People who like food and people who love food are divided not by means or geography, but by decisions.
I’ve served shepherd’s pie at a homeless shelter and watched a man with no shoes taste its flavors with his eyes closed.
I’ve sat across a table from people with millions of dollars and watched them hastily backhoe ahi tuna into their mouths. Civilizations with nothing spend most of their money on ingredients that they slave over for hours, while people with mountains of disposable income seem to think that everything they eat should be fast and cheap. In my observation, the transition from liking food to loving it, is made up of a million little decisions. Food can be the sound of your grandmother humming over a pot of simmering beans or something that stresses you out about your evening. It can be the taste of a century-old cookie dough recipe off a wooden spoon or calories. Food can be a family operation or an industry, like oil or shipping. It can be set in front of you by the hands that seasoned it or passed to you from one window to another by someone who doesn’t know what’s in the sauce. Candle lit, or washed in neon. With the environment, or in spite of it.
Blanca Rodriguez, owner and head chef of Pimienta Bar and Bistro, has made many decisions about what food is to her.
“I never actually thought I was going to become a chef,” she told me, standing at her rustic bar, loading bottles of tequila into the shelf while she spoke. Hands busy, always working. Growing up in Guadalajara with two chefs for parents, food was always an important part of her life, but she wasn’t sure that cooking was the path for her.
“But then I started putting things together, creating recipes,” she said with a smile, remembering back to the fledgling days of her obsession. She landed a job as a chef for one of Nordstrom’s Restaurants in Seattle. “Nordstrom really gave me the opportunity to explore my chef side. They trusted me,” she said, making a jet with her hand, flying off a launch pad. “I just took off.”
She managed restaurants in five states, developed recipes wrote cookbooks. She was part of a production that many people would have had a hard time straying away from, no matter what their gut told them.
Not Blanca, though. She took a trip to Europe, exploring France, Spain and Italy, watching their chefs, tasting their food, and when she came back, she knew that she needed something different.
“ I’ve worked for a big corporation … I don’t want that production,” she said. “I want this production.” She motioned around the room of Pimienta. At the walls, covered in their reclaimed barnwood, splashed with their warm burnt orange paint. At the tables with their white linen, topped with candles. Standing there at the bar, near the window to the kitchen, we could see the whole place. Every seat.
“ I have an opportunity to meet everybody. That’s what I like,” she said. “That’s how I have fun.”
And when Blanca is having fun, everyone is having fun. My wife and I first ate at Pimienta a few months ago after it was recommended to us by a very particular French chef. We were wary of the location when we pulled into the lot, thrown off by the gas station on one side and the beauty parlor on the other. The candlelight flickering on the tabletops got us through the doors, though, and the world outside melted into the homy ambience around us. Deep warm colors, the buzz of laughter. Food came to us rich and deep. Food with dimensions, like rooms in a museum. Carefully crafted textures, flavors, smells and colors. We had drinks and we laughed and we ate and ate and ate, and when we stumbled back through those doors into the night it was like waking up from a dream. Time had seemed relative, sensations heightened.
People who love food understand the depth of it. They respect the work that goes into it, and they appreciate its past and are excited about its future. By that definition, Rodriguez loves food. She’s poured her passions into the menu and her time into sourcing ingredients as locally and humanely as possible. She personalizes her dishes. She gets to know her customers, and, as a result, she’s built a very special place. A place that centers around good decisions. A place where food has a story and a personality. A place where she can teach people to love it.
Pimienta Bar and Bistro is located at 34029 Hoyt Road SW, Federal Way. Visit pimientabistro.com or call 253-838-2398 for more information.
Kellen Burden is a local novelist and lunch enthusiast. More of his work can be found at www.goatfederation.com.