Welcome back to The Carnivore's Dilemma, a column from Jason Price that features recommendations on how to prepare and where to eat meat from Seattle chefs that venture well beyond steak and burgers.
It’s not often that one gets to sit down with someone with such a long, storied cooking career as Caprial Pence. From winning the first ever James Beard Best Chef Northwest Award to having several successful television shows to sharing her drinking stories with Julia Child, she’s been to the proverbial show. After spending the last twenty-odd years or so in PDX, Pence recently returned to where it all started for her – right here in Seattle.
In case you missed it, as of September, Pence is the Executive Chef at the Bookstore Bar & Café in the Hotel Alexis downtown. Why work in a ‘hotel restaurant’ you might ask? The answer is simple: near unlimited ability to create in the kitchen with unfettered support from her staff and management. Something many chefs dream of. Eater sat down with Caprial to talk about her return to the Emerald City and her unbridled love of meat.
Why did you become a chef?
Ultimately because I like instant gratification. I thought I was going to be a doctor or scientist – and I still really love science. But I also really like how food can be medicine and the nutritional aspects of food. I read a lot about it in my spare time.
During high school I got a job in a hospital and I thought it was the worst place on earth. I hated the smell and everything about it. I was going to this ‘elite’ all-girls school in Portland that has produced Supreme Court Justices and the like. But I got a job in a restaurant and I just knew I was in the right place.
Where did you get your start in the business?
My first job was in a German deli in Portland. We made all our own salads, sausages, hot dogs, etc. It was a really cool place in the '80’s in Portland when there wasn’t a ton of choice – and the line of customers was always four to five deep. Their hot dogs are still nationally known.
At that point, I didn’t know where to go so I went to the CIA in New York. When I applied I didn’t have enough experience so they advised me to work a bit more before I would be allowed in – which I did.
When I went [to New York], it was the first time I had been on a plane by myself. Luckily, my best friends lived outside of NYC. So I went up to Hyde Park as one of five women in my class of '72. On the plus side, I never bought a drink my entire time there – but always got called out as being ‘such a girl’ in the kitchen.
Where did you do your externship?
At a little restaurant on the Washington coast called the Shoalwater Restaurant in Seaview, Washington. It’s still there. That was the place I first experienced truly local, seasonal ingredients and cooking.
I remember riding my bike back and forth to work and one day I showed up to see the back shed with all these sheets on the floor. I heard something sigh and looked in - there were these huge sturgeon they had just caught. They don’t stun them because it shocks them and ruins the meat. So they were there just suffocating and it scared the shit out of me.
Wow – now that is truly a ‘local’ experience!
People would bring in huckleberries, wild mushrooms, everything. The waiters raised the escargot we used. It was a pretty amazing place to be exposed to at that juncture in my career. My husband John was on extern in Georgia at the same time and on the phone he’d be talking about hulling out 500 pounds of pineapples while I’d be telling him about the wild sturgeon. I think I had the better gig. After that, I went back to the CIA and was like – "What are these people doing here?!"
So how did you make it to Seattle?
I finished at the CIA and came to Seattle directly. John and I knew we were going to get married eventually and we both agreed that San Francisco was too expensive even then. I didn’t want to come back to Portland and Seattle was best of both worlds. It was very happening at that time as far as the food scene goes and it felt very young and vibrant.
Where did you get your start in Seattle?
Well, I started at Dominique’s Place here in 1984 and then I moved to Fuller’s in 1985. I became Executive Chef in 87, won the James Beard Award in 1990 and then left in 1991 to open our place in Portland.
So I have to ask, how did you end up on PBS?
I had done a lot of local TV here in Seattle and also did a video for the International Olive Oil Commission. They selected six or seven chefs from around the country and then picked an olive oil producing country for us to cook recipes from. That was supposed to be a PBS special that never ran.
When I moved to Portland, someone else on the video met with the producer and was sort of a jackass. Then that person met with the Learning Channel and was a jackass to them too. The producer remembered my section of the video and called me. He met with me and the Learning Channel and we did a pilot which resulted in 65 episodes.
So how did that evolve into Cooking with Caprial and John?
The next year, the Learning Channel decided that they didn’t want to go with cooking and changed their format. So, we moved the show to PBS which was great. It allowed me to write a lot of books, develop recipes and it was all good. Shooting those shows was fun.
You knew Julia Child quite well right? What kind of person was she?
Julia was really smart – crazy smart. She would just remember all these details about people and I would be like – how would you remember that? Like you would show up after not seeing her for six months and she would ask, "Did you change your hair color?"
And she would drink you under the table. I remember being at some event for Fetzer way back when and having dinner with her. She was putting it away with John and I and I remembered that we needed to be on the radio the next morning. She showed up at 6 a.m. all chipper and was drinking iced gewürztraminer. Talk about hair of the dog!
What made you come back to Seattle after spending so much time in Portland?
Well, we closed the restaurant in 2009 because we just knew it had run its cycle. We were trying to sell it and we needed to do something else. We were also pigeonholed a bit based on who we were. We’d tried to tweak things and it just wasn’t working. We were losing money and we began to question why we were doing it at all. So we made the decision to shut it down.
That must have been a very tough decision – to close a place that you’d put so much time and heart into.
It was a huge weight to lift off our shoulders. We scaled back as much as we could so when we did close it down we didn’t have to do much. For a while, we did cooking classes, corporate events, winery events and the like. It was an easy transition for us because in Portland, you could throw a rock and hit a communal kitchen.
But we knew it wasn’t going to be forever. We set out to do this concept restaurant which was based on a single item – we wanted to develop a recipe that was perfect. So we did Korean fried chicken which was great – and then we put it in the wrong place. One year in we were starting to lose money and we knew we wouldn’t do it again. We knew it wasn’t enough for us creatively and financially.
So why come back and run a hotel restaurant?
We really weren’t looking for anything in particular honestly. We were looking in San Francsico and talking to people and came across this job at the Bookstore. I asked John if I should send in my resume and things progressed really quickly. We decided to downsize from this huge house as it wasn’t fun anymore and our kids were out of the house. The house was up for sale when the job popped up and lots of things needed to fall into place.
When I met with the folks from the Alexis I really liked them. We connected and it was one more piece of the puzzle falling into place. The big draw was I would be in charge of both front and back of house. I didn’t want to partner with anyone and I wanted it to be me or nobody.
What are the differences in cooking in a hotel environment vs. a small restaurant?
Normally, in a hotel you have a lot of constrictions like who you can use as purveyors and who you can’t. Here I can use whoever I want to use. They don’t care what I do as long as the restaurant is successful. That kind of freedom is amazing. I wasn’t sure I’d have all this freedom and here I can run the place like it’s mine. I think they trust me.
How do you develop a menu that works for room service and a dining room?
That’s the hardest thing to do and it has been my biggest challenge. The hotel is only 119 rooms and I have one room service server – and it all comes out of the same kitchen. It’s the least moneymaker in hotel and is the biggest challenge.
It’s a five-star hotel and the expectations go through the roof. Of course, we will make you something if we have it in the house. But then there are the people that call and want broccoli when it’s not in season and we just don’t have it.
What is your philosophy on cooking?
It’s changed a lot. When I was at Fuller’s it was one way and when I was at the Bistro it was another. I remember one time when the New York Times reviewed me, it read that I was like "a child in a sandbox with too many toys."
As I’ve gotten older it’s changed. It’s definitely simpler. I’m kind of cooking what sounds good to me. My focus is ‘this is making me happy to cook this’. I definitely think my style is simpler and has come to be more restrained.
When it was just John and I working together we’d develop this menu and what was cool about it was that it wasn’t like a restaurant menu. It was just us and we honed it over those 4 years. We were travelling in Italy and France a lot. Which influenced the way we respected ingredients and let them speak for themselves. Which isn’t always easy as a chef.
It’s also easy to get sucked in by trends and what’s happening around you. Am I cool enough? Am I dated? All those insecurities pop up. You have to shut that off.
Also, one thing I hate is ‘molecular gastronomy’. I hate it with a passion. To me, it’s not food, it’s not cooking and it’s not anything cooking is supposed to be about. You can print that!
So what are your favorite preparations of meat?
Oh, God - so many, so little time. I would say my ultimate thing I love is pork butt – slow cooked or braised. We have a pizza oven at home. After we would make pizza we’d shut it off and put a couple of pork butts in there over water with all kinds of veggies and just let it go overnight. It’s one of the best things in the whole world. Like most chefs, I don’t want a tenderloin – I want something with good fat, balance and structure.
What do you think of using lard in cooking?
I love lard. One of my favorite things I do is pork confit. I season a butt, roll it, let it sit for 2 days, braise in pork fat, slice it, then sear it - and it’s just like butter inside. Lard gets a bad rap but if the pigs eat the right thing it’s very good. It actually has omega-3’s in it and is not as bad for you as some things – like shortening. That and duck fat. There’s nothing better than potatoes and duck fat.
What is the ‘next big thing’ in meat – what’s coming?
Man, at one point I was thinking ‘is the whole cow going to be tied up in the back of the restaurant’? In Portland, The Country Cat does a lot of whole animal stuff. That trend is going to continue when restaurants have the storage and facilities to do it.
I think there will be a continued demand for better quality. Chefs are going to have to pay attention to it because consumers are. John and I always say – if you have an animal that is well taken care of then it’s not so bad for them to have one bad day in their whole lives.
What are you doing with meat that nobody else is in this town?
What I’ve tried to do since I’ve taken over – and I didn’t want to come in with guns blazing – was incrementally put these things out there to do. We are starting to cure and smoke our own bacon, make our own Worcestershire sauce; with every menu I push a bit farther. The first thing I did was pastrami with pork butt: "kick ass pastrami" I call it cause it’s a dirty pastrami made out of pork. I want to keep pushing those boundaries as I feel they can take them on.
What chefs have inspired you?
Julia was a big influence – just because I think she was fearless and I love that about her. It’s funny, my husband is a big influence because he’s good at different things than I am. We push each other to do things we wouldn’t normally do in order to create better things. And we’ll call each other out if something sucks. That’s important. Famous chefs sort of come and go and I enjoy their menus and such but it’s more about the people around me that inspire me.
What’s your favorite non-American restaurant in Seattle?
I really like Mamnoon – good service, really good food. I thought was a solid and a really good experience.
What’s your guilty pleasure with food?
Trader Joe’s corn chips. Corn chips in general but also there’s Havachip – which are at Whole Foods. They toss them with soy sauce and lime and you have to be very careful. They literally talk to me.
Beef, lamb, pork, chicken, goat or other?
Pork every time. It’s because it’s so versatile. We used a lot of pork in Portland and we’d teach so many Thanksgiving classes that we didn’t want turkey. So John would always cure a ham. He’d make prosciutto, breakfast sausage and the like. When our friends would come for Thanksgiving they would always say that they were going to ‘Porkland’.
What’s the best non-traditional cut of meat to work with?
The butt for sure. We would also get these smoked pork shanks in Portland and I loved using them. They would look like lamb shanks and were just fantastic.
What off-beat meat dishes should people look for?
I think that if you can find someone that did goat really well I would suggest you go find it. You should always try something like that when an expert is doing it. If you try it at home and mess it up you might never try it again. But if you have a good chef prepare it for you, it can open your mind.
What meat should people learn to cook if they only know the standards?
I think people should learn how to spatchcock a chicken and throw it on the grill or in the oven. We’d always ask in class how many people had done it before and there would be one or two people. People don’t realize how versatile chicken it is. In France, every good housewife knows how to make chicken. It’s so easy.
When buying meat, what should people look for?
Meat coming from small farms. Ask questions of your purveyor. People don’t ask where their meat is from. Ask how the animals were. Big stores won’t always tell you. And cheap isn’t always better. Eat less meat, but buy really good meat. You don’t have to have eight ounces per serving. You can have four – just make it good.
What’s your go-to karaoke song?
You know - I’ve never karaoked. I’ve never been that drunk! But my son wins karaoke championships so there must be something I passed on to him. I just figured that was the hamminess!