COVER STORY: Home Cookin’

Oak Cliff’s Janice Provost, the chef proprietor at Parigi, had a terrific idea. Her husband, Roger, had caught some red snapper in Galveston. What better to do with it than blacken the snapper?

Unfortunately, Provost says, she hadn’t taken into account her 1930s-construction duplex.

“I didn’t realize the amount of smoke I was about to create,” she says, “and I forgot that the windows were painted shut. It was so thick you couldn’t see, and it took two hours to get it clear. It took two weeks to get the smell out.”

In other words, professional chefs are just like the rest of us in the privacy of their own kitchens. This might seem hard to believe, given their skill and that it should be easier to cook at home than in a restaurant kitchen. After all, it’s quiet at home, there aren’t any customers pricking the meat to see if it’s rare enough, and a waiter isn’t pacing up and down waiting for the next order.

Nevertheless, many chefs don’t like to cook at home. In fact, several big-name chefs said they wouldn’t be of much use for this story, since they stay as far away from their home kitchen as humanly possible.

“I cook at home very seldom,” says Kevin Dean, the sous chef at Tillman’s Roadhouse. “Mainly because I’m never there. But on my days off, I love to cook for my family. “

So Dean and many of his peers persevere. They do the same things we do — throw back the apples with brown spots in the produce section, brave grocery store checkout lines at 5:30 in the afternoon, and leave pots and pans scattered all over the kitchen.

And you know what else? Their home efforts aren’t always as successful as their professional ones.

Says Michelle Carpenter, the chef/co-owner of ZEN Sushi: “I vaguely remember cleaning something green on the ceiling of my kitchen long ago.”

Or there was the time that Susie Buck of Winnetka Heights, who owns the catering company Susie’s Cuisine, tried to fry some turkeys.

“I over-cooked the hell out of the first one, not realizing how fast they cooked, she says. “I finally figured it out, but wasted a really good bird.”

Their experiences offer hope for the rest of us. If a big-time chef can make amateur-like mistakes, then it’s a lot less embarrassing when we do — and it’s something we can learn from. Feel guilty about all of the 49-cent packages of ramen noodles in the pantry? Don’t. Chefs use them, too. Embarrassed by the oddly-shaped muffin or cookie tin that you got for Christmas? Don’t be. Chefs get them, too. Feel silly that you have an expensive piece of kitchen equipment that you had to have and never use? Don’t. Chefs do that, too.

“Just relax and enjoy what you’re doing,” Buck says. “Don’t make a big deal out of food. Less is more. Don’t over-think it, and cook with ingredients that you like and that your family likes as well. It should be fun, which is why I do it.”

Which is good advice to follow if you don’t want to smoke up your kitchen.

Michelle Carpenter, ZEN Sushi chef/co-owner

Most interesting place you worked before your restaurant: For obvious reasons, the most interesting place I worked at was a sushi bar in Del Mar, Calif., right next to the famous nudist beach called “Black’s Beach.”

What you like most about being a chef: I love it when people completely surrender their notions of what they dislike and let me prepare a meal of things they would have never tried on their own — and they love it.

What you like least about being a chef: When I do eat out, I find myself dissecting, rearranging and trying to improve a dish in my mind, when I should just enjoy the experience. It’s what I ask of my own guests.

Where you eat when you don’t eat at your restaurant: I like Vietnamese (Green Papaya), Dim Sum (Kirin Court) in Richardson, and the various late night Korean places around Royal.

Guilty pleasure restaurant: Sweets from Susie’s Cuisine.

Best advice for the home cook: Keep everything simple. Spend a little extra on quality products. The freshest produce and quality meats and fish require little seasonings and sauces. You want those flavors to be pure and not lost in all the extra spices. Don’t fuss with following recipes exactly; taste things during your cooking process. Your body will tell you what you need — extra salt, less peppers, more sugar. Your tastes will change accordingly. Listen to your mind when you have cravings; it means you need something, whether it’s nutritional or emotional.

Most essential gadget or piece of equipment: The most important thing to have is a proper chef’s knife. You could get rid of everything else.

Silliest gadget or piece of equipment you’ve owned: If I had any silly gadgets, they were gifts by well-meaning people whom I love dearly.

Most surprising thing in your pantry or refrigerator: The only thing in my refrigerator is bottled water and homemade dog food.

On wanting to be a chef: I don’t think I ever consciously thought about being a chef growing up, but now that I look back, it’s so obviously what I was meant to do. My mom is Japanese, and my father’s from Louisiana, and I grew up in San Antonio. We had amazing, diverse and complex foods all around us growing up. Plus, both my parents are great cooks. Our family never wanted to go out and eat, as it wasn’t going to be as good as “regular” food.

On cooking at home: The only thing I cook at home is dog food for my Akita. I never cook at home for myself, because I do it for a living. I think that everyone feels the same about doing their jobs at home.

Susie Buck, Susie’s Cuisine owner

Most interesting place you worked before your business: I really loved working as a personal chef for my first family. They have two boys who were quite young at the time and were very picky. I also liked trying to change the eating habits of the adults. It was quite a challenge and one I loved taking on.

What you like most about being a chef: Creating things — what you can do with food is endless.

What you like least about being a chef: The hours. You work your tail off, and people don’t realize how much work goes into a meal or catered event. It’s very time consuming, and I’m sure many of us in the food industry have sleepless nights going over menus, details of an event coming up, and the like.

Where you eat when you don’t eat at your business: I love La Calla Doce, off 12th Street. It’s a family-owned and -run business. They love their customers and care about what they think, plus they have the best ceviche around. It’s like eating with family.

Guilty pleasure restaurant: Aw Shucks off Lower Greenville. That is my place to go and pig out on cold boiled shrimp, fried catfish and shrimp, crab cakes and, of course, good cold beer.

Most essential gadget or piece of equipment: I love my simple Japanese mandolin, and can’t live without my microplane zester.

Most essential gadget or piece of equipment to splurge on: A food processor, because you can do so many different things in one.

Silliest gadget or piece of equipment you’ve owned: A potato cutter that makes spiral-cut potatoes. I never use it.

Most surprising thing in your pantry or refrigerator: Ketchup — used to call it “Susie sauce” in my house when I was a kid.

On wanting to be a chef: I got tired of being a secretary and had cooked so much for friends and family that they finally said, “Why not do this for a living?” So I interviewed for a part-time position at the Crescent Club and, well, the rest is history.

On cooking at home: I don’t cook as much as I’d like, probably two or three times a week. And I like to cook at home. I love to grill, so pretty much anything you can grill — steaks, lamb chops, veggies, stuffed mushrooms, spiced sweet potato wedges or fish.

 

Kevin Dean, Tillman’s Roadhouse sous chef 

Most interesting place you worked before this job: Being part of the team that opened Stephan Pyles was a truly remarkable experience. Only those who were there can fully understand why. The thrill of creating new cuisine with a culinary icon like Stephan showed me a whole new world and gave me a great deal of confidence in my abilities. It was eye-opening in many ways.

What you like most about being a chef: I love being able to express myself creatively through food every day. It’s very gratifying to see people enjoy the food you helped to create. The kitchen also offers new things every day. There is never a boring day in a restaurant. I think if I had to sit behind a desk all day, I would go crazy.

What you like least about being a chef: I dislike the many personal sacrifices necessary to be a chef. I work nights, weekends and holidays when everyone else is having fun. Most of all, I hate how little I see my beautiful wife and daughter.

Where you eat when you don’t eat at your restaurant: One of my favorite restaurants in Dallas is York Street. I love Sharon Hage’s unpretentious approach to food. She cooks very seasonally and very locally. I also adore Uchi in Austin.

Guilty pleasure restaurant: Chipotle. That’s the closest to fast food I’ll permit myself to eat.

Best advice for the home cook: Learn basic cooking techniques from a good cook you know. Once you know how to season, sear, sauté, roast, poach, etc., you won’t be so bound to recipes. The freedom to innovate comes from knowing cooking fundamentals inside and out.

Most essential gadget or piece of equipment: All of my coffee paraphernalia. Burr grinder, French press, vacuum brewer and espresso machine are all essential. My Pedro’s beverage wrench, from the bicycle tools company, is a close second.

Silliest gadget or piece of equipment you’ve owned: Maybe the remnants of three broken food processors I haven’t thrown away yet.

Biggest home cooking disaster: When I was a teenager, before I started cooking professionally, I tried to make a quiche with non-fat milk. I ended up with scrambled eggs in milky residue. Ick. I also tried to make a beurre blanc with non-alcoholic wine and margarine. Total failure.

Most surprising thing in your pantry or refrigerator: Pimento cheese. It’s not mine, though. When my wife wants to buy pimento cheese, I make her take it out of our basket and buy it in a separate line. True story. Sorry, sweetheart.

On wanting to be a chef: After I got married eight years ago, I started doing the cooking at home. I liked cooking, and didn’t really like what I was studying in college. So I enrolled in culinary school and have never looked back.
 

Janice Provost, Parigi chef/proprietor

Most interesting place you worked before your restaurant: I was in outside sales for about 12 years before entering the restaurant business. I loved the interaction of working with new customers and establishing long-term business relationships with them. Doing that job really helped prepare me for my career as a restaurateur.

What you like most about being a chef: The creative process, the intensity of a busy service, and the guests who become family.

What you like least about being a chef: The brunch shift. I am not a morning person, but thank God I have a great crew that is.

Where you eat when you don’t eat at your restaurant: So many great restaurants — Kavala, Hunky’s, Trece, Olivela’s, Shinsei, Adelmo’s and Dali.  Great food at all of them, great energy also, and the chefs/owners of most of them are friends. I like to support good people who work hard.

Guilty pleasure restaurant: Snookie’s after service with my staff — cheese fries, loaded, with extra jalapenos. Isn’t that awful?

Best advice for the home cook: Don’t try to do everything the day of. Plan ahead, and prepare some things in advance so that you can assemble them just before you are ready to serve. That’s how we do it at Parigi, and you can, too.

Most essential gadget or piece of equipment: My favorite, other than my chef’s knife, is a Japanese mandolin. It’s inexpensive, adjustable and awesome.

Most essential gadget or piece of equipment to splurge on: A food processor. Think pesto, purees, mushroom Duxelles, dips, spreads. It’s endless what you can do with it.

Silliest gadget or piece of equipment you’ve owned: An avocado slicer. I shouldn’t have bought it. I actually just sold it in a yard sale.

Most surprising thing in your pantry or refrigerator: Miracle Whip. I love it with sliced tomatoes and really thinly sliced onions on soft, white bread. Terrible, I know, but it is something I grew up with.

On wanting to be a chef: I didn’t know I wanted to be a chef when I was a kid, but I did always love to cook. The first memory I have of cooking is making French fries. Loved ’em then, love ’em now. I ended up becoming a chef because I had a passion for cooking, entertaining and feeding people. My husband encouraged me to learn it professionally, so I went to El Centro, took some of their cooking courses and found myself working at Parigi a couple of nights a week. Two years later, I had the opportunity to buy it. It was definitely my calling.

On cooking at home: I really enjoy making dinner on Sunday evenings with my husband and friends. What we make depends on what is fresh and in season. We do a lot of grilling, and beef usually finds its way onto the plate. We also make pizza often. It is so versatile, and I adore a crispy, thin crust. With the new kitchen in my house, I hope to cook even more.


WANT MORE?
Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Oak Cliff.