Local chef takes a bite out of the Big Apple
The media spotlight is shining on Portugal-born Toni Pais' native cuisine.
"I guess they're running out of countries," he jokes."The (Iberian) peninsula's big right now. Spain's huge, and everything Portuguese, especially the food, is in fashion."
A natural charmer, Pais is one of the city's most popular chefs. On daily shopping trips to the Strip District, he sports a trademark ear-to-ear smile, vibrant brown eyes and precise, close-cropped jet-black hair, frequently topped by a baseball cap. In and out of shops, he greets people, conversing animatedly, with a lingering lilt of accent.
Born in Caiscais, a seaside village renowned for its fish market, Pais grew up attuned to the best seafood, simple farm-fresh produce and family-made wine and olive oil. At 19, he witnessed the significant political change resulting from the 1974 Revolution of the Red Carnation. Liberal Democratic forces replaced the longest authoritarian dictatorship in modern history -- that constructed by Antonio de Oliviera Salazar.
Leaving Portugal, Pais served for a while as dining room Captain aboard the luxury ships of the Cunard Lines. He credits a cosmopolitan clientele and an international crew, including cooks from far-flung countries, with opening his eyes to world possibilities.
Landing in Pittsburgh in 1978, he joined another uprising, or at least the start of a taste transformation. Via the seminal La Normande restaurant, foie gras, magret, goose fat and Armagnac were entering the local dining vocabulary. In 1992, he opened Baum Vivant. And he's been pushing the envelope on local dining ever since.
Pais and his wife, Becky, currently own three Pittsburgh restaurants -- Baum Vivant and Cafe Zinho, both in Shadyside, and Cafe Zao, Downtown in the Cultural District. Baum Vivant features dishes fusing French, Northern Italian and contemporary American influences, as well as signature Portuguese specialties. Zinho's more casual menu mixes whimsy with eclecticism. Zao, the newest venture, specifically targets Portugal and its former colonies, from Macau and Timor to Brazil and Mozambique. All are exceptional, successful expressions of Pais' hospitality and enthusiasm.
And now the James Beard Foundation has invited him to cook a Portuguese dinner, matched to Portuguese wines, July 11 at New York City's prestigious James Beard House. It's the country's pinnacle performance space for the culinary arts. Pais says he's thrilled to be delivering an eight-course excursion into the fascinating culinary world that's shaped his global view of food.
"It's an exciting, wonderful opportunity," he says. "We'll make traditional dishes, but with an upbeat, very modern presentation."
After 25 years here, Pittsburgh may seem more like home to him than Portugal, but Pais still brightens when discussing his native country's culture and history.
"The food's amazing," he says. "The original fusion cuisine. Yes, we have 365 recipes for cod -- one for every day of the year. But we've also got all the spices, all the exciting flavors our explorers found -- in Southeast Asia, India, China, Japan, Africa, Brazil."
While Portuguese food relies on the Mediterranean basics of olive oil, garlic and tomatoes, he explains, it's distinct from French, Italian, Greek -- and even Spanish -- cuisine.
"Spain pursued colonies for gold and other wealth," he says. "Portugal sought spices and spread Christianity."
In the 1500s, he proudly notes, Lisbon was the spice capital of the world.
Pais previously cooked at the Beard House in October, 1988, as one of five Pittsburgh chefs for a WQED fundraiser. But this July dinner is Pais' very own showcase event. His staff chefs -- Carl Lashley, Shawn Carlson, Shane McCombs and Mike Noll -- will make the trip with him. And Becky's son, Josh Masslon, whom Toni mentored, will fly in from his job as sushi chef for the Ritz Carlton Kapalua, Maui, to join the team.
"Cooking at the Beard House is one of the highest honors in the restaurant business," Linda Wernikoff, owner of Crate, a Greentree-based kitchen store/cooking school. "Chefs from big cities like New York, San Francisco and Chicago usually get powerful promoters to nominate them. Pittsburgh has little such representation. Being recognized as an outstanding chef from Pittsburgh is quite a feat."
Wernikoff regularly books Pais for Crate cooking classes. They sell out in nanoseconds. His personality and character, she says, are powerful draws.
"Toni defines the best attributes of a sharing chef," she says. "He deserves national recognition, not only for outstanding food, but for all he does for the local farmers, food purveyors, charities and young chefs. All Pittsburghers should lift a glass of his beloved Port to celebrate this great accomplishment."
Pais makes a magical connection to his diners, welcoming everyone with a hug, a kiss, caring words -- "How you DO-ing!" He trains his staff to offer the same hospitality. "Bend over backwards to take care of people" he tells them. "Treat them like guests in your home."
Becky relates the extremes her husband goes to for customers' pleasure. Once a woman called him over to her table to complain about the soup: "It's cold!" Not wanting to embarrass her by pointing out that vichyssoise was supposed to be served iced, he quietly took away the bowl and returned it heated to her liking.
Another time, a member of a group dining at Baum Vivant confided that he only enjoyed burgers and fries. Pais sent a kitchen envoy to a nearby fast food restaurant, obtained the desired items and plated them beautifully to blend with the rest of the group's meal.
Food, Becky says, is Toni's passion. "He dreams of it," she says, "even getting up in the middle of the night to write down recipes."
His commitment to superlative products is also legendary -- ranging from grown-to-measure micro-sprouts and exotic Moroccan Argon oil, to sea squabs and baby eels that look like silver spaghetti.
"Working with farmers, buying local products, is supposedly the latest culinary trend," says Chris Wahlburg, founder and president of Mung Dynasty, a long-time Pais friend and supplier. "Toni's been a supporter of that for 10 years. And he continues to get ideas, to stimulate a synergy with growers -- because he really cares."
Lest you picture Pais as all sugar and spice, just watch him pursue his next-biggest passion -- soccer. On the playing field, with the Norwin International League of the Western Pennsylvania Soccer Association, this sweet man becomes positively ferocious. Saturday and Sunday games are protected time slots in his weekly schedule.
As "Game Day" at the Beard House approaches, adrenalin in the kitchen's mounting.
"It's so exciting to be cooking there," Pais says. "New York's the only city in the world where you can eat anything, any time, day or night. It's a real restaurant town. It will be a beautiful experience."
A taste of Portugal
Here are menu highlights from Tony Pais' July 11 dinner at the James Beard House in New York City. The dinner costs $115. Pre-paid reservations are required. Details: 212-627-2308.
Wine: Luis Pato Maria Gomes Brut NV
Wine: Fuzelo Vinho Verde 2004
Wine: Esporao Reserva White 2003
Wine: Antonio Esteves Ferreira Alvarinho Soalheiro 2003
Wine: Quinta Do Vale Da Raposa 2000
Wine: Quinta Do Carmo 2000
Wine: Barros Tawney Port
Chef bio: Toni Pais
Title: Chef/owner, Baum Vivant in Shadyside, Cafe Zinho in Shadyside and Cafe Zao, Downtown.
Born: Aug. 23, 1954
Hometown: Caiscais, Portugal
The James Beard Foundation
James Beard is broadly recognized as the father of American gastronomy. Throughout his life he brought excitement to what he perceived as the awakening of the American palate. He promoted high dining standards and encouraged emerging talent in the field of culinary arts.
After his death in 1985, Julia Child suggested that his Greenwich Village townhouse should be preserved as a culinary center. The late Peter Kump, a former Beard student and founder of Peter Kump's New York Cooking School, organized purchase and renovation of the house and creation of the Foundation.
Today, talented chefs from across the country -- Daniel Boulud, Alain Ducasse, Charlie Trotter, Mario Batali -- cook in the Beard House kitchen. The dinners and luncheons are open to the public, but members receive a discount. The Foundation also distributes publications, sponsors educational opportunities and scholarships, maintains a library and archives and presents annual awards viewed as the Oscars of the food world.
A basic membership is $125 per year.
Details: 800-362-3273 or www.jamesbeard.org .