Chef Jeana Marie Pecha is making moves. She’s also been making her mark in Spiceology’s hometown of Spokane, having worked at beloved local restaurant Zona Blanca (Chef Chad White’s Ceviche Bar) and the new Vieux Carré.
But travel is never far away for Jeana, whether that’s exploring the small towns of Mexico, doing a pop up event in San Diego (featuring cured ham made with Chef Hanis Cavin) or road tripping along the west coast and through the PNW. This California native has big plans in her home state, including opening up her own restaurant for the first time.
We caught up with Jeana for Spiceology’s Periodically Inspired interview series that dives deep into a chef’s creative side, their favorite things and life in the industry. Read the full interview and get to know her below:
When did you first find a love of cooking?
“When I was 14, I went into foster care. After that I got a job in a kitchen to take up all of my time. I lied and said I was 2 years older, but being in the kitchen was a coping mechanism, and I was always a curious eater. But when I went into a kitchen alongside the pirates, I’ve never looked back. I could not imagine my life without this.”
People around you, music, books, travel – where do you find inspiration when you create new dishes?
“Through people. A lot of times it’s through families. I come from a family that didn’t have traditional cooking. In Mexico, the abuelas haven’t changed the way they cook decades later. Or Chef Leah Chase, she has unapologetically cooked the same food for years, and that carries a different weight. I have no cooking tradition, and I’ve tried to dive in to see what makes those dishes so fulfilling. I draw a lot of inspiration from the women around me.”
What’s your dish ideation and creation process?
“My process has been about regionalism and paying homage to a specific place, especially in Mexico. When I was in Colima, I’d dive into what ingredients are there, the history, the stories, how they make me feel. And then I try to tell a story. I start simple with a protein, I figure out what is my star, and then I work the ingredients forward.
I like to pick four ingredients that I love and really make them shine. I always take two looks at every dish: how it looks and how I feel about it. First it’s about the feeling, then the flavor. Once the flavor is right we’re good to go.”
How do you approach plating a dish? Do you consider plating an art?
“Yes, and it’s not that easy, especially in Spokane (laughs). Plating doesn’t have to be an untouchable masterpiece. I like to let things naturally fall on the plate. My food doesn’t look touched. I hate precision, and I’m never going to be precise. It doesn’t evoke the emotions I want from the food. Let the elements fall as they may; let things layer on eachother. It’s messy, but intentional.”
Where are places you visit or what are things you do if you’re ever in a creative block?
“I go eat. It is hard for me to enjoy a meal without thinking about what I should be cooking or my take on the dish. When I was working on the menu at Vieux Carré, I went to get Ethiopian food and got inspired by those dishes and related it back to what I was creating there.
Also cookbooks. I think it’s so odd to see people who don’t use cookbooks. I could just flip through a cookbook and see one photo and that could trigger a concept or idea. I’ll take Enrique Olvera’s cookbook and just flip through it; one page alone sparked an entire concept for three dishes. You can’t create menus without them and only pull from what you have. Without cookbooks you just have less of a pool to pull from.”
You’re a graduate of the CIA in Napa. What advice would you give a chef still in culinary school?
“Work. Find a place to apply your skills. I’ve seen too many cooks who wait to work, and you need to apply your skills daily, you need to excel at a faster rate. School gives you a base knowledge, but you need to apply it. The hardest part of being a chef is the hard work and hard hours – and if you can’t work that way – rethink your career.
In school I started at 5:45 am, classes ended at 3 pm, and then also at 3 pm my shift at Archetype in St. Helena started. I had to run to work and bust ass for two years, but in that timeframe I went from being a dishwasher to line cook. You have to be diligent and self disciplined.”
How do you experiment with flavor?
“I like to pull out the magic card a lot. What’s something I don’t even think is possible? Like how do you turn a waffle into a tortilla? I experiment with what sounds challenging and then I google it – if there’s not a search result I’ll try it.
There’s still some unexplored territory out there. I was scared I’d run out of things, but there’s literally an endless combination of flavors, ideas and techniques. I actually have more to pull from than I ever thought. I’m seeing what other chefs are doing and building on that and constantly getting ideas.”
What’s a spice you consider under-valued?
“Celery seed – it has so much flavor, celery is undervalued. It’s the vegetable I would marry if I was a vegetable. If I could do an all-celery menu I would. It packs a lot of flavor and spice, and there are other layers of that spice you can unlock in your mouth. Celery seed is so much more than just for Bloody Mary’s.”
How do you see restaurants operating in 2022?
“It depends where you are. I’m from California, and my vision for California and Spokane are different. In Spokane, it’s racing, people are trying to open as many places as possible. There’s this idea that we need to give people more options. I’m worried about the oversaturation of restaurants hitting again. Those numbers declined in the recession and now it’s going to spark up.
If you spread business out there will be more options. But that is not going to stop me – so I’m part of the problem (laughs). I have a blueprint for my restaurant in Sacramento, and I’m trying to be wise and play my cards right. This time next year I should have my place.”
What’s one of your favorite ingredients to cook with and why?
“Well I already talked about celery (laughs). I love cooking with pork. Butchering a whole pig is one of my favorite things to do. Then there’s also all seafood, all chile peppers, and I’d add tequila if it was a food.”
What’s a technique or trick you learned in school or along the way that even home cooks could use?
“I have two! 1) Ribs: this might seem like a no duh, but take the membrane off. It’s hard to get off, but I am a paper towel queen. I use a paper towel and just rip across the cut. 2) Everyone should own a wooden spoon. It needs to be in every kitchen. The shape, size, weight, can do things other kitchen utensils can’t. Go get one!”
Talk to me about the Bagel Project.
“Ah! Ok, I have been doing a lot of traveling. I’ve noticed my friends pick up little momentos, like ‘I’m gonna get a sticker from every place’ – and that’s not me. But I can make bagels. So I’ve been buying and making sandwiches in every place and documenting them on Instagram. I think it’s whimsical, and it seems everyone’s so serious. I’m just here with my bagel sandwich. It sparks a little joy and it’s something fun for me to do. Chefs need hobbies, too.”
What do you consider a chef’s role to be in a community?
“I think a chef, in small communities especially, needs to stand for a lot of equality and represent what that area is known for culturally. As a chef coming into a new city, you need to add value to the community.
We also need to make our staff feel safe. There was sexism when I worked in Napa. I didn’t really feel it in LA – there I got more crap for being young than being a woman. This community needs to be super open to all.”
Favorite dish to cook for yourself?
“Ramen, for sure. It’s fun and it’s SALT TO THE FACE. And when I say ramen – I mean a ramen packet. I’m talking cheese-fried tuna fish right on top of the ramen with Kewpie mayo and green onion. Afterwards, I’m just so fulfilled and relaxed. I feel like I’m so intense these days, I have to watch mind-numbing TV just to relax and turn off my brain.”
Favorite dish to cook for friends and family?
“I love doing whole roasted fish en papillote for my friends – a big half of salmon, it’s a big show stopper. Also just French country, homey dishes like Beef Wellington. Or posole.”
What are your breakfast, lunch and dinner restaurant recs when in Spokane?
“For breakfast I would cook a bagel sandwich, so I rarely eat out. Breakfast is my least favorite thing to spend money on.
But for lunch, my favorite sandwich shop is e stretto in LA; I’ve literally had a layover at LAX and took an Uber to get myself a sandwich – and then carried six more sandwiches on the plane.
My current favorite restaurant ever is Chengdu Memory in Seattle. If you want an experience you can’t get anywhere else, go here. It’s a super regionally specific szechuan hot pot place, and plan to be there for a while. It is the most life-changing food experience I’ve had in the States. It’s also chaotic, but you’re rewarded instantly by the flavors and I was sweating and laughing. I was like ‘I don’t know if I can do this’ at the end you get ice cream? A coconut whip erased everything on my palate. I didn’t know how sad I’d be, I didn’t realize I’d miss those flavors and heat.”
Keep tabs on Jeana, those traveling bagel sandwiches and her upcoming restaurant over on her Instagram.