Zachary Pacleb might seem like an artist you'd bump into at a cafe on Capitol Hill and while he is that, he also cooks at Restaurant Zoë and has learned from other great chefs in Seattle. Pacleb, a California Culinary Academy grad, returned to Seattle and jumpstarted his culinary career at Crush under Chef Jason Wilson. The pensive artist has stood astute in the area's best kitchens like Crush, Quinn's, and Canlis, gleaning lessons for the kitchen and inspiration for his own artwork.
SW: How did you decide to go to culinary school?
Pacleb: The biggest reason why I started cooking was because of my grandma. She's Filipino. Every summer when we were younger, we'd go to Hawaii, which is where my Dad was from. We'd go there and walking in, her kitchen was always busy. She ran a boarding house, so she always had people to feed. She always had something going, rolling lumpia or a big pot of rice always on. Everything that she cooked me or handed me was amazing. That kind of trickled down to my Dad. He really likes cooking too. Since 9th grade, I decided that I wanted to go to culinary school, and I didn't really think of anything after that. As soon as I decided that, I didn't think about applying to any back up schools or anything.
How did you meet Jason Wilson and get the gig at Crush?
Jason Wilson was coming down to California Culinary Academy for a dinner. [My Dad] saw that he was coming down on the school's website and told me, "You should meet this guy, he has a restaurant in Seattle and he's coming down for this guest chef dinner." [Wilson] went to that school and that's why he went back to do the dinner. I checked out some of the photos on his website and I was blown away; the food was beautiful. I was getting kind of homesick at this point. I wasn't able to find a good job around San Francisco. Without my Dad, who has been another huge influence in why I cook, I wouldn't be where I am today. He gave me that tip off. After meeting Jason Wilson, we did the dinner and I got to know him a little bit; it was great. Pretty much after that, I was like, "Yeah, I'm moving back up to Seattle." I feel like that was the start of my culinary career because all the places that I've worked in before then was not as fulfilling as that place.
What valuable lessons have you been able to learn in the kitchens you've worked in?
There were a lot of restrictions in Crush as far as space but I think it taught me a lot about how to manage my space, how to manage myself in terms of space, and how to work more efficiently with the tools that I have. I learned more working in that kitchen about the restaurant industry than I did in school.
One of the biggest things that Jason Franey [from Canlis] taught me was attention to detail, precision, and unwavering standards as far as what you want in the quality of your food. I think it was more Franey's stubbornness in not wanting to accept anything that was subpar. I've actually never seen anyone act like that before. That first year and half period was pretty much Jason Franey figuring out what he didn't like about how that kitchen was ran and testing out new systems and new ways to do things, which for us as cooks was a terrible time period, but it was what he had to do to get the kitchen efficient. I walked in there later after I left, and everything just seemed to be more streamlined than what it was. He taught me a lot about organization and implementation of proper systems, of the ways a kitchen should be run. Another thing would be the replication of the exact same dish, precision with plating. Creating the exact same dish every single time, which I've come to learn is not always possible and not always necessary, but it was the first time I've seen something like that.
How is your experience with the chefs at Restaurant Zoë?
How is your experience with the chefs at Restaurant Zoë?
Working for somebody like James Sherrill [chef de cuisine at Zoë]—we were friends before and worked together at Quinn's—he worked for yellers throwing pans in the kitchen and stuff, he knows that that is not who he wants to be. It's like a breath of fresh air working for somebody who has the same ideals, who doesn't want to make people upset.
I've never been an aggressive person or a confrontational person. My entire life I've been, I wouldn't say timid, but more of a willingness to please everybody. A lot of chefs, they get super aggressive and angry. It sends the whole kitchen into a flurry, which has happened at Canlis, at Crush, even in school. It has happened everywhere. I don't agree with that. It's something I've seen and something I don't believe in.
Tell us about your artwork.
I feel like I need to find something to balance out the hectic chaos and a lot of times that's me going home and sitting in front of a canvas for two hours and painting before I go to sleep. It might be five 'o clock in the morning but I just put forth all of the pent up frustration and energy into another medium. Some of this reflects in the work that I've done. It's been kind of sad, not really sad, but kind of macabre. It's just a totally different side of myself that comes through because of me really venting, I guess. The reason I love cooking though is because I still see it as an art form. It's the art form that I feel truly engages all five senses. That sense keeps me thinking about what I can do on a canvas and what I can capture in a camera lens. It all ties into this creativity that I feel I always have, and I just use these different outlets to express these particular feelings and emotions that I have. Cooking is easily one of the most profitable ones. The other ones, I'm trying to sell and produce, but cooking takes up the majority of my time.
I've done a couple of paintings working with a spoon. I use acrylic and tempera based paints. I pretty much just use it kind of like a sauce. Just the same way that I can paint on a plate, I can plate on a canvas. There are certain things you can do with a spoon, where you can achieve certain textures that you just can't do with a brush. It doesn't have that same cleanliness to the lines. I just love painting on a plate, so why can't I just do that painting on a canvas? That was something we used to do at the end of service at Canlis, and that was really fun. Jason [Franey] would get really upset at us because we weren't breaking down our station and cleaning. We would take all of the leftover purees at the end of the night take a huge platter, and me and this buddy of mine, this other cook, would just take all the leftover food and paint. It wasn't always coherent as far as flavors go, but it looked really nice!