Lunch With D CEO: Janice Provost

The owner and head chef of Parigi on how the Dallas dining community is like a small town.

It can be precarious, dining with a renowned chef. While it’s interesting to see what an expert will order, you also don’t want to embarrass yourself or your organization by revealing your ignorance or naiveté. Luckily, Janice Provost makes it easy and comfortable. 

Provost is the owner and head chef at Parigi, a Dallas institution that recently had a party to celebrate its 30th anniversary. She also co-founded Café Momentum, a program that teaches incarcerated young men the skills required to get jobs in high-end restaurants. The group’s fundraising pop-up dinners have received national attention, and Provost has several stories about kids she’s worked with who have changed their lives, taken positions at restaurants, and gone on to college. She talks with great pride, like the matriarch of a young, diverse culinary family.

But there was a time in her life when Provost was selling long-distance phone services. It might seem like a strange career path, from cold-calling to cooking for former presidents, but, having lived it, she says it all makes perfect sense.

That’s what we’re discussing when the server brings our food. Provost wanted to come to Oak because the restaurant had recently started serving lunch, and she’s friends with the executive chef, Brian Zenner. In fact, throughout our conversation, Provost mentions her admiration for at least nine local chefs. 

“The dining community here is a little like a small town,” she says. “Everybody knows everybody.” 

She decides on the Caesar Salad, served with an anchovy relish, and the soup du jour, which turns out to be chicken and barley. Outside, the weather is gray and misty. 

“A perfect soup day,” she says, after savoring a spoonful. She examines the presentation of each dish, the bright greens in the soup, the shape of the croutons in the salad, then carefully considers the tastes and textures in each bite. She’s enthusiastic about food, but in a way that’s accessible both to globetrotters and regular suburbanites.

Provost grew up on what she refers to as a “mini-farm” in Houston. There were ducks and chickens and rabbits and bees for honey. She even had a horse. But she says her mom wasn’t a great cook. She didn’t think much about food preparation until her first boyfriend in high school invited her over one night and made marinated pork chops on the grill, using his mother’s recipe. 

“There was this pride he had in his mother’s cooking,” she says. “That completely changed the way I thought about food.”

Provost was scheduled to be in New York, cooking at the Beard House—an honor often compared to the Oscars. 

Soon, her parents bought a grill and she started experimenting. Both her older brothers love cooking, too. One owned a chicken-fried-steak restaurant in Houston for 20 years. But when she went to college, she majored in merchandising, and when she got out she took a job selling long-distance service. She was good, too, learning how to relate and connect to customers as she worked her way up the corporate ladder. 

Ultimately, she was frustrated by parts of the business she couldn’t control, when clients weren’t getting the service she’d promised. So she quit. She took some classes at El Centro College in Dallas. Soon she was offered a job in a kitchen. Within three years, she was offered the head chef position at Parigi. She knew she wasn’t ready yet, and helped the restaurant hire Abraham Salum. But a year later, she was ready to buy the place. (Salum stayed three more years, in a partnership with Provost, until she took over.)

A few weeks after our meeting, Provost was scheduled to be in New York, cooking at the Beard House—an honor often compared to the Oscars. There she would promote her farm-to-table approach with a team made up entirely of women, a rarity in her industry. And, early next year, she expects Café Momentum to open up its first restaurant.

Diverse groups, and venues, and menus. As long as she can plan, she’ll be calm. Besides, she says, it all comes back to the same ideas. She wants her food to facilitate a great experience, to contribute to people having a good time.

“In the end,” she says, “I just want to make people comfortable.” 

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