They hired on at the legendary Zuni Cafe as line cooks in 1985, soon becoming co-chefs de cuisine. Then in 1993 Gayle Pirie and John Clark headed to Hong Kong to begin a consulting practice that has seen them open and advise restaurants in Asia, Canada and the U.S. Pirie also squeezed in four years as Alice Waters' assistant at Chez Panisse before she and Clark became co-chefs/owners of San Francisco's then-struggling Foreign Cinema, a 220-seat space that projects artsy movies onto its outdoor patio wall every night. “One of my favorite restaurants,” says the San Francisco Chronicle's Michael Bauer. Pirie and Clark live across the bay in Berkeley.
The two of you became consultants before ever running your own restaurant. That' s quite a trick.
When we started the consulting practice in 1993, we felt we didn't need to open our own restaurant because there were so many that needed to get better. We had an amazing education at Zuni, and we learned a hell of a lot on our consulting jobs.
So were you welcomed when you showed up to resuscitate Foreign Cinema in 2001?
It was World War III. It had been open a year, but the dot-com bust put it into emergency mode. Labor was whacked out, food cost was whacked out…it had been so busy the team didn't think they were doing anything wrong. It got way too popular way too quickly.
You came in as co-chef/owners with a young child. How'd you turn it around while managing family life?
Both of us were here in an intense way for the first three and a half years. We'd bring our son, Magnus, along with us when he was between two and five.
And now that Foreign Cinema is less of a hip scene and more of a serious food destination…?
The restaurant has stabilized. It's tag team now; one of us tries to stay home. We have a daughter, Pearl, who's two. But we're both here when it's busy.
Who watches the kids when you both work?
No one. We park the family right in the dining room. One of us works, the other is in charge of the kids. We let them go back to the kitchen for little visits. Foreign Cinema is a high-powered restaurant with a sexy edge, but we take care of kids and families, too.
Maybe your children will want to enter the business.
Magnus, now eight, just might. He worked full shifts on New Year's Eve and Valentine's Day, at age seven, putting out desserts. He can shuck oysters!
The two of you wrote The Bride and Groom Cookbook. Is there much cooking at home for your family?
To be honest, a two-year-old is a demanding presence in the home kitchen. Our big m.o. is simply to get the kids fed. We'll cook more when Pearl's older.
You live in Berkeley. What's your commute like?
It's 18 miles via the Bay Bridge; we go in at 10 a.m and get home about midnight. A gnarly commute is 40 minutes; it can be less. We shop for produce early each morning at the Berkeley markets, then transport our haul over to the restaurant in our truck.
Boy, you're still pretty hands-on.
Every day is a brand new menu at Foreign Cinema. We live with the seasons, and we're serious about it.
That's a high standard. No wonder Chez Panisse holds its employee parties at Foreign Cinema.