÃ© Zoolu’s sea bass Asian style and China Bistro’s aromatic shrimp. Our Mayor Toni Iseman offers her lazy chicken recipe, so named because it is easy to throw together after a busy day in the council chambers. Nancy’s recipe for flank steak salad with shallots and gorgonzola is a great dish for summer.
Tom, with his youthful energy and enthusiasm, has turned this idea into a series: the second being “Dana Point Cooks," and he is hard at work on “San Clemente Cooks."
Between painting landscapes in his sun-drenched studio overlooking the ocean and working on his next cookbook as well as a book on healthy living for seniors, he has made the most of this phase of life "” a good example for us all.
“Laguna Cooks" and “Dana Point Cooks" can be purchased from authorhouse.com and “The Suddenly Single Chef" and “Sheff Cooks for Kids" are available at xlibris.com. In town, they are all available at Lattitude 33, and “Laguna Cooks" is at Laguna Books.