Her Advice: Relax and Wing It
People can get too uptight about cooking, says renowned Seattle chef Caprial Pence
IT'S a Thursday evening at Fuller's Restaurant in Seattle, and the kitchen is clicking into second gear. As chef Caprial Pence shows a reporter around, she shrugs off the antics of a staffer. He's been placing a tiny baby picture of her in creative places around the kitchen. This time it shows up on the aluminum foil box.Skip to next paragraph
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``How embarrassing,'' she says casually, and smiles.
Caprial (cah-PREEL) Pence seems the type of person who always keeps her cool. Her cooking and management style reflect her demeanor: natural and simple. ``She lets you do your own thing,'' says cook James White, the prankster himself, as he prepares a bed of braised, spaghetti-cut zucchini topped with tomato halves and Italian provolone.
At age 26, Pence has unwittingly carved out a name for herself as one of the nation's most successful young chefs. ``I try to ignore it,'' she says about the flood of publicity she has received. ``When I'm 60 I can pull it out and be snobbish about it,'' she jests during a stove-side interview at the sauce station.
Pence began working for this award-winning restaurant, located in the Seattle Sheraton Hotel and Towers, at the fish station. Five years later she's at the helm of the large kitchen overseeing a crew of 10. Though considered young by professional standards, Pence has cooked all her life. When most young girls were searching the library for Laura Ingalls Wilder books, Pence was checking out cookbooks.
Raised in Portland, Ore., Pence says she didn't have ``your normal middle-class upbringing.'' Her mom and dad (an artist) ``always made us watch PBS.'' Naturally, Pence was exposed to cooking shows, one of which introduced her to Julia Child - her role model. ``I just think she's great,'' says Pence as she takes a lump of butter and squeezes it into a simmering saucepan. ``She shows people who aren't in the cooking business that it's OK to make mistakes. She messes things up to tell you how to fix them.
People can get so uptight about cooking, says Pence, ``they should just relax and do it. My mom was like me - she would always just wing it.''
Wing it? What would her classical cooking teachers say? ``They would probably just cringe,'' Pence admits. Classical instruction teaches you methods - how to braise, saut'e, make a sauce - but ``you experiment when you get out.''
Pence graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., where she met her husband, John, a chef and food consultant. Their goal, she says, is eventually to open up a specialty food store that would offer catering, upscale take-out, and maybe a bistro on the side. ``You still have creativity and hopefully a higher profit margin,'' she says. It would also provide more flexibility for the couple who have a 20-month-old son, Alex. Any free time she has is often spent with her family - working on the house and yard, camping, reading. ``I only look at pictures in cookbooks,'' she says.
As with most chefs, the climb up the culinary ladder was grueling for Pence. She remembers scrubbing floors at one restaurant and thinking: ``This isn't as glamourous as they said it would be.''
``In school they tell you you're going to make millions of dollars. If you're an executive chef in a corporation - maybe. But they don't end up cooking that much,'' notes Pence. Also, most culinary students don't realize how hard it is physically to be a chef: the long hours in a hot kitchen, lifting heavy pots and pieces of equipment. And ``You'll never have weekends off, Christmas, or New Year's Eve,'' says Pence. ``You really, really have to love this profession.''