Parigi's Janice Provost, Out of the Corporate Fire and into the Sauteeing Pan

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This week, Three-Course Meal catches up with Janice Provost, chef/owner of Parigi Restaurant.

Who are you? I'm 42. I grew up in a suburb of Houston on what my mom called Neal's Mini Farm. We had ducks, geese, chickens, rabbits, honey bees and a horse named Ginger.

I attended Stephen F. Austin State University, studied merchandising and marketing, and went into outside sales when I graduated. I had a really successful career in sales, but didn't really love what I was selling (telecommunications) and didn't like that I wasn't in control of the product once I convinced someone to buy it. After 12 years, I was completely burned out.

Within that 12 year time period, I left telecom twice. The first time, I started a catering business out of [don't tell anyone] my house. I did everything from selling sandwiches from a little red wagon to salon patrons, to small cocktail parties in people's homes. I also had dinner parties at my own home. I just loved entertaining.

While I really enjoyed doing this, I always got sucked back in to telecom because of the golden handcuffs.

The second time I left telecom sales, I went to work at Marty's as their catering sales director. I don't know if you remember Marty's, but it was right across the street from Parigi, sold fine wines great cheeses, and the like. It was Dallas' version of Dean and Deluca. I learned a lot about food here, and this is where I met Melody Wolfertz. Melody was the chef at Marty's and would soon become my mentor. Every chance I had to go into her kitchen I would. "Let me prepare lunch for the staff, please? Can I help sear that fish please? Do you need that platter of beef tenderloin sliced? I can do it!" I must have been such a little pest to her, but she knew I really wanted to learn, and loved being in the kitchen.

Then I got a phone call from the third and final telecom stint I did. I worked for that company a little over a year. By the end of that, I hated getting out of bed in the morning to go to work. Finally, my husband, Roger, said to me, "If you are really so sick of this, why don't you go back to school and learn about cooking? Follow your passion."

So, I enrolled at El Centro College in their hospitality program. After the first semester, I knew I had made the right move. I got a job at Fish with chef Chris Svaleson doing whatever he needed done in the kitchen. I washed dishes, peeled potatoes, whatever. I just wanted to be in the kitchen. This I did for free.

I got a call from Melody a few months later, and she was then the chef at Parigi. She heard I was enrolled at El Centro and asked if I wanted to come to work with her as a prep cook, and get this...she would pay me. I jumped on it. Best move I ever made.

How did you become attracted to the cuisine you currently cook? I remember my first boyfriend cooking me dinner. He used his mom's recipe for marinating pork chops, made rice cooked with beef stock and did some kind of veg with it. All I know is, this is one of my greatest food memories, and it opened the door to the idea that there was more to eating besides smoked turkey slathered in barbecue sauce and overcooked yellow squash. I also loved the pride my boyfriend had in his mother's ability to cook. It was moving. I wanted someone to say that about the food I cooked. My parents bought me a grill, and the love affair with cooking really began.

How did you get this gig? When Melody hired me, she brought me in as a line cook, and then one of the other cooks at Parigi was in an accident. They asked me if I would fill in for her while she was recovering. That is how it really started. I got "put on the line." Here is where I began learning real prep, timing, temperatures, and the like.

When Melody decided it was time for her to move on, the owners of Parigi asked me if I would be interested in taking her position. I knew I wasn't ready, and I truly loved Parigi. I didn't want to see it fail and knew if they put me in that position, it would. I did tell them if they ever wanted to sell Parigi, to please keep me in mind. I believed that I could run the restaurant, I just wasn't ready to be the chef in charge. I lacked the experience and the confidence to do such a daunting task.

Enter Abraham Salum. Abraham came to Parigi and rocked it. He ran the dinner shift, and I ran the lunch shift. He is an amazing chef and a complete sweetheart. We worked together for about a year, and then the owners came back to me and asked if I was still interested in buying Parigi. I said yes, and we started the process. I still knew I wasn't ready to take on the kitchen, so I asked Abraham if he would like to stay on as chef and become my business partner. He said yes, and we had a three-year run as partners at Parigi.

After those three years, Abraham approached me and said he either wanted to buy me out, or go open his own place. I felt I had learned enough to be able to run the show, and we parted ways. I learned so much from him, and credit him with taking me to that next step where I could be the chef and owner.

What's the deal with food? The deal with food is simple. Everyone needs it. It's the one thing that brings people together. Good times, bad times, stressful times, relaxed times. You can show your love for someone by making them a meal. There is nothing more rewarding than making someone dinner, and watching their face light up as they taste it. There is a sense of pride, fulfillment, and love when you cook for people.

It is also a means of being creative. That is why I cook what I do. There are no real rules anymore to combinations of food. You can fuse Mexican with Indian; Italian with French; Asian with German. The possibilities are endless. The plate is like a huge canvas, and you can use what you have, what is fresh and seasonal. I love finding new ingredients and playing with them. I remember when I first used quinoa about eight years ago. It was like finding a new color that I never knew existed. Same thing with spices. You taste them, think what would that be good with, and so on. It is a never-ending dance with new partners all the time.

Who has eaten at your place and who do you expect to have as your guests? The guests at Parigi are very diverse. We have people who have been coming to Parigi since the day it opened in 1984. Our clientele hits every demographic out there: Straight, gay, young, old, urban, country, North Dallas, Park Cities, socialites, hippies. It is a true community restaurant where people come to be nurtured and fed.

We have fed former presidents of the United States; movie stars; comedians; Dallas Maverick coaches and players; Dallas Cowboy owners and players; and the list goes on and on. Our deal is simple: welcome people into our home; make them feel like they are part of the family; and, when they leave, make them want to come back soon.

Who works at your place? I use the word family a lot to describe our guests, but that starts with the Parigi family first. We seriously are a close-knit group. My business partner Chad Houser and I are like the mom and dad. (I'm the strict one, though). We have people who have been working with us for 12 years. Our kitchen is a well-oiled machine.

Let me start with Chad. We refer to each other as our respective restaurant husband/wife. He is the kindest human being, rarely gets worked up and has a true talent for diffusing situations. Not to mention this man can cook! Our philosophy and style of cooking are so in-sync, it's weird. We balance each other too. As I mentioned earlier, I am the strict one, more intense. He on the other hand is laid back, but still gets stuff done. It just works.

Chef Rolando is the real powerhouse who keeps everyone on task. I call him Turbo-Ro, because he is so fast, and great at what he does. Everyone respects him, and no one messes with Rolando!

Then we have Chef Rosie...she is the most amazing woman I have ever met. She manages all the boys in the kitchen and the four boys she is raising at home. She never skips a beat, never gets her feathers ruffled. We could all learn something from her.

Chef Berto is one of the hardest working and funniest guys in the kitchen. He is Rolando's brother and great cooking runs in the family. He always has a smile and is ready to do whatever is asked of him.

Chuy is the prankster. He started with us a few years ago and was a punk. Then, he had a little girl, and everything changed. Now he is one of our strongest prep chefs, and I really think he has more than two hands. In the middle of service, he not only does all of the cheese plates, salads and desserts, but he keeps the hot line chef's mise en place replenished as needed.

Chef Grant came to us a little over a year ago. He is still a punk, but we love him, just the same. The Parigi kitchen is tiny and not like most places. You have to be able to move fast and think about where your coworkers are going to be. Chef Grant has some of the best presentation skills I have seen and is like a sponge. He is really interested in learning, creating and likes having the freedom to make plates his own. I love seeing how much he has grown in the last year, and look forward to seeing him develop even more.

There is one rule at Parigi. You will be terminated if you say, "That's not my job." Everyone does a little bit of everything. That takes me to our dishwashers: Antonio, Junior, and GG. They are not just dishwashers. First of all, they have the hardest job in the place. Keeping up with all of the plates and silverware is just part of it. Then they have to keep the chef's pans and pots washed and replenished during service too. All of this, plus they do a lot of prep. This is the starting position for someone beginning in the Parigi kitchen if they do not have cooking/prep experience. This leads to other opportunities of growth, and 25 percent of our cooks start out here only to be promoted into more cooking-related tasks. Antonio is our latest success story. He works both dish and pantry for us and has become a huge asset.

Then you go to the front of the house. The Robert Hutchens, Gery Lopez, and Randy Potts crew are the management glue. These guys make sure the staff is not on their cell phone; work with customers if there is an opportunity to make them happier and make the place look pretty. They each have their own strengths, and the success of the front is dependent on them. Robert has been with me the longest, and he is the strict one. Gery is our resident comedian and keeps the staff on schedule and the busboys in check. Randy does a lot of our social media and writes beautifully about what is happening at Parigi.

The waitstaff is a mixed bag of great guys, and a little lady. Little Chad, Lacey, Daniel, Aaron, Alex, Andy and Keeton. These are our front line, and do an amazing job of keeping our guests happy. They work their booties off, and each of them do a little something special. We are very fortunate to have such a fantastic staff.

Dino Pucci slings the drinks at Parigi. He loves to create new concoctions, and keep the guests laughing. He has been with us a little over a year, and has a following of regulars who come in to be "Dino-tained."

Our bus boys are Manny, Diego, and Herminio. Smiles, everyone, smiles. They always are smiling, making jokes, and are three of our friendliest guys on staff.

The hostesses with the mostesses are Michael (OK, he is a host, not hostess), Laura, Molly and Jeff (also host, not hostess). This is our first point of contact to the guest. The friendly face people first see when they walk in. Huge job, and they all make people feel at home immediately.

What is up with the national food scene and how does your restaurant fit into it? Local, sustainable and community driven. We are all about all three of these things. We source as much as we can from our local farmers, buy only food that is in safe and stable supply and know where that food is coming from as much as possible. Giving back to the community is a very important goal for us. We are working on doing that through many of our donations, and through the Café Momentum project that we are working to develop.

If you could stab one food network person who would it be? I am not a stabber. I might poke that Semi-Homemade lady [Sandra Lee] in the forehead, though.

If you could be best friends with one food network person who would it be? Mario Batali. I think I could learn so much from him. I love his food, and he seems so laid-back but intense when necessary.

Why are so many people in the States so fat? Seriously, we should all know about moderation by now. Because processed food is what people who are overweight are typically eating. And they aren't exercising enough. Yes, moderation is important, but you need to be eating the right things in moderation.

Follow City of Ate on Twitter: @cityofate.

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