Silverado Resort’s Executive Chef Peter Pahk Keeps It Natural

Pioneering a Trail to Sustainable, Organic Cuisine in California’s Napa Valley

Sunday, February 01 2009 17:56   People of the West
Peter Pahk is one of the West's new breed of pioneers, trailblazing innovative ideas for sustainable food practices and encouraging the use of locally grown and organic ingredients as the foundation for world-class cuisine offerings.

The executive chief at Napa Valley, California's Silverado Resort, Pahk is showing that award-winning presentations not only can embrace "green" initiatives, but please the palate and the eye as well.

"What every chef tries to do is fit himself or herself into the region he goes into," Pahk told OldWestNewWest.Com. "I'm lucky to be here. There are so many wonderful products around us, so many organic products here in Napa Valley and all up and down the California coast."

Pahk is even leading the way to recycling food scraps at the prestigious four-diamond luxury resort just 50 miles northeast of San Francisco.

"We do everything we can to reduce waste - from buying products from local producers to offering meat and seafood that is harvested using the most sustainable practices available," said Pahk.

His recycling efforts have produced a reduction of generic garbage of almost 50 percent for the resort.

Born in Oahu, Hawaii, Pahk began his food career in Waikiki as an apprentice. After receiving training in French cuisine, he worked at local restaurants where he added gourmet seafood and Continental cuisine to his resume.

He was educated at Syracuse University, and at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York. After graduation in 1984, he started a long career with the Ritz-Carlton Hotel organization, beginning as an executive sous chef, and traveling all over the world.

In 1993, Chef Pahk was named "America's 2000," an award given to outstanding chefs of North America. In 1994 he was honored with an invitation to cook the New Year's Eve Dinner for the members of The James Beard Foundation in New York.

In 1997, Chef Pahk joined the Silverado Resort as executive chef.

With his Hawaiian background and Asian perspective, Pahk brought a new shape to what might be called California cuisine.

"When I grew up, I ate way slower food than the kids of today," he said. "My mom, she was a fantastic cook, and she cooked slow. Through her I learned to cook tougher meats, oxtails, tongue, pork belly, and the art of slow cooking."

Park's embrace of sustainable food practices, organic foods and recycling really is because of his children.

"I have three daughters, and I saw what they were eating, the product of not really good American cuisine," he said. "The chicken had hormones in it, the milk had growth hormones in it, and the antibiotics. I could see there had been a transition from what I ate (as a boy) and what my children were eating, and I said, hey, I don't like this. That was an eye opener."

Pahk was determined to make a difference, not just with his family, but in his industry.

"It's a privilege for me, because I have some level of buying power," he said. "I'm in charge of a multi-million-dollar operation. I can try to make a difference."

His first step was the bigger picture - encouraging his resort to become sustainable. It was something his resort really latched onto. The first project was getting rid of Styrofoam. "We converted all of the Styrofoam products to biodegradable, and in the process of that move, the change flowed over to the cuisine," he said. "The business partners that heard about that initial move kind of approached me. They said, ‘chef, this is awesome' and so we went to work in other areas."

The first food initiative was to get the protein he served to be all natural. It started with beef, then he found a company that raised chickens organically, and then ducks, so that now his proteins basically are 99 percent completely natural.

"And that carried over to other items," he said. "It's amazing how once you start rolling, like-minded people get together. People call up and say, ‘chef, you've got to try this,' or ‘try that' local product. It sustains itself."

Pahk has even learned to use Facebook.

"I've gotten pieces of business, business partners, because of like-minded attitudes," he said.

And of course being in Napa Valley, the selections of wine are wonderful.

"Our style is definitely wine friendly," he said smiling.

It's also an issue of education, he said.

"A chef wants freedom to create a menu, and partly that's based on what our customers want," he said. "But there is a fine line when a chef has to give up salmon, certain types of farm shrimp, or Chilean sea bass, because it's in danger of being lost."

The education has to extend to the customer as well.

"When you explain things, such as that to farm raise a tuna it takes between 7 to 8 pounds of food to raise one pound, and the anchovy being used as food is dying out, they understand," he said.

Last year, because of the shortage of wild salmon, Pahk had his catering staff steer away from the fish.

"So by educating our catering staff, they in turn educated wedding and meeting planners, and it was amazing to see how they (the planners) embraced it, too."

Pahk said things are changing for the good. Farming is getting better, more organic, more knowledgeable. Things are becoming more sustainable.

"What it shows me as a chef is that each person on this planet is responsible to do their own thing to be sustainable, to reduce their carbon footprint," he added. "That's the only way change is going to happen is for each person to do something."