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October 8, 2014 at 9:53 AM

Honored chef Caprial Pence back in town after 20 years

Caprial Pence photo by Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times

Caprial Pence photo by Greg Gilbert/The Seattle Times

Caprial is back in town and headlining a new kitchen.

Her full name is Caprial Pence, but she’s a one-name chef to fans of the cooking shows she starred in for years on the Learning Channel and then public television with husband John. She was one of the early kitchen boldface names in modern Seattle, winning the first James Beard award for Best Chef in the Northwest in 1990 at the fine-dining Fuller’s restaurant at the Sheraton Hotel.

After the couple spent some 20 years in Portland, many of them running their own restaurant and writing cookbooks, they’ve returned to Seattle. She’s now head chef at another hotel property, the Bookstore Bar & Cafe at the Alexis Hotel downtown. It’s a reconfigured space in the building that long ago housed a standout restaurant, The Painted Table. John Pence is looking into teaching and philanthropic work.

“We love this city. I love Portland, too,” she said. “If you could have two hometowns we have two hometowns, that’s how I feel about it.”

The remodeled spot is a combination of the previous Bookstore Bar and a new 35-seat restaurant carved out of a former jewelry store.

Pence expects to move the menu into a style that better fits the “casual space,” focusing on small plates plus a separate food menu for happy hour. She’s added a hearty, seven-days-a-week brunch to the already-busy breakfast menu. “We’re making our own pastrami, but we’re making it with pork shoulder; we’re grinding our own burger meat; we’re doing the salmon pasta; we’re doing quite a few lunch things on the brunch menu,” she said.

She set a quick new menu in place and expects to do a “solid” overhaul over the next few weeks. A new floor manager is also in the room, as “even though it’s casual, I still want it to be a nice, beautiful service.”

Pence grew up in Portland, and she met John while attending the Culinary Institute of America in New York. They wanted to live on the West Coast, but in the recessionary early ’80s there weren’t many opportunities back home.

They both got jobs at restaurants connected with influential Seattle restaurateurs of the day, Caprial at Dominique’s Place and John at Crepe de Paris. “He actually went to Fuller’s first,” Pence said, but lost his job in a layoff. When they called back the next day to hire him back, “he already had a job, so I went for it,” she said. She received a warm welcome.

As far back as 1990, Marion Burros was commenting in The New York Times that Pence was “in the vanguard of Washington State chefs who actively encourage farmers to produce for them so that regional ingredients are readily available.” Her food “reflects her personality — engaging and unpretentious.”

She also had a young son by that time and was pregnant with her daughter. Her parents still lived in Portland.

“We just knew if we were going to do this crazy business, it would be better to be by family,” she said.

She and John moved south, ran Caprial’s Westmoreland Bistro, wrote nine cookbooks, opened a cooking school and filmed “I don’t know how many seasons of the cooking show,” she said.

The restaurant closed in 2009. “We stood back for a few years and just taught classes and did some corporate events and things like that, and tried to assess what we wanted to do. We just weren’t sure what was going to make us happy.” They ran a “micro” fried-chicken restaurant, attempted a Kickstarted supper club … and then Caprial’s eye was caught by the job listing for the Alexis.

Interviewing, the Alexis team asked, “Would you move to Seattle?” she said. Her reply: “There’s no reason I can’t.”

The children who brought them back to Portland are grown. They were already downsizing and selling their house. They still had enough friends in Seattle, and visited often enough, that it felt familiar and welcoming — as did the Bookstore space, and a chance to put her own creative stamp on another restaurant.

“I’m not cooking on the line every day, but I am participating in cooking and creating in the kitchen every single day. I don’t want to cook on the line every night — I’m 51 — but I do want to be involved in the kitchen and I still want to create.”

Comments | Topics: Bookstore Bar & Cafe, Caprial Pence, James Beard award

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