Part Four: Finding Balance, Chef Deb Paquette

Interior of Chef Paquette's Etch Restaurant

Read all parts in this series: Part One | Part Two | Part Three

We were talking about the craziness of this business. Do you have any advice on how to achieve a work/life balance?

Balance? I don’t know that that word means.

Finding Balance...

You say there’s no such thing?

Oh balance! That’s when I ride my unicycle! I still ride it. It’s funny to see a 64-year-old kid on a unicycle with her arms waving about! But then, that’s me!

Balance is letting your husband go fishing when he wants and hang out with his man friends at our local bar, and hoping he has the best time ever! He is the mayor of the bar, just so you know! I work too much, and he very rarely complains (I did just say rarely!). We see-saw!

I must use the word balance 20 times a day. Much of my time is working on the food for a new restaurant and all the recipes MUST balance. I have quite a few sauces and fun stuff on the plate, and each item has to taste great by itself and together…balance. A good cocktail has perfect balance. Casamigos has fabulous balance.

My advice on balance with work and life…place priorities on what is most important for you and your love ones. Don’t abuse your brain or your body! Let a sense of humor be your BFF! If you get unbalanced, go to the ocean. Don’t drink Jägermeister!

Taking a Break

This year I achieved a momentous work/life situation…I actually did not change my vacation with the hubby three times this year! Something always comes up in the workplace, and this year I should have changed it, but we got people in place. I will be slip-sliding in 30 SPF with a sippy cup full of balanced juice all the way to the beach!

Where are you going on vacation?

We go to this place in Florida where there’s like, no stores. It’s just this little peninsula that’s below Tallahassee, on the Gulf. Called Alligator Point. It’s just houses, beach, and shrimp season. Late summer is when we go to the beach, when it is bikini season for those over 60! Ernie fishes and shrimps. I walk a lot and read. Happy hour is whenever we like, and Ernie seems to like my bikini!

Ernie really wants to move back to the water, real bad, and he has for years. He has the ocean in his blood too. Ernie grew up in Eastham, Massachusetts,  which is the narrowest point on Cape Cod. He grew up being a surfer boy, and a fisherman, and a scalloper. 

Do you pickle shrimp?

I have pickled shrimp for menus but not at the beach…it’s gumbo time for us! But since you mentioned it, I think I will grab some vinegar and herbs for the trip. I am counting the days until I see Nashville in the rearview mirror!

It seems to me that you like Nashville. You’re not from there, and you’ve not left there. What is it that you like about Nashville? And what is it that you think is goofy about Nashville? Or am I mistaken, and you just don’t have anywhere else to go?

I am a Fort Lauderdale gal. The ocean runs through my veins! I left when I was 25, and I brought all those sunspots right along with my suitcase!

Oops, time for a story…when Ernie was 18, he worked on a scallop boat. Drags were out on the boat, and they were all playing cards on the lower deck. He went up top to pee off the side of the boat. A swell hit the boat and it was “bye now”- he went over the side! He kicked off his new boots and saw the lights of the boat disappear. (Scary!) Someone still in the card game realized Ernie was taking longer than normal. Cards down and up they go, and no Ernie. Ern has one of those monster-loud whistles, and he began the call for survival…or “get me the hell out of this cold-ass water!” Up came the drags and he saw the lights…luckily the boat lights!

Why Nashville?

Well, I need to get back to the Nashville question…deviation is good, right? I love Nashville, and the big trees. If I cannot have the ocean in my backyard, trees are the winners. They bring peace to my crazy life. I also love the southern charm (I have mastered nine southern dialects). Tennessee is beautiful, the economy here is good (except the red haze!), and the restaurant scene is fabulous!

The goofiest is the crazy amount of bachelorette parties going on. We are (or were, before COVID) the number one city for girls to become the debutants of Fireball, Jägermeister, and vomit pales. It is crazy! The summer uniform is the same for all: cowboy boots, tank tops, wedding sashes, and shorts that have a zip code in the crack of your ass. Lovely.

There is something about southern folks. Rules of respect and hospitality are passed down from generation to generation. It is in their blood (right next to whiskey!). You can feel it and you can see it. Good people, and not so good people, still shake your hand, look you in the eye, and ask you how your mama’s doing. “Yes sir” and “yes ma’am” are heard and listened to more than mating tree frogs! And if someone says, “well bless your cotton socks” it means they care about you!

Will I leave Nashville? I really love it here. Our home is 28 miles from Nashville, and is surrounded by lots of woods. My house gives me peace knowing there is a big couch and a sleepy husband waiting for me after a 13-hour day. One son lives down the street, and the other son in Massachusetts. That isn’t far, is it?

I do have places, friends, and family to go and see. Maybe one day I may move, as long as my couch fits in the car!

I think you gave me the answer. You found a place that had people similar to you.

Yeah, most likely. Why do you think I am in the restaurant business? We are perfectionists, most of us are ADHD, drinking is a sport, music is a necessity, laughing is a prerequisite, and you must have a pet (or pets). Plus, we all like really good food!

Don’t most of us seem to surround ourselves with people who have similarities, (like political parties – ha!)? One has to find comfort and resemblance. I just want to be around people who play nice (and drink nice) with each other. There is a strong gravitational pull to people who make me laugh. Fun folks help me to find the funny in me! I make life-long friends with the people I most laugh with! Don’t you?

Barry, I am leaving you with another short story…this is a few years ago when Ernie and I had our restaurant (yes, another Ernie story!). He was the manager on duty, and a gentleman with a party of five called Ernie over to his table. This gent wanted Ern to open a $150 bottle of wine and pour him one glass. Ernie apologized and said it was not feasible for us to do so, and explained why. The gent was persistent and was told he would need to purchase the whole bottle. Nope, he only wanted a glass. Mr. Ern said, “I am sorry, but this is our house rule,” and returned to the host station. Five minutes went by, and the bad dude approached Ernie. He looks at Ernie and says, “you know what…you made me look like and a*$hole in front of all my friends.” And Ernie replied, “sir, I don’t think you need any help with that!” The gent quietly left, with a tiny crack of almost a smile, and sat down.

Now you see our similarities…balance.

I know what I’m gonna do next time I’m close to y’all. I’m gonna go find his little bar and hang out with him.

It’s fun. It’s nothing but laughter…that’s why he goes. They just laugh, drink beer, and laugh and drink more beer, and laugh. You know, laughter, it’s the chicken soup.

Part Three: Giving Back, and CVap® in Chef Deb’s Kitchen

Chef Deb Paquette's beautiful food

Read all parts in this series: Part One | Part Two | Part Four

Our conversation with Chef Deb Paquette continued.

You brought up that you’re part of the Waste Initiative in Nashville. I know that you’re very, very involved in Second Harvest.

Yes, the Waste Initiative is supported by the James Beard Foundation, and we are a test city for what we can do to create solutions in dealing with waste in our community. We have groups and individuals networking to provide education to reduce waste, not only in restaurants, but waste in homes, grocery stores, office buildings. Go to your Google box and read about what you can do to help your community reduce waste.

Part of our responsibility as restaurant people is to work with charities which help people in need. Whether it is food, socks, prosthesis, or a Christmas present, these are people who live in the same cities we work in.

I have been involved for years in helping Second Harvest since I moved to Tennessee. The past eight years, I was part of Taste of the NFL, which was an organization of chefs, one from each NFL city. We would show up at every Super Bowl weekend, and provide food for a huge patrons’ party the night before the Super Bowl. The party had a big admission fee, and proceeds would be shared with the food banks in each chef’s city, as well as all of us raising funds locally. Each year my company gave a dollar of every sale of our cauliflower appetizer as our part in helping Second Harvest. In the past eight years we have donated $100,000. Isn’t that fabulous?!

What is it that makes you that way?

You know how a doctor takes the Hippocratic oath? In this glorious industry we take the hospitality oath. It is not just an oath to yourself, but an oath to the people who support your business. We are leaders, born to give, encourage, love, and support.

Chef Deb Paquette's Katafi

It’s interesting that you bring that up. You know, we are in the hospitality business, we are there to be of service. But I find very few people understand the complexities of putting a plate of food in front of them.

Do you mean the complexities of getting the food from the back door to the table? Yep, it’s the work that makes it all worthwhile. When you spend the day talking to salesmen, checking in food, teaching a line cook their craft, burning a sauce ‘cause you were telling jokes to a customer, or calling your husband to be sure there is beer in the fridge, chopping a hundred pounds of onions, tasting 30 sauces, yelling at your CVap dude, and putting out the best special ever…I don’t want a client to know all that sh*t. Just sink into your food and Zen out! Let us do the work, and you just enjoy.

Why did you buy CVap? What have you learned since you’ve had it? Do you still like it? Would you buy another one?

I learned about CVaps from my friend Ashley Quick. He loves them. I began the research, and now we have one in each restaurant. It was a bit intimidating at first, but then, so am I…hah! The best equipment for short ribs and octopus, and holding fried chicken!

You have to understand that whole humidity thing. My husband used the weather as an example, and then it all clicked (he’s much smarter than me…I am the smart ass!).

I do love that little rain box! As we say in the south, “it cooks stuff up real good like”. I like that I can cook overnight and see beauty in the morning! (My husband also says that about me!) And yes, I would buy another…after COVID-19 season is over!

My pastry chef does not use the CVap much. Maybe we need some more training classes?

Tell her, if she wants to call me up, you know I’ll be happy to help her.

So, Barry, How about a road trip? Isn’t time you planned a trip to Nash Vegas?! Lots of good bourbon going on here! We would love if someone from Winston would come play show and tell, and please bring lots of pictures and samples! I’ll bring the crayons!

I will definitely let you know when I’m coming through town. And I would love to work with any of your folks. And I’ll tell Corey that he’s invited as well. Corey just got married and I don’t think he’s going anywhere for a while, except the bedroom!

We would love to see him! Isn’t there a new CVap on the market? Will it fit in your back seat? I remember when I was a test pilot for the CVap drawer. Did you ever get it to work? ‘Cause we sure didn’t…is it in a graveyard?

I hear you have some competion…Edgar at UG made his own rain box, didn’t he?

He did. The last time I came to see you, I also went to see Edgar. And I was giving him a hard time about it.

He knows how to build anything.

He’s a pretty interesting cat, in and of himself.

Just another wacky dude who loves what he does. He owns a pizza joint now!

Read Part Four: Finding Balance

Part One: Working with Good People, but Wanting to be Better

Chef Deb Paquette

Read all parts in this series: Part Two | Part Three | Part Four

Chef Deb Paquette is truly one of a kind. A 30-year fixture in Nashville, she’s a renowned female chef in a male-dominated field. She became the first woman in Tennessee to qualify as a Certified Executive Chef, after graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, .

She is exuberant and unfiltered. When we approached Chef Paquette about inclusion in our Operator Corner blog series, her first question was, “do I have to act civil?” We assured her, no.

The late Chef Barry Yates sat down with Chef Paquette for a lively conversation (conducted virtually, in these pandemic days). She proved she is not only a highly accomplished chef, but she’s also a colorful conversationalist.

A Strong Woman in a Male-Dominated Field

You are a very strong woman in a male-dominated field. How did you get where you are? What kinds of things did you face? Do you have advice for other women in the culinary field? Just go, because you’re amazing!

Well, first of all, I got where I am today by having bigger balls than most men! This means I had to assert myself and realize I could not be like the lion, the tin man, or especially, not that haybale of the scarecrow…I had to be Dorothy. Determination was my state of mind and I was going to be the human sponge.

I found out about culinary school and somehow it was my calling…I am a bit crazy, a wacky sense of humor, not afraid to work, hyper, big mouth, and wore two different-colored socks. It turns out I was a perfect candidate to be trained for a professional position in the culinary field! (I did show some promise!) 

The kitchen world drew the talent out of me that was just waiting to be expelled from my brain. I made the best choice ever, and those colored socks took me to places beyond what I imagined (plus a few trips to hell and back!).

Advice to Women

What you experience in your early days and what happens years down the road can be like playing pin ball. Well, that’s really what life is! Never stop educating yourself and create a great management style (mine is organized chaos!). If you do not have a great sense of humor, start listening to Bill Cosby albums, know the rules, love to clean, and love to cook!

Chef Deb Paquette

Coping with Her Share of Toxic Men

What I faced early on was the incredible human library of people that I wanted to (and would get to) know and learn from. OMG! My first job was as a dishwasher at the “Cottontail Lounge.” This was a man bar where waitress’s uniform skirt stopped at the bottom of their butt and frilly ruffled panty things were the undergarment! The first day of my job, it was 10 A.M., and I ran into an all-night drinker, who happened to be the owner. He stumbly told me not to worry, he did not want to f***k me! “Okay,” I said and asked where the kitchen was. (He was sleeping with the only waitress that had 44 double-Ds!)

After working there for months, I knew my world would hold lots of fun, and lots of sweat! I also knew I would face other gents like “RAY,” and I would deal with it as best as I could! Food was on my horizon.

I worked with many strong men. Many were awesome, and then there were the d*ckheads. No man sh*t was going to step on my yellow brick road. There are no tragic stories, just sh*t that happens when men need to get their own way. I was not a promiscuous person, so I had no desire to put my two legs out with a rent sign on them…therefore, I never became an interest or an interesting story. Having a boyfriend, and then a husband, kept potential douchebags from advertising their stuff!

As I stated before, there were few issues with man-agers. Here is his story. Icky man wanted me to go on the road with him and open a few restaurants. I happened to get pregnant, and his decision-making process altered. Fate changed, and I lost the baby. When I returned to work, he fired me and didn’t want me coming back to work because I would likely get preggers again. I sorta understood, and I was not angry until my manager told me that the “piece of sh*t boss man” wanted to offer me an abortion so I could continue working. D*CK!!

I let this pass and realized I was not the problem!

There are Still Nice Guys

So, no one thinks I am a man basher, here’s a better man story for you. A banquet dude ran into me at 5:30 A.M. getting ready for a big breakfast. I had not put my Farrah Fawcett beach hair up under the white pain-in-the-ass toque, did not have my ugly oversized white chef’s coat on, but did have on my ugly JC Penney brogans. 

He took one long look and left the cooler! I was thankful for him leaving, ‘cause I was pretty sure he was in there to play with the whipped cream cans! He went back to the banquet hall and asked all his dude pals who the new girl was. They told him there is no new girl, it is probably Deb, the banquet chef. His reply was “you mean the lesbian?” He asked me out that night, and he is now my husband! Turns out, he liked my boots!

She’s a pretty seductive redhead, just so you know.

Whoa! Thanks Barry! Don’t have those cataracts removed!

Now that we are done chatting about woman caca in the man world, let me just say that I do know quite a few love stories that came out of couples meeting on the job. Hookups with work “buddies” are sorta natural. You find certain peeps spending a bit too much time in a supply closet, or one of the hotel rooms, or maybe a locked office! And bless my mother’s ears, I just about froze in a walk-in cooler one night!

Not much else to share. In the past 20 years I have worked with, and for, many wonderful men.

That’s refreshing. I think you’re right. I have a lot of friends in the business, a lot of longtime chefs that are female. And a lot of them don’t have that to say, so it’s refreshing to hear you say that. I’m glad that’s the case.

You have to be a hard-core insider to understand that you might face problems, but you don’t have to create problems. Ya just do your job. When I was accused of being a brown noser, I’d first say, “you are full of it” and then say, “have you seen the walk-in? You’re not going to go in and clean it, because you’re f^*king lazy. So, I will clean it! And I might even get a gold star on my forehead, and you won’t!” (But I do love cleaning walk-ins!)

The walk-in has been my office on many occasions as well as my therapy room. It’s the coolest place to go…ha!

My first chef that I worked for was Ferd Grisanti. A real feisty Italian, right? One of the most lovely people in the world. He thought that if he took one of us into the walk-in and blasted us, that no one else could hear. Right? It didn’t matter if it was one of his own kids, or one of us; when he said, “we’re going to the walk-in,” we knew we were in for it. But the whole kitchen heard it too. It was pretty funny.

After years of cheffin’, some of my past employees come into the back of the kitchen and ask my cooks jokingly, “has she taken you to the dining room with a glass of water?” The joke was that if I have a glass of water in my hand and called you to the front of the house, there was a good chance somebody was in trouble! There was some truth to this!

Speaking of the walk-in, it’s terrible to say this, but when I get really frustrated, I call it the Helen Keller. I go in the walk-in, and hold my arms up high, and grab my fists. Put all the pressure from my brain and body into my fists, hold them above my head, and I squinch my eyes as tight as I can and silently scream. I know that’s cruel, but I’ll tell the kids, when you’re upset, you’ve got to go into the walk-in and do the Hellen Keller as hard as you can for ten seconds. And when you’re done, your life’s better.

Read Part Two: Working Her Way Up