Zephyr Paquette Plays Mama Hen at Skelly and the Bean

Skelly_ZephyrPaquette.jpg
Chef Zephyr Paquette in front of "the coop"
The Skelly and the Bean space is best described as whimsical. A glass garlic clove butterfly catches the light at the window as Zephyr Paquette lines the multicolored chairs up by the mismatched tables and to start the day. Each piece of furniture at Skelly has a story, including a table still bearing a cigarette burn, donated by the local music group, Soundgarden. But Paquette, the chef at the helm, has her own story -- a path less traveled, which led her to "the coop", the name of the kitchen at Skelly and the Bean. The restaurant itself is referred to as "the incubator," a space where Paquette hopes future talent, ideas, and perhaps a love of Dungeons and Dragons, will thrive and take wing.

SW: How did you start cooking?

Paquette: I was probably bit by the bug when I was in a catering kitchen for a family member when I was 12 and I was washing dishes. I was serving tea and coffee to a huge group of Catholic priests and nuns. I was caught by the...you know that noise when everything is working, right? The Bar is going, the pans are clanking, and the customers...There's this kind of din of noise like a buzz. You can piece out each conversation but when you try to put everything together, there is just a buzz. I heard that, and I was burning my hands while I was 12 years old washing dishes. I'm old, so it probably wasn't illegal then. It shouldn't be illegal now. 12 year olds should be working harder.

I started doing different things here and there. I cooked at home a lot. I would write menus for the different houses that I lived in, making breakfast for the kids. I worked in pizza joints, bagel joints, and then I started walking into the back doors of kitchens that I liked and I just asked. I didn't know what interning or staging was. I was just coming in and saying, "I really like to learn how to do what you do." They would let me hang out for a couple days and they would hire me.

Would you say you're self-taught?

I don't believe in the word "self-taught". You get it from somewhere. You always get it from somewhere. I've learned from a lot of great people. I've had some great teachers.

Did you have a lot of exposure to food and cooking when growing up?

Actually, I don't talk about my history or childhood very much because there's not really a lot of it. I was in and out of foster homes and stuff. If anything, I had to learn to scavenge. I had to learn to figure it out. We weren't allowed after school snacks. I would dig through the cupboards to figure out what I could make from nothing. So there was a lot of that early on. I didn't know about any of this.

It has turned me into a super mother hen here. There are a lot of chicken references. We refer to the kitchen as the coop. There are these little cups around with little chickens on it. We also, with the guests chefs series, refer to this as an incubator because it is about the growth that can happen when you give someone their own space and you give them that kind of room to grow.

Do you draw inspiration from the pop-ups that take place at Skelly?

Absolutely. It's totally why I did it. I don't have time to go to school. I mean I can get books and do all this other stuff, but I bring them in. It was kind of the idea that, "Oh if I wanted to learn Russian cooking and what it really is, why don't I get the best Russian chef and let them have the place and peek over their shoulder?"

I stay out of the kitchen while they're here. I usually just float around and be a host, and be here for any questions. We try to encourage them to be here two or three dates in a row so I can maybe take a day off at some point. I still haven't been able to have a day off yet.

Where do you get the support and help in running your own restaurant?

I asked everybody. There are so many restaurants up here, some of them aren't that great, and how did they get the money for it? I don't understand it. I don't have a great credit history, I made some mistakes when I was younger and I'm fixing those. But still. The banks are not a fan of me. So my only option was to do it differently, so I got to, and we do that. It's not that we have to do that, it's we get to, and we have a little fun doing it.

We have a credo here that is, "Humility, honor and respect." On his off time, Mario, our brunch sous chef, came in and deck brushed that floor. It is for yourself to have this and for your coworkers and for those around you. They know that I will give them what they need if they give me what I want, and I would give them what they want if they give me what I need.

Three days ago, I was at the market and from three different entrances, my entire kitchen staff came in to help me shop, carry, and take everything out. [That was] not planned, but they wanted to be a part of what we're doing. My entire kitchen staff showed up! It just kind of happened.

I'm very fortunate. People bought memberships and they came in and painted, they cleaned cow shit off of these boards and they nailed them up. [The staff] come in off hours and deck brush the floors because it needs to happen. I don't ask for that.

Can people still sign up for membership and how does it work?

People can still be members. The idea of the membership is to grow so we can maintain a level of sustainability. I can purchase large amounts of stuff to actually have it later. In the summer time, we'll release some memberships and hopefully, I'll be able to buy hundreds of pounds of tomatoes, run a night shift here, put it up, dehydrate it, preserve it, and do what we have to do so that in January, we'll have tomatoes.

The most common membership that people are going for are $1000. It gets them 12 months of $125 to come and eat here. So it's kind of like a prepaid gift card. It ends up getting them $1500 worth of services. The idea is if you use less than $125 a month, you lose that, but you don't lose the entire month if you go on vacation or if you're not going to make it in, it just gets pushed back. Our system is set up so that we can just reload the cards. We have two cards that are color coded, one is for members, and one is for gift cards.

Tell us about your first investor?

Pascal! So Pascal is my sweetheart's best friends' kid. Mark and Audrey are Pascal and Nina's parents. I met Pascal the year that Nina was born. So I've been with my sweetheart for six years. I got to meet them probably less than a month after Nina was born.

Pascal and I would have some other weird connection. He would say things about me that no one would really know about me. He would have these interesting references. We just had this very interesting, surreal, outlandish, spatially crazy connection. Because of my history, I like to make Mother's Day brunch for a mom I adore. So [two years ago,] I went over to his mom's house and I got to make them brunch. I got there and Pascal and I were upstairs playing Legos, and I went downstairs to make the food. Pascal came downstairs and asked, "Where's Zephyr's bag? I have something for her restaurant." I got home and opened the bag and was like, "Where did all this come from?"

I called and was like, "Hey Mark, I think Pascal gave me ten bucks, I think for my own restaurant?" And he said, "Oh yeah, we were just talking about that. We think you should open up your own restaurant." I said, "Oh, I can totally give you back the ten bucks." He's like, "No, you can't. We think you should open a place too." [Pascal] had a savings bank that was separated into three things and it was spend, share, and save. Share is so they learn about donation and charity early on. He took it out of his share account to give it to me. I tried a couple of times to give it back to him and they're like, "No."

[Pascal] has helped me have my childhood again. He would call me at 9 o' clock in the morning and be like, "Hey, I'm lighting off rockets today. Would you want to meet for a rocket launch?" I would get up--doesn't matter how late I've been up--I would get up and stand in the middle of a wet park and light rockets with him because you have to stop and pay attention. I'm trying to organize a Dungeons and Dragons thing because he wants to learn about Dungeons and Dragons. I'd like to gather a whole bunch of people, maybe even do it here some night, and teach the kid how to play. He wants to learn how to play.

We call him Skelly. His sister is Nina the Bean. They inspire me to be more in so many different ways.

 
comments powered by Disqus

Friends to Follow