Podcast Episode 46

How to Maintain Infectious Drive and Passion for Cooking

John Percarpio | 40 Minutes | June 14, 2022

In today’s episode, we speak with John Percarpio, who never lost his drive or passion for culinary arts.

John Percarpio is a Certified Executive Chef, Level 1 Sommelier, and longtime instructor at the Auguste Escoffier School Of Culinary Arts. Chef John has cooked for Michelin Star restaurant Palais Lenbach Otto Stasse 6 in Munchen, Germany.

Listen as Chef John talks about honoring the culture of culinary arts, learning a new language to work in Germany, and building a work-life balance.

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Notes & Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, we’re speaking with John Percarpio, a Certified Executive Chef, Level I Sommelier, and long-time instructor at Escoffier. Chef John has cooked for Michelin Star restaurant Palais Lenbach in Munich, Germany, and he’s been the executive chef for various country clubs and hotels. In 2019, he won Manager of the Year at the Renaissance Hotel, right here in Boulder, Colorado. In 1999, Chef John had the honor of cooking for Julia Child’s 77th birthday dinner at Hemingway’s Restaurant in Killington, Vermont.

Join us today as we chat with Chef John about his culinary journey and how he’s helping to shape the next generation of culinary leaders.

Good morning, Chef.

John Percarpio: Good morning.

Kirk Bachmann: How are you doing?

John Percarpio: Doing well. How are you, Chef?

Kirk Bachmann: I’m good. I’m good.

First and foremost, thanks for taking time. I know you’re busy. You’ll be on the campus. People will notice pretty quickly that we’ve met. Really, really glad to have you on.

Before I dive in to a lot of really interesting topics, you reminded me as we prepared for this that you spent some time with Julia Child, specifically cooking dinner for her 77th birthday. I really want to talk about that for a little bit. So many of us in this industry have a profound respect for Julia Child and what she accomplished in her lifetime. Very few of us have the opportunity to meet, much less work with her.

I can remember, personally, one experience several years ago. She was probably approaching her 90s. We had a big student event, and there were young students lined around the building. They didn’t really know much about Julia Child other than maybe Dan Aykroyd’s Saturday Night Live skit. Let me tell you, by the time they left, students were in tears. They were laughing. They were applauding. They, all over the board, knew who Julia Child was. For several hours and hundreds of students, she was polite, thoughtful, signed autographs, listened, shared stories. Just an absolutely amazing individual and tremendous proponent of the culinary arts.

With that as a backdrop, what was it like to have to prepare food for Julia for her 77th birthday?

Cooking for Julia Child

John Percarpio: Utterly nerve-wracking. There was so much energy and so much focus on the event that it was nerve-wracking. I was the chef de cuisine at the time. I was in charge of the kitchen. I did have a chef-owner over me, Ted Fondulas, but he had been out of the kitchen for years. He wasn’t doing the work; he was just guiding us.

We shut down the restaurant to the public for that night. It wasn’t like she bought the restaurant. She made the reservation, and Ted shut down the restaurant.

Kirk Bachmann: I imagine. Good call.

John Percarpio: He didn’t want anybody else in that building. He didn’t want us focusing on any other food. So it was nerve-wracking. But I feel like once we knew were in in good shape – because we were running the four-star kitchen before it and after it – once we felt like we were in good shape in the prep, we calmed down. I just remember asking many times, “How is she? What’s her reaction?” It was so hard to get anything from the waitstaff other than, “She’s enjoying herself.”

You know chefs: we want that instant gratification. We want to feed you and have you feel great about it. Of course, if you’re feeding Julia Child, if she feels great about it, it’s just going to light you up.

Kirk Bachmann: You want her to feel really good about it.

John Percarpio: Yes. We tried so hard. It was nerve-wracking, but rewarding.

Kirk Bachmann: Did you have a chance to spend a little bit of time with her?

John Percarpio: Oh, for sure. She came back after the meal and spent almost a half hour in the kitchen with us.

Kirk Bachmann: There you go. I love that.

That’s the story you share with your kids when they get older, and students, I imagine, as well. It’s important for us to remind people who Julia Child is as we go forward.

John Percarpio: Absolutely. Even before I knew I wanted to cook for a living, I found myself watching Yan Can Cook, or the Frugal Gourmet. Or once in a while, Julia Child. I would get drawn in by these chefs who were just enjoying what they’re doing, and then enjoying the food at the same time.

Kirk Bachmann: Even James Beard before them. That was before the age of Rock Star Chefs and the Food Network and all of that. We’re giving our age away, Chef.

John Percarpio: That’s okay.

Good Food at Home

Kirk Bachmann: It is okay.

In the same way that many of us in this industry fell in love with cooking when we were young, regardless of where that came from – I can’t wait to hear your story about that. You graduated from the Culinary Institute of America. I’d love to hear from you some of the memories that motivated you to jump into this career when you were younger. Did you grow up in someone’s kitchen? Did your parents cook a lot at home?

John Percarpio: Absolutely. My family is Italian. My dad is Italian, and my mom has various backgrounds, a little Irish, a little Polish, a little Belgian. Both of my parents cooked. They weren’t into convenience foods. My father, being Italian, really wanted more Italian food being cooked. My mom had to cook a lot more Italian food. Growing up with homemade sauces and fantastic breads.

Then I was actually diagnosed with a little bit of a food allergy, not doing really well on processed foods and preservatives. I went a diet called the Feingold Diet, if anybody remembers this diet. They were giving it to children who were “hyperactive.” So then my parents really had to cook homemade food for me, and of course, they did it and it was wonderful.

Food was always something for us to celebrate and to come around the table. I did not grow up in a convenience food house. We cooked food. It was part of holidays and birthdays and food meant so much. Christmas. Christmas Eve, we had the Meal of the Seven Fishes. We’d have seven different kinds of seafood. I remember my sister bringing in eel from New York City, live, writhing around in a bag. I remember trying to prepare eel that night and just having a great time. Lots of food growing up.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that, particularly the ethnic memories, specifically Italian. Stanley Tucci, who you probably know, the world-famous actor, now he’s got a great program on CNN, he has a new book out called “Taste.” It is sort of a memoir. It’s the same stuff. He grew up in New York, but immigrant family. They came over from Italy, and everything was around the dinner table. Everything was around food. His lunches when he went to school were a lot more elaborate than his classmates. Same with me, coming in on the German side of things. I would go to school with Black Forest torte, or apple strudel where my friends had Twinkies and Snack Pack pudding. Those are great.

Where did the, “Listen, I’m going to do this for a career. I’m going to go get educated. Then I’m going to do this for a career,” – when did that pop in?

A Rogue Pirate Finds His Ship

John Percarpio: It absolutely happened in high school. My father sent me to a college preparatory academy called the Harrisburg Academy from fifth grade until high school graduation. He was a physician, he was a dentist. I was into the sciences and all these things. I was a bit of a rogue wave in other classes, but I also did really well in art.

I was in high school, and I was just really interested in the sciences and how the world actually works, and I was really artistic at the same time. I decided to get a summer job. And it was at a restaurant.

I went into this kitchen and I saw how it was controlled chaos. It was somehow chaotic, but under control. The chef was having a great time. He was so positive and energetic, cooking in this Italian restaurant called Rillos in Carlisle. It finally clicked on me. I was like, “Wow! This is it. This world that I’m in right now fits my pirate, rogue wave personality. It’s utterly artistic, and we’re bound by science.” I felt like, I can do this. I’ve got the scientific knowledge to understand the food safety and the physics and the chemistry, what we’re going to do. But I also have the artistic side to make it beautiful and pleasurable. I’m also a pirate myself. I felt like I would join this band of hooligans and we’d go and have a great time.

I knew it in high school, and I decided to apply to the CIA, and my dad was like, “Ah…cooking, huh? Uh…Maybe think about this.” Once he saw how serious I was and how determined I was, he was like, “Go for it.”

Kirk Bachmann: Great parenting.

John Percarpio: He came out and ate at the Little Nell and was really happy.

Kirk Bachmann: Oh my gosh! We’ll get to that in a second. I want to emphasize a couple of things that you mentioned there. I love the analogy of a pirate. That’s you’re new nickname around here, by the way. I’ve never thought pirate when I thought about you. I’ve always thought somebody that follows the rules. I love that.

A French chef once said to me as I was probably frantically running around the kitchen, he pulled me aside and said, “Always know that all eyes are on you.” You have to gracefully move through the kitchen. That controlled chaos is by design. One of the simplest pieces of advice they gave me was when you know you’ve got to move to the other side of the kitchen for something, think. Stop and think about everything that you need on that side of the kitchen. Rachel Ray used to do this on television. She used to take a big stainless steel bowl over to the refrigerator and put everything in it, and then bring it to her workstation, so it wasn’t frantic. Absolutely love that.

Speaking of calm and not-so-frantic, we’ve got to talk a little bit about the Little Nell. Bobby Stuckey was on with us not too long ago.

Connecting Through Externships

John Percarpio: I work with him every day.

Kirk Bachmann: Unbelievable. I’m getting chills. First of all, Little Nell set the stage, this little boutique hotel/restaurant at the base of the mountain in Aspen, Colorado. It is a temple.

John Percarpio: Impressive.

Kirk Bachmann: You worked there when George was there, George Mahaffey.

John Percarpio: I sure did.

Kirk Bachmann: What a crowd! Bobby came from Thomas Keller and the French Laundry. George had his own reputation. You probably can’t see it, but behind me I’ve got a menu from the Little Nell signed by George many, many moons ago – again, not going to give the age away.

What was that like? You knew what you were going to do. You went to the CIA. I’m just fascinated to learn how the Little Nell became an opportunity for you at a time when the Little Nell was one of the premiere spots in the nation.

John Percarpio: It absolutely was. So how did that become an opportunity for me? I did my externship from culinary school – and this is one of my springboard lectures for our students. They’re like, “Oh, externship.” I’m like, “Yeah! Externship.”

I was working at Rillos in Carlisle as the job before culinary school. Because I went to culinary school, I had an externship to go on to fulfill those requirements. So I went up – we had to go to the library back then – and actually look in a book for the externship sites that were available, and the Little Nell was one of the newest ones listed. And I just applied to it, and I was actually haired by Richard Chamberlain.

Kirk Bachmann: No way!

John Percarpio: He was the chef of the Little Nell first.

Kirk Bachmann: First. Yes.

John Percarpio: Yes. So he hired me. I was 19 years old and I went out there. I tried as hard as I could. Definitely didn’t make it to the hot line during my externship from school, but they had me on pantry. They had me on the garde manger. We called garde manger “The Bear.” Because you have to wrestle first courses and last courses.

I really showed them how hard and dedicated I was, and they offered me a job later in my career. I went to The Skamania Lodge in Washington, but I was like, “I want to go back to Aspen.” I applied back to the hotel, and there were people who remembered me, and Mahaffey brought me back.

Unraveling the European Mystery

Kirk Bachmann: Listen. The Northwest is a beautiful place, too. I’m very familiar with that spot as well.

How does Europe tie in to all of this? When were you in Munich?

John Percarpio: So Europe ties into this. I left the Nell and then went to Hemingway’s restaurant, where we had the Julia Child event. While I was in Vermont, I started connecting back with a German gal that I met years ago, who is now my present wife. We reconnected. She was traveling to Vermont to see me in the spring and the fall. I would then travel to see her a little bit in the winter and the summer. We would try to put this all together. She asked, “Do you want to come live and work in Europe?”

It’s so daunting to try to go live and work in another country, but having her there as my ambassador and my helper to help me with all the paperwork and the visas and the Abmeldung and everything you have to do in German. She really helped me make it happen.

Then when I got there, I had to find my own job. I wanted to do it so badly – and I think this is the reason you asked me this question – I wanted to do it so badly because I really felt like there was a mystery I needed to unravel. Everybody kept talking. “Oh, in France they do it like this. In Italy, they do it like this. In Germany…” You think of the European chefs and the European heritage. This is where all fine classic cuisine was coming from. There was a mystery that I had to resolve in my head. “What’s different? What’s so special?”

Kirk Bachmann: Was it necessary? Was there a point where it became necessary for it to be on your resume? For you.

John Percarpio: I wanted to make it. It was necessary for me, because I had the opportunity. Maybe if I didn’t quite have that opportunity, I don’t know if I would have been able to get it all done myself. Trying to live and work and succeed at the same time. But having the help from Sabine, I had to go do it. There was no way I was going to turn that down. Let’s go to Europe. Let’s do this.

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. Sprechen Sie ein bisschen Deutsch?

John Percarpio: Ja, naturlich. Veil Mein Frau Deutsch ist.

Kirk Bachmann: Sehr gut. Sehr gut.

So fast forward. When you’ve had time to reflect, come back to the States. You have it on the resume. It’s in your soul. Was it everything you needed it to be, and does it still impact you today, the time that you spent in a different country, a different culture, different cuisine, so on and so forth? I’m trying to get this across to our listeners that travel’s important, and exposing yourself to new and different cultures is critical. Critical.

John Percarpio: It was absolutely eye-opening, life-changing, humbling. It was a roller coaster. I have story upon story.

One of the stories was I got an interview at a Michelin three star restaurant called Restaurant Am Marstall. I was shaking. It took me over a month to get the interview. All the communication back and forth. I had on an Italian suit. I had a leather briefcase. I walked into this place. It was gorgeous. Everybody there was gorgeous. I was like, “Wow! This is super cool.”

I walk in, and they’re like, “You have an interview with the chef. Please wait here.” This is all in German, and I’m like, I hope I’m understanding everything. He came into the interview room.

I said to him in German, “Entschuldigung. Sprechen Sie langsamer, bitte.” Which means, “Excuse me. Can you speak a little more slowly?”

And he replies to me, in German, “Meine Kuche ist keine Sprachschule!” And walked out! He said, “My kitchen’s no language school!” My interview lasted ten seconds. I said one sentence and got turned away. That’s the roller coaster part. Wow! I was crushed.

Kirk Bachmann: Emotional.

John Percarpio: I continued at the Goethe Institute to learn German. I got my second interview, and the chef spoke some English. We got along fine. He said, “We’ll hire you after you graduate from Goethe.” I got my job when I got my language skills down.

So that’s the other lesson. You have to get your language skills. Don’t expect them to speak English.

Kirk Bachmann: Sure. Do your mise en place.

John Percarpio: That’s right.

Why Get Certified?

Kirk Bachmann: Let’s segue a little bit into – and I love this topic – this idea of continued education throughout your career. I know that you’ve been certified as an executive chef through the American Culinary Federation. I believe you’re going through the re-certification as we speak. I’m super, super thankful for and respectful of. I’m also really respectful to any chef educator who puts the work into continuing to improve, continuing education.

Of the many reasons, Chef, to become a certified exe3cutive chef at the American Culinary Federation, or to put yourself out there with any organization, professional elevation, what are some of the reasons that you went after this sort of recognition? How does that type of recognition still serve you today? Is there value for you?

John Percarpio: The reason I was going for it was, I was in my second executive chef position. The first one was a little rough. It was working for the Broker Restaurants. It was a business that was not maintained very well. It was a very frustrating executive chef position.

My second one was at a country club. The country club was much more financially stable and the business was more predictable and my staff was better. I actually was growing into the position. “Wow, I’m doing this! I’m getting this done. I’m doing a good job.” I thought to myself, “I need to now make myself recognizable as qualified to do this job. This is not an easy job. Most people crumble when they try to become an executive chef. They can’t handle all the facets that are so different, from purchasing, to receiving, to training, to scheduling, to hiring, to firing, to then creating menus and commanding this team. I felt like was doing it. “I should get certified at this.”

Then, part of the certification was to do a self-evaluation and a self inspection of your kitchen. I thought, “Man, this is cool stuff.” I was already doing a better job simply by looking at the job I was doing. The certification was forcing me to do this. “This is fantastic.”

I got the certification. I passed the cooking part. I passed the written part. Thank God, I don’t have to do that again. The ACF just wants me to get my continuing education hours, and they will honor my title back to me.

Does it still have value today? There are lots of people who say you don’t have to join the club. There are lots of people that say, “Oh, it’s not really respected much anymore.”

I beg to differ. Big hotels really like certifications. It proves to them that you’ve got the chops. You can do this. It really matters. I like hotels. I think they are great companies to work for. They’re financially sound.

Kirk Bachmann: The whole idea of self evaluation, like you mentioned, and continuing to improve your skills. This whole idea of whatever it is – 80 to 100 continuing education hours every five years to keep your certification is current is brilliant in many ways. It keeps you on the edge of what’s going on in the industry.

Do you find sometimes, Chef, that young culinarians today, students in particular, are more curious about these types of organizations to join, or is it something that they don’t have much time or interest in?

John Percarpio: No. I think they do. I think it’s how it’s presented. I present it to my classes every time I go over the syllabus because it’s listed in my syllabus for Foundations. I touch on the ACF. I touch on what it’s all about. I ask them,”Do you know what a certified Master Chef is?” They’re like, “Yes.” I’m like, “Well, this is where it’s coming from.”

I let them know that’s one title of what I have. I am working my entire career with an AOS degree just like you’re achieving at Escoffier right now. I tried to correlate my experiences so they can see themselves following a path to success as well. You just have to put in the work. You have to put in the time.

Relying on Himself to Know His Wine

Kirk Bachmann: And you’re super, super humble. That’s what we appreciate about you. They are also looking to you. They see your skill set, the way you command yourself in the kitchen. They, for the most part, probably hang on every word.

While we’re on that topic of additional knowledge, you are also a Level I Certified Sommelier by the Court of Master Sommeliers, which is really important there. Before I ask a couple of questions about that, can you explain from a stacked ranking perspective, where are you if you’re a Level I sommelier? You know more than the average bear.

John Percarpio: You know more than the average bear. That’s the level. That’s the level. It’s the entry level. It’s the entry level, but what it is, there are so many chefs that want to enjoy wine and appreciate wine, but they don’t necessarily want to delve into all the vinification, vitification, all of the grape farming and the actual wine-making and how it all works, and then the flaws. Then when they have to pair wine with food, they are going to need a professional. I didn’t want to do that. I told myself that if I studied this, I can do this.

This is one of the greatest moments in my career as well, was when Robert Hall from Robert Hall Winery came to the Ranch Country Club. It’s on YouTube. It’s called “Robert Hall Wine Dinner.” He came to the Ranch Country Club to meet me because I was doing wine dinners and people were bragging about them.

What I said to myself was, “If I’m a chef and I do a wine dinner, I have to rely on a sommelier. I don’t want to rely on him.” The wine is finite. It’s already made. I would reverse the wine dinner process. I would taste wine first, pick out the wines that were balanced, then I would write dishes to go with that wine. Where most chefs would write a menu of what they want to create and hand it to a sommelier. “Match wine to this food.” I said, “Hey, the wine’s made. I’ll match the food to the wine.”

Kirk Bachmann: Brilliant.

John Percarpio: It worked.

Kirk Bachmann: This whole notion of continuing education and learning more regardless of where you are in your career. ACF, wine knowledge. What’s next for a culinary instructor, a chef in the industry? There’s so much coming at us. We’re coming out of a pandemic. Plant-based cuisine. Holistic wellness cuisine. Are these all topics that you feel we have to continue to improve our skill set around? Because they’re not trends anymore, right? They’re not trends.

John Percarpio: It’s absolutely our next step. It’s our next step. It’s our next chapter, and we have to make it our next step, our next chapter. What we’re doing is not really sustainable in many ways as a society. If we just look at food, looking towards more plant-based options and being more responsible with how the food is produced and whatnot is definitely going to be our future. It’s definitely going to be where we’re going to see the future of culinary arts. For sure.

”I Haven’t Lost the Drive”

Kirk Bachmann: Totally agree. I’m going to embarrass you a little bit here. You’ve taught with us here at Escoffier for close to a decade now. You bring a wealth of experience from the industry. You command the attention and the passion of your students like no chef instructor I’ve ever seen before – and I mean that sincerely. I’m not far from your classroom. I always find myself pausing when I walk around the campus. Number one, your preparation.

I’m going to set the tone here for those MTV fans from yesteryear. You engage the students with your preparation, your commanding voice, your understanding of the subject matter. What always blows me away – remember MTV Unplugged where Curt Cobain is onstage or Bruce Springsteen’s on stage, and the whole crowd comes around the stage. You do the exact same thing in the kitchen. Anytime that you’re doing a demo, it’s like it’s theater in the round. People are wrapped around you. Whether it’s a tenderloin or a whole salmon, you’re in there and your students are inches away from you. I think that’s an amazing way to teach.

Students like to learn by doing, by touching, by feeling, by seeing every single step in the process. One, I thank you for that.

Here’s my question, Chef? When it comes to your role as an instructor or teacher in general, what’s your motivation to inspire those students? Two different things. Motivation, inspiration. How are you motivated to inspire those students every single day? Where’s that style come from?

John Percarpio: How am I motivated to inspire these guys is because I still haven’t lost the love for this craft. I still haven’t lost it. There were people in my life that helped me find this passion. Really, ultimately, end of the day, that’s what I’m trying to do for those students. I haven’t lost the motivation. I haven’t lost the drive. I still get excited if I cut into a beautiful orange and just look at it, that radial symmetry that’s like a flower. I still haven’t lost it. I think when you have that kind of energy, it gets a little infectious with other people who have this drive as well.

I’m motivated everyday because this is still what excites me. When I’m gardening or fishing or hunting, this is all to end up on a table. These are my hobbies. When I’m cooking for my family, it’s all still part of how I celebrate life. It’s also how I earn money. It’s been this all-encompassing career for me. I get motivated to help them find that in themselves.

When I go into the kitchen, if my preparation is beautiful, meaning they walk into the kitchen and I have everything ready for them, it starts the tone of the day that this is important. “I’m ready for you. You are ready to learn and the stage is set. All we have to do is start the show together.” They typically respond very well to me being prepared so that I’m not worried about the aspects of the kitchen and the physical setup of the kitchen, and that I’m excited even about making beschamel. We talk about the onion pique. I say, “The onion pique looks like a little mouse.” The students are like, “Do we cook the mouse?” I’m like, “You cook the mouse!”

We have to enjoy our lives and we have to enjoy our work, and I think if you find the right job you can do both.

Healthy in Mind, Body, and Spirit

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. Well said. You mentioned energy. I don’t want to let this get past because I learned this about you not too long ago: talk about exercise and how important that is in keeping your mind and your body in focus and in keeping that energy level at a very high peak every single day. You’ve got a pretty regimented exercise routine, don’t you.

John Percarpio: I do. I do. I embraced it in many times of my life. There have been times where I stopped exercising for a little bit. One of the times was doing the pandemic when I was just trying to figure everything out. I wasn’t going to the gym. Nobody was going to the gym. We were all just trying to figure the world out. I actually started rollerblading back then.

I go to the gym. I try to go during the week. I go Monday through Friday. It’s not a long time, but it’s so important for me because cooking in a kitchen can be physically taxing. You’re over the table. You don’t have the best posture. It can be taxing to your body. If you actually exercise and strengthen those muscles, you’ll feel better when you’re on your feet all day long.

And the other part of it is just overall. Just getting that exercise, I sleep better. If I sleep better, I feel more energetic in the day. it’s just a wellness thing. If I’m good in mind, body, and spirit, I’m going to be a good father. I’m going to be a good chef. I’m going to be a good instructor. All three, mind, body, spirit.

Presenting the Toolkit

Kirk Bachmann: I love that. I think it’s important for us to bring it up. It’s easy to get caught up in the kitchens ten hours, twelve hours, and not taking care of ourselves. Certainly appreciate that.

I mentioned students learn best by seeing and then being able to replicate. People are going to laugh. Your toolkit review is legendary within Escoffier. It’s so legendary that I ask you do it at all-staff meetings. Again, for our listening audience, the toolkit includes the chef’s knives that students will use in the kitchens for the very first time, and also in their careers. Are you open to humming a few lines?

John Percarpio: Of course!

Kirk Bachmann: To set the stage: you’ve got this beautiful toolkit with X amount of pieces. It’s in a roll bag. You unroll it and off you go.

John Percarpio: Off I go! The students are so excited to get this toolkit. We go through the inventory, and we go knife by knife. The first knife we pick up is the French knife, the nice chef’s knife. Compared to the knives that I got in culinary school, we didn’t get full-tang knives. We got connoisseur knives. I’ll start to ask the students, “What makes a good knife? What makes an expensive knife?” They start talking about metal and Damascus, and we start talking about full-tang.

I talk to them about how this knife is made of quality German steel. This is full-tang, and I tell them to pull it out. I talk about fit and finish. I tell them, “Rub your thumb on this handle. Can you feel that rivet?” They go, “No, I can’t feel it, Chef.” That’s good fit and finish. I hold it in my hand and I show them how to grab it with a pinch of the fingers and a wrap of three around the handle, and they feel the balance of this knife. How does it feel in your hand? And they like it.

I hold it up and I say, “You know what this knife is? This is your Ford F-150. This thing is going to get you back and forth. Is it a Damascus Steel knife? No. It’s not a Range Rover. You’re not overpaying. You’re paying the right amount of money for a quality tool that’s going to get the work done everyday.” I tell them, “If I could pick two knives to take to work every day, it would be a boning knife and a French knife. I don’t need anything else. Give me those two knives and I can get it done.”

If I go over the boning knife, we call that one the Porsche 911 Turbo. That thing’s turning corners like the Ford cannot. Peeling melons, peeling all of our fruit. That boning knife has many facets other than boning.

They’re so excited to hear about their knives that I tell them all about the benefits of those knives, and they get really excited.

Kirk Bachmann: I think it’s super important to create these analogies in their minds. Chef John says, “This is my Porsche and here’s why.” I can see this being done on the Jimmy Fallon Show. Unroll it. People would get unbelievably excited.

We really appreciate that about you. Professionalism, safety, caution, fatigue, all of that stuff comes in. They may as well learn that right off the bat. I love that.

I was going to mention, you spent a lot of time teaching. Obviously a career in the industry, hotels, restaurants, so on and so forth. You were up United States. I want to take you back, pick when you worked at the Flats with Marriott. How difficult was it at times, or how did you approach being a restaurant chef, a hotel chef, the work-life balance? That seems to be so important to everyone today. Any thoughts on that? And maybe try to juxtapose that with being a chef instructor? Because it’s still a lot of hours. Maybe a little different type of stress. Take us through a journey on both of those positions.

Having the Right People in the Kitchen

John Percarpio: Absolutely. That was my fourth executive chef position. We should get better with each role we take. I knew the business volume of this hotel was larger than what I worked with before. Budgetary sizes. Country clubs are in the $2 million range. This place was in the $5 million range for food and beverage over 12 months. It was more volume.

What I knew from my past experience was in order to achieve that good work-life balance as an executive chef, I need the right people with the right training in the right position for the right amount of business coming at me. You give me those four things. You give me the right person that’s been trained properly in the proper position for the business levels coming in, it’s a dance then. It’s a joy. You just feel it. You can do 300 for breakfast no problem. The food’s fresh, and the dishes are being caught up on, and the turnover is gorgeous. Same thing with dinner. Same thing with banquets.

So for me, the ultimate goal as the executive chef: staffing and training and educating, and giving them a place to work where they feel respected and they have a future and a chance to grow. I wanted retention. We focus so much on our associate engagement with White Lodging. Are your associates engaged? Do they feel like you’re a good boss. We were constantly making sure that the people at that hotel felt like they had a good job. They really couldn’t just walk down the street and make more money. We talked about having the Four F’s for them: making sure they had time with their Family, time with their Friends, sufficient Finances, and they could eat some Food when they were here. We had the Four F’s. We were taking care of that staff. We retained staff. My breakfast cook was there for 16 years. I had line cooks at dinner for six and seven years. That’s the key. If you have that as a chef, your work-life balance is fine because your staff can maintain.

You need to support them when necessary. If that falls apart, your work-life balance can get a little rough. All of a sudden, you’ve got to start picking up a lot more tasks and a lot more responsibilities. For me, that’s the key to work-life balance is focusing on your human resources and your staffing and your training.

And that really equates over to my experience at Escoffier. You guys only made me a better trainer. I only became a better educator. When I moved into the hotel position, I focused so heavily on educating my staff and training them. Then keeping them engaged because I knew it would pay huge benefits for me.

So for teaching, though, it’s a different balance. When I have my student contact hours, it’s mental tiring. it’s not as physically tiring. It’s mentally a little bit tiring. You have to prepare before and after and make sure that you’re ready for those five hours. That’s the key to the teaching job for me; making sure that I’m all caught up on all the aspects and requirements of the job. Making sure that I’m ready for a lecture, ready for lab. Understanding what demos I’m going to do that day. Then, when I walk in and it’s student contact time, I’m available to them, and they can use me as a resource as much as they want, and it doesn’t feel to me like I don’t have time for them. Because all the other work’s done. I do have time for you right now.

Kirk Bachmann: Well said. Your group of students at any given time come from all walks of life.

John Percarpio: Every cohort.

Kirk Bachmann: Different career aspirations, every cohort is different. It’s really good advice. I love the Four F’s, that’s so ahead of it’s time almost. You hear a lot more about taking care of employees today post-pandemic than we did a decade ago. Sounds like you were on a path already with White Lodging.

John Percarpio: Hats off to that company. They really honored the employee.

Chef John’s Ultimate Dish

Kirk Bachmann: That’s great. That’s great.

Chef, one last thing that I’ll ask you to share. The name of the podcast is the Ultimate Dish. You’ve cooked a lot. You’ve eaten a lot. You’ve taught a lot. What, in your mind, is the ultimate dish?

John Percarpio: The ultimate dish, in my mind, is one that just evokes emotion. When we look at the science of cuisine and how your olfactory senses and taste and flavor are all surrounded by the emotions in your brain. The ultimate dish is the one that gives you that feeling that you don’t forget.

I had an idea of what is the ultimate dish in my eyes. I really couldn’t come up with a specific dish, but I came up with an experience that I had in Italy. We were in Sicily. I was on my honeymoon. They have fish of the day, of course, but then the server said the chef prepares un brodo, just a broth when he gets his fish in, and it’s one of his specialties. I was like, “Fish broth? All right, I’ll try it.”

It literally came out in a little bowl and it was fish broth with a little piece of charred bread on the side, a little piece of grilled bread. The depth of flavor and the freshness of the fish, and the fact that I was sitting in Sicily near the beach with the Mediterranean all around me…

Kirk Bachmann: With your new wife.

John Percarpio: With my new wife. My friends, I tell you, life does not get better. Then we were sipping some Vernaccia di San Gimignano at the same time. I literally sat there. “A lightning bolt could strike me right now, and I would be up in heaven, and I’d be like, I did it.”

Kirk Bachmann: Smile on your face.

John Percarpio: I found the ultimate pleasure in life. It was just such a brilliant moment. I think that’s the ultimate dish, when all that comes together. You give people these kinds of memories and they want to come back to your restaurant or your establishment, your hotel.

Kirk Bachmann: Or your table.

John Percarpio: It’s just that feeling. it’s not necessarily an ingredient. It’s the complete experience.

Kirk Bachmann: The best responses are like yours. They are always around food memories. I absolutely appreciate and love that.

Chef, you are as advertised. You are so appreciated here at Escoffier. Thank you for what you continue to do every single day, and I’ll probably see you in a few minutes.

John Percarpio: My pleasure, Chef. Always a pleasure. Never a chore.

Kirk Bachmann: Thanks for being here.

And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.

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