Chef Janice Provost has been an active member of the Dallas food community since she graduated from El Centro’s culinary program. A few years later, in 2002, she bought the sophisticated Oak Lawn bistro Parigi. Recently the restaurant celebrated its 32th birthday.
Provost is the co-founder, along with Chad Houser, of Café Momentum and she serves on the advisory board for Letot Girls Residential Treatment Center, where she volunteers as a culinary instructor for the North Texas Food Bank, teaching students the basics of cooking.
Provost is a past president of the Greater Dallas Restaurant Association and a member of Les Dames d’Escoffier, a philanthropic group that mentors women in the culinary profession. Provost created the Parigi Scholarship Endowment fund through the DCCCD Foundation. So far she has raised over $1 million dollars towards scholarships for culinary students, including those at El Centro. In late June, Provost headed to New York to cook at the James Beard House.
I caught up with her last week and asked her to sum up her experiences.
I understand you grew up on a mini-farm in Houston. Is this where you developed you appreciation for fresh ingredients?
JP: Even though my zip code said I was in Houston when I was growing up, we were really in the country. The land had belonged to my great grandfather who settled it when he migrated to the United States from Germany. I remember going to his farm and pulling carrots from the garden, chewing sugar cane we had just cut, and the old framed smoke house filled with the smell of charred hickory wood.
My mom carried on that homestead tradition at our house. We had bees, chickens, rabbits, geese, and ducks. It definitely shaped my appreciation for knowing where our food comes from, and caring for the lives of the animals who provide you with a source of food, and showing that life the respect it deserves.
What brought you to Dallas? And what did you do when you got here?
JP:I finished college in 1990, and my choices for home included moving back to Houston and living with my parents, or coming to Dallas and living with my brother and his wife, while looking for a job. My 21-year-old mindset made Dallas the clear choice.
Before you entered the crazy restaurant business, can you tell us how you made a living?
JP: I was an outside sales rep for a telecom company and literally cold-called businesses all over Dallas and Fort Worth. It taught me a lot about working with people, being organized, and earning the trust of the customers I gained.
Those lessons are things I still apply today in the restaurant business. Keeping employees motivated, guests happy, and sales moving forward apply just as much in running Parigi as they did working in the telecom industry. The difference is I can keep Parigi more of a family-run business, instead of a corporate environment, and I like that very much.
Parigi has been a well-respected restaurant for over 30 years. That took a lot of guts to buy. Can you talk about how the transition came about?
JP: After 12 years in sales, I was seriously burned out. I decided to leave the telecom industry. I began doing small one-off catering jobs for friends and decided to apply at Marty’s as their Director of Catering. That is where I met Melody Wolfertz, who was the executive chef of Marty’s.
Having always loved to cook and entertain, my husband suggested that I go back to school to study Culinary Arts. I enrolled at El Centro and fell absolutely in love with the kitchen. During that time, Melody had moved to Parigi to run it. She invited me to come in and work as a part-time prep cook. That was 19 years ago. Obviously it worked out.
When Melody decided to move home to Maine and open her own restaurant, the guys who owned Parigi offered me the executive chef position. I knew I was nowhere near ready for that, but I told them if they ever wanted to sell it, I would very much be interested in buying it.
As they continued the search for the chef position, they included me in the interview process. That is where I met Abraham Salum. He wowed us with his “interview dinner,” and charmed us with his personality and his kind eyes. He was hired. He ran dinner and I ran lunch.
Shortly thereafter, the owners offered me the opportunity to buy Parigi. It was such a sweetheart deal, in that they offered to finance it for me, which made it possible for me to afford it. I asked Abraham to stay on. He agreed and he became a minority partner.
For three years we worked together. Then Abraham approached me to either buy me out, or to leave and open his own place. At that point, I felt confident that I could handle the role of running the kitchen and owning the restaurant. I had learned so much from Abraham and the time was right. To this day, he remains one of my dearest friends and I am so thankful for the time we had working together.
You’re just back from New York where you cooked at the James Beard House for the second time. How was this one different from the first?
JP: Technically, this was my third time. I was lucky enough to go with Abraham when he cooked there in 2012. That trip gave me the luxuries of comfort and familiarity when I was invited to cook there in 2014.
One of my favorite things about the most recent dinner was the number of friends who came to New York from Dallas. We sold out the dinner in less than a month. Close to half of the guests were our “regulars.” That meant so much to me. That was some serious love.
My dinner in 2014 was in November so the availability of product was more autumnal and the menu reflected the season accordingly. While I love that time of year, and the flavors that are associated with fall, I was so excited this year to have the opportunity to create a summer menu. The abundance of gorgeous, vibrant colored produce and the fact that I would be able to harvest some from my own garden made planning for this menu so much fun. I planted specific items in the hopes of serving them at the dinner and it paid off. All of the baby tomatoes that we used in our tomato-beet-peach salad, the hoja santa in which we wrapped the fish, and many of the herbs we used were from our four plots at Promise of Peace Garden.
Shopping the Union Square Green Market was incredible, and I found things I didn’t even know you could find at a farmer’s market. Being in the warmer months, I had so much more to choose from.
I see you took a team from Dallas with you. Who was in the kitchen with you?
JP: The team from Dallas consisted of Rosie Delgadillo, Mayra Garcia, Evelyn Aloupas, and Eduardo De La Cruz. In addition, Melody Wolfertz came in from Maine and Lisa Arrango from Florida. Mynetta Cockerell was there in spirit (she came with me last time), and she sent the brownies that went in the goody bags. We also had the pleasure of Hayley Hamilton-Cogill as our sommelier. She spoke about the wines we offered with each of the courses. It was a knock out team.
I would also have to say the team that stayed behind in Dallas made it possible for us to leave for 4 days, and I am especially grateful to them.
To keep the Parisian spirit at Parigi alive, you spend time in Paris each year. Give us some of your favorite places.
JP: My husband (Roger) and I love going to Paris and we love staying in an apartment rather than a hotel. That allows us to shop the markets and feel like we live there, albeit for just a week or so. If we are there during the holidays, we get Belon oysters almost every night and bring them home to eat with some bubbles.
We spend our days out and about and most of the evenings at home because we have been walking and exploring all day long. The trip is always scheduled around a weekend to ensure we can go to the St. Ouen flea market where I pick up fun things that I can use at the restaurant. This last trip I found escargot tongs and forks and some beautiful miniature martini shakers from the ’20s. I also picked up some silver plated casseroles which we served our chicken and dumplings in this winter.
Our tradition for Christmas Eve is to walk Rue Cler. The first pass is to see what is there and then I walk back down it to make purchases that will become our Christmas dinner. When we do eat out, it is usually for lunch. Some of our favorite spots are Le Cherche Midi, (Italian, on the Left Bank and rumored to have been where Andree Falls, the original owner of Parigi, got the her inspiration); Le St. Regis and Les Fous de L’Ile, both on Ils Saint-Louis; and a little Indian place off of Blvd. St. Germaine called Old Kashmir. We splurge at Ledoyen or Atelier by Joel Robuchon. It is hard to go wrong in Paris.
Everybody always asks you about the iconic chocolate blob, so I won’t. I’ll just say, it’s the best damn chocolate anything in Dallas. I assume it will be with you until the end.
JP: Ahh, the Glob. Yep, it is here to stay. What started out as brownies taken out of the oven too soon has evolved into one of our customer’s most beloved desserts. It is the epitome of a food memory for so many and what is really cool is that fans of it are now three generations deep. The kids who grew up eating the Chocolate Glob with their parents are now enjoying it with their kids. I think it is safe to say as long as there is Parigi, there will be the Chocolate Glob.