Category Archives: “Take Five” Q&A

Take Five with Will Pacio, On His Journey from Stanford University to Per Se to the French Laundry and Finally to Spice Kit

Chef-Restaurateur Will Pacio of Spice Kit. (Photo courtesy of Will Pacio)

When Will Pacio was studying for his bachelor’s degree in psychology at Stanford University, little did he know he’d be returning to Palo Alto a decade later – not as a doctor, as he first imagined, but as a seasoned restaurateur who has since cooked for the likes of Thomas Keller.

The fact that Pacio used to doodle images of pork buns in his notebooks during his morning biology class, though, no doubt helped clue him into what his true passion was.

Peninsula diners are all the better for it, too, as Pacio’s second fast-casual Spice Kit restaurant opened on California Avenue earlier this month, serving up pillowy, steamed pork belly buns, spicy ssam rolls and Vietnamese-style short-rib baguette sandwiches.

It’s a similar menu to his first Spice Kit, which opened two years ago in San Francisco. But the Palo Alto locale also features a kids’ menu and outstanding vegetarian buns stuffed with shiitakes, cucumbers and crushed peanuts.

Pacio, who worked at Keller’s Per Se in New York and French Laundry in Yountville, founded Spice Kit with business partner, Chef Fred Tang, formerly of the Dining Room at the Ritz-Carlton in San Francisco.

The famous pork buns at Spice Kit. (Photo by Carolyn Jung)

The fabulous veggie buns at the Palo Alto locale. (Photo by Carolyn Jung)

I had a chance to sit down with the 32-year-old Pacio to talk about how sheer tenacity landed him the job at Per Se, his nerve-wracking experience cooking for Keller for the first time, and what his doctor-father thought about him turning his back on med school.

Q. How in the world did you go from wanting to become a doctor to wanting to become a chef?

A. It was a year after graduation, when I was working as a researcher at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Palo Alto and applying to medical schools. My roommate (Stephen Chau, another Stanford graduate, who went on to invent Street View at Google) was working at Goldman Sachs, so he was never home.

We lived behind the Menlo Park Left Bank restaurant. So, one day, I just knocked on the back door and asked Chef Christopher Floyd if I could work for free. The next thing I knew, I was working there for three months, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., chopping lots and lots of onions. Probably 100 pounds at a time. I shucked a lot of oysters, too. Then, later, I was allowed to do plated desserts.

In college, we’d eat out a lot. In my junior year, nine friends and I went to the Fifth Floor in San Francisco. It was when Laurent Gras was still the chef. I think it was my first fine dining experience. It was the first time I had foie gras. We had no credit cards. So, I just remember this stack of $2,000 in bills sitting on the table afterward.

I had friends in New York, so I’d go visit them. I ate at Daniel and Blue Ribbon. All the money I was making was going to food and eating out. Soon, I started wondering how to make some of the things I was eating.

Q: Your father is a doctor. One of your sisters is a doctor. You were supposed to be a doctor. What was it like telling your parents that you wanted to be a chef?

A: It was a brutal conversation. There was a lot of yelling. There was a lot of ‘No way!’ and ‘No how!’

I’d already applied to the French Culinary Institute in New York when I told them. So, I told my parents I’d go to culinary school and then get an MBA. That’s how I sold it to them. But, of course, I never did get the MBA.

Q: How’d you go straight from culinary school to working with one of the best chefs in the world?

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Take Five with Chef Justin Simoneaux of the Boxing Room, Who Proves You Can Take the Boy Out of Louisiania, But Not Louisiana Out of the Boy

Chef Justin Simoneaux stand in front of the specials board at the Boxing Room in San Francisco.

Executive Chef Justin Simoneaux wears his heart on his sleeves.

His tattoo sleeves to be exact.

Take a close look at the artwork on this 27-year-old’s arms and you’ll understand what’s near and dear to this chef of San Francisco’s Boxing Room.

On the right arm of this Southern Louisiana native is a tiny front-page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. That’s accompanied by all the makings for a crawfish boil (potatoes, crawfish and crab) and the Cajun ”holy trinity” of onion, bell peppers and celery.

On his left arm is the cityscape of New Orleans, the bayou and gravestones of dearly departed ones.

At the Boxing Room, part of the Absinthe Group of restaurants in San Francisco, Simoneaux cooks up the food of his beloved Louisiana: gumbo, deep-fried alligator, Southern fried chicken, and duck and sausage jambalaya. Before that, he honed his skills in Mediterranean cuisine at Coco500 in San Francisco, and the Moss Room at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.

Crisp crackers with pimento cheese.

The dining room at the Boxing Room.

Last week, I had a chance to sit down with him to talk about how his roots and his upbringing (his mother was only 18 when she gave birth to him) have influenced his career, which started when he took a job as a dishwasher at age 15 at a restaurant near his high school.

Q: Are you cooking the food of your childhood here?

A: It’s the food I grew up eating, but I’m using my training to better the recipes. Don’t tell my Mom and Grandma I said that.

Q: You learned how to cook from them?

A: In Louisiana, everything centers around food. My Mom and Granny made gumbo and stews. My grandfather boiled crawfish and did a lot of grilling. I’d always be like, ‘Ooh, what is that smell?’ I was intrigued from an early age.

Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a chef?

A: When I worked as a dishwasher, then as a line cook, I just fell in love with the adrenaline and energy. I came out here for culinary school (California Culinary Academy) with the intention of going back to Louisiana afterward. But I’ve been here seven years now and love it. I feel like I have two homes now.

Q: When you go back to Louisiana to visit, is there something you just make a beeline for that you’ve just got to eat first?

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Take Five with Mia Messier, Head Chef for Cirque du Soleil’s “Totem” Show

Crew members touch up the stage for Cirque du Soleil's "Totem'' in San Jose.

Mia Messier was a hotel and restaurant chef in Montreal when she decided to run away with the circus.

Not just any circus, but the worldwide phenomenon known as Cirque du Soleil.

Who can blame her?

Now a veteran of nine years with the Montreal-based entertainment company, Messier has traveled with various Cirque shows through more than 25 countries for anywhere from six weeks to a year and a half at a time.

It’s her job to feed the hungry troupe of 52 performers from 20 countries, along with 68 other crew members, while they’re on the road.

Recently, I had a chance to visit her cafe at Cirque’s “Totem” show, now playing in San Jose through April 15.

The fanciful costumes are all hand-made.

Would you believe this got its start as a piece of white fabric?

Light-weight and stretchy.

A mold is made of each performer's head to create these intricate head-pieces.

I also got a quick peek backstage that afternoon with Cirque publicist Francis Jalbert, as crews were touching up the 2,700-pound turtle carapace that is the centerpiece of this particular show. Behind it, a hydraulic stage is flanked by what look like soaring, solid wood reeds. But would you believe they’re actually inflatable, so as to make transporting easier?

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Take Five with Lauren Shockey, A First-Time Author on Her Adventures Cooking in Top Restaurants Around the World

New York author Lauren Shockey. (Photo by Alainna Lynch)

Not long after graduating from the French Culinary Institute in New York, Lauren Shockey set about plying her skills in four top restaurant kitchens around the globe at the tender age of 24.

Her journey through these four stages or unpaid apprenticeships started at famed molecular gastronomy temple, wd~50 in New York; followed by La Verticale in Vietnam; then Carmella Bistro in Israel; and finally, Michelin two-star Senderens in Paris.

Along the way, she discovered new dishes, flavors and techniques, of course. But more so, she came to realize where her heart truly lies when it comes to cooking.

Now, 27, and a restaurant critic for New York’s Village Voice, Shockey recounts her experience vividly, with plenty of humor and provocative insight, in her debut book, “Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris’’ (Grand Central).

The book, which also includes recipes for dishes inspired by her time in these kitchens, is a delight to read for anyone who’s ever contemplated cooking on the line or only fantasized about it. And I’m not just saying that because I had the chance to meet Shockey last year when we both found ourselves as part of a group of food writers invited to tour Quebec.

Recently, I had a chance to talk with her by phone about how the book came about, some of her more outrageous moments abroad, her famous mentor and what lies ahead in the future.

You also can meet Shockey, 6 p.m. to 7 p.m. Oct. 21, at Omnivore Books in San Francisco, when she will be doing a reading from her book, and signing copies.

Q: What was your favorite of the four kitchens you worked in, and why?

A: They were all so different. Wd~50 was a great first restaurant experience. They taught me the right way to do things – how to chop vegetables, hold a knife properly, be methodical and don’t rush, and to clean your station well.

I cleaned crab every day at Senderens. Every day. But a friend of mine who staged at L’Arpege (Alain Passard’s Michelin three-star in Paris) only cleaned the stairs. They never let her touch the food. She said that at least I got to clean crab.

Hanoi was one of my favorites. The chef was very understanding about this being my first experience in Vietnam. He said that Vietnam isn’t just about what happens in his kitchen. He said that I should eat at food stalls and shop in the markets to really get to know Vietnam.

Of all of them, I would go back to the Vietnam kitchen first. I really loved working there and it’s the type of food that I love to eat. I got along really well with the staff there. In New York and Paris, it was very hierarchical, whereas in Vietnam, they were excited to have a Westerner in the kitchen with them.

Q: What was the hardest or most stressful kitchen?

A: New York. I was constantly afraid I was messing up and that I was the world’s worst stage. I thought Wylie (Dufresne) hated me. I couldn’t even look him in the eye the first month. And he’s nice; he’s not a yeller. Being on my feet 12 hours a day was exhausting. It really takes a toll.

Q: Girl, you had some crazy adventures. You ate dog in Vietnam. You know, when I interviewed Anthony Bourdain years ago, he said the one thing he probably never would eat is dog. How hard was it for you to do this?

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Take Five with Chef Robert Sapirman, on His Big Plans for Citrus Restaurant in Santana Row

Chef Robert Sapirman on the terrace of the Hotel Valencia.

Chef Robert Sapirman has circled the Bay Area in the past year, only to wind up not too far from where he once was.

Bay Area foodies may remember him as the long-time head chef of Parcel 104 in Santa Clara. He departed that upscale restaurant in the Marriott Hotel to open Vesu in Walnut Creek, only to see that restaurant shutter a year later.

Now, for nearly six months, he’s been the executive chef of Citrus in the Hotel Valencia in San Jose’s Santana Row, just a few miles from – you guessed it — Parcel 104. The eight-year-old Hotel Valencia, known for years far more for its lively bar scene than its restaurant food, is in for a transformation. By the end of the year, not only will the lobby and other public areas of the hotel get a freshened look, but Citrus will debut a new concept. Sapirman, long known for his commitment to stellar ingredients, was brought in specifically to try to put Citrus on the map for discriminating foodies. Under his direction, expect the restaurant’s current steakhouse concept to give way to a more dynamic one of global tapas.

Recently, I had a chance to sit down with the 37-year-old, New Jersey-born and Fort Lauderdale-reared chef who now oversees the food for not only for Citrus, VBar, and Cielo wine bar, but banquets and room service for the 212-room hotel.

Vietnamese-style caramelized ribs cooked sous vide, finished on the grill, then served with housemade kimchee.

Q: Is your food here similar to what you were cooking at Parcel 104?

A: It’s similar in that it’s ingredient-driven. I try to seek out the best ingredients that I can. My passion now is global tapas. I did a little of that at lunch at Parcel 104 before I left. Vesu also was a great platform for that.

Q: Are you hoping to change the perception that the Hotel Valencia is all about the bar scene?

A: Absolutely. We have a handicap in Citrus in that we’re surrounded by other restaurants. We need to make you come up to the second floor here. Plus, the perception is that restaurants in hotels are not good. I know we struggled with that at the Marriott, too.

I hope to fill this 62-seat restaurant every night and to get people up here to love my food. That’s what every chef wants, right? I hope to make the restaurant as busy as the hotel is, so that when people call for a reservation, there won’t be any.

Q: How will you differentiate yourself from the other restaurants at Santana Row?

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