Her Advice: Relax and Wing It

People can get too uptight about cooking, says renowned Seattle chef Caprial Pence

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

``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.

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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.''

Are women getting equal attention in the cooking business these days? ``I think so,'' Pence responds. ``I definitely think as far as publicity and notoriety, they are,'' she says, offering such names as Ann Rosenzweig (Arcadia in New York), Deborah Ponzek (Montrachet in New York; see forthcoming article) and Lydia Shire (Biba's in Boston; see Feb. 28 Monitor), who have helped pave the way. But, she recalls, ``I definitely got some bad attitude at school,'' mostly from old-time teachers.

Two years ago, Pence went to the Republic of Georgia in the Soviet Union to cook as part of an exchange program arranged by Gostelradio, the government-run radio and TV conglomerate, and Seattle's Goodwill Games coordinator. All in all, it was a great experience, she says, but ``we worked under just horrendous circumstances - lack of food, equipment was awful. ... The men wanted to salt our food!'' remembers Pence, who was seven months pregnant at the time.

Pence describes her food as crisp and clean, not obtrusive. ``I want people to look at the menu and have six or seven choices and not know what to get.'' She's an advocate of organic, seasonal Northwestern, and ``cottage industry'' food. (Her restaurant gets its goat cheese, for example, from a small farm in Washington.) Being on the West Coast, she's been influenced by Asian food as well: One of her favorite spices is sambal, a Malaysian chili condiment.

Fuller's posh and pricey ($15-$30) menu, which Pence changes twice a year, features such entr'ees as Cured Rare Beef Tenderloin with Sambal Oelek Mayonnaise, Salmon Broiled with Orange Roasted Shallot Butter, Warmed Sweetbreads with Wild Mushrooms and Seasonal Greens, Veal Loin with Pancetta and Grain Mustard Sauce, Lamb Loin with Roasted Garlic and Forest Mushrooms, and New York Steak with Veal Demi Glace and Dried Cherry Hollandaise.

Lamb is a personal favorite of Pence's, though she says she likes to work with everything, including fish (a big seller). If she were her own customer, what would she order? ``Anything with roasted garlic!'' Pence responds - maybe Kasu Cod, or Coconut Poached Prawns with Sambal and Lime. For dessert: ``Anything chocolate or decadent ... real rich and gooey with a large amount of calories.'' Chocolate Hazelnut Torte, perhaps?

Named after the founder of the Seattle Art Museum, Fuller's Restaurant is elegantly decorated with paintings and sculptures by Northwest artists. Pence shows off a beautiful banquet room featuring Pilchuck glass sculptures. The clientele ranges from regulars to tourists and businesspeople, up to 150 a night.

Accepting criticism from customers and the press is the hardest part of the job, says Pence, speaking for herself and her coworkers. ``It's a real deflater to have something sent back to the kitchen.'' A genuine camaraderie seems to exist among the kitchen staff (``very competent,'' Pence says). They call her ``Cap'' or ``Cappy.''

``You need to believe in people,'' says Pence. ``With the staff, you need to trust them. The people I know who are successful do that.'' What comes around, goes around, she adds. ``It makes people want to go that extra mile for you.''

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