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.
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?