Chef Caprial Pence has garnered accomplishments that can intimidate: James Beard Award winner; star of hundreds of episodes of cooking shows; co-author (with husband John) of nearly a dozen cookbooks. But when I rolled into Seattle’s Bookstore Bar & Café, Pence’s 20-something son, Alex, put me immediately at ease.
Alex Pence is waiting tables at Chef Caprial’s newest restaurant inside Seattle’s Alexis Hotel while developing his music and film career. While I ate hand-cut chitarra pasta with walnuts, chili oil and grated zucchini, Alex regaled me with tragi-comic, behind-the-scenes stories of growing up with celebrity chef parents. He recounted the letdown of dating a high school girl whose mother was more excited about meeting Chef Caprial than him. The girl’s mom had Caprial’s whole cookbook collection on a special backlit bookshelf. And he told me about the shocked looks of local grocers whenever he stooped to buying frozen pizza. He also confessed to the family’s love of corndogs.
Upon meeting Caprial the following morning, I realize I needn’t have feared. She’s as warm and charming as she is talented and famous, a rare combination indeed.
The Making of a Chef
Long before the awards and cooking shows, Caprial grew up in house in Southeast Portland, the product of an artist dad and a bookkeeper mom. “So I had both sides of the brain working,” she told me as we sat in a corner of the Bookstore Café, out of the way of the breakfast rush. It was a 1970s hippie household. Her father forbade coloring books because they encourage coloring inside lines. Her mom cooked from scratch, making the family’s bread and granola, sneaking bran into everything. Caprial never enjoyed a fish stick unless she was visiting friends.
Since her parents banned network TV, Caprial started watching Julia Child’s cooking show. “Back then, it was samurai movies, book reviews and news programs and Julia Child was the best thing on,” she said.
As an eight year-old, her early kitchen experiments included scrambled eggs, pancakes, cakes, cookies, and the crown jewel in her repertoire, crepes.
Her parents sent her to a Catholic all girls’ high school. “They understood the value of a good education,” she said.
When she moved to New York at age 18 to attend the Culinary Institute of America, that education stood her in good stead. CIA was run much like a military school. In her class of 72 students, only five were women. “I do thank those nuns. Because that sort of high school all girls’ experience really set me up for success. I knew who I was; I knew what I could do.”
While her CIA education was crucial to her subsequent career, she says the most important thing she got out of chef school was husband John. They met at the CIA and are celebrating their 30th anniversary this year.
Bookstore Bar and Café
Fast forward three decades, past working in Seattle fine-dining restaurants, owning their own restaurant in Portland for 17 years, teaching cooking classes and doing many food-related events. Just last year, the Pences returned to Seattle so Caprial could run the Bookstore Bar and Café in the Alexis Hotel. (Don’t miss Teresa’s review of the Alexis Hotel.)
Caprial arrived to find a restaurant with a split personality between a bar and fine dining. Customers enter through a book-themed bar, then continue into the back room if they want a quieter place to dine. Since the restaurant felt like a continuation of the bar, she decided to make the menu more casual while still keeping a level of elegance.
Today, her biggest obsessions are house-made and seasonal. Caprial and her staff make their own ketchup, bacon, pasta and pancetta. Soon they’ll make Greek yogurt in-house. They hand-cut their chitarra pasta. When cavatelli was on the menu, Caprial cranked it out of her beloved vintage pasta maker.
“The only time we have dry pasta is if we have to make a mac and cheese for a kid,” she said. “But other than that, I push the kitchen to make more and more in-house, and less that’s store-bought. We don’t have a lot of cans here.”
Caprial is also fanatical about produce being in-season. She changes the menu every three to four months. “Because the products are so much better,” she explains. “From the standpoint of being a chef, the ideal product is the very best you can get at the best time of season. Local and something that’s in season, you can’t get any better than that, unless you’re actually living on the farm and cooking there.”
Which brings us to her vendetta against the frozen strawberries. The hotel, part of the San Francisco-based Kimpton group, mandates that the bar serve Sangria made with strawberries. “I don’t use strawberries in the kitchen unless they’re fresh and local. So these frozen strawberries sit in the same walk-in and I have to tell everybody every day, ‘Those strawberries do not go into my kitchen.’”
Frozen berries or not, the Bookstore Bar does a booming happy hour. While breakfast is dominated by hotel guests, local business people like to wrap up their day with a drink at the Bookstore. Dinner is a mixture of locals and hotel guests.
I think Caprial spoke for the whole staff when she told me, “My goal is to make people’s experience in the hotel as pleasurable as possible. Because they’re eating with us, they’re sleeping with us, they’re touching us in a lot of different ways. So I feel a really strong sense of responsibility for taking care of people. Because they’re in our care.” — Teresa Bergen, RFT Vegan/Vegetarian Editor