Patrick Fechser started his cooking career at age 15 in the most thankless spot in the kitchen the dishwasher.
Even through the steady stream of dirty plates, the scene proved irresistible. So what began as a way to make a few extra bucks while attending East Valley High School ignited a passion for food that propelled Fechser through the ranks.
At 22, he’s now the chef at Percy’s in the University City Shopping Center (924-6022). He creates new dishes, trains cooks and has even helped pick out carpet for the restaurant’s remodeling. (Percy’s will become a free-standing restaurant when the mall is redeveloped.)
“When I first started, I just learned everything I could,” Fechser said. “That’s one of the best things about cooking, you never get bored because there’s always more to learn.”
After working as a dishwasher, he moved up to prep cook and then line cook - a post that requires lightning-quick speed to get a multitude of orders out at the same time. Fechser enjoys that kind of pressure, though.
“That’s where I like to be when I’m cooking,” he said.
In the year and a half he’s been Percy’s chef, he’s started experimenting with fresh herbs and different whole grains for the restaurant’s “heartwise” section of the menu.
The challenge with healthy food, he said, is getting people to understand that low-fat doesn’t mean bland, boring meals.
“Once customers try it, they love it,” Fechser said. “Dishes don’t have to be loaded down with fat to taste good. We’ll use white wine in a saute instead of oil and it tastes great.”
Lean cuisine needn’t be fussy food, either.
“Some of the best dishes are so simple, like sauteing fresh tomatoes and throwing in a whole bunch of basil,” he said. To finish that dish, he adds prawns and tosses it all with pasta.
Fechser gets inspiration from books and magazines, and also by eating out a lot at local restaurants.
“I get excited about the food I’ve had at Luna, Fugazzi and Harry O’s,” he said.
Fechser’s creative abilities will be showcased - along with those of more than 20 other area chefs - at the “Heart Act to Follow,” a $100-a-plate benefit for The Heart Institute on March 13 at the Ridpath Hotel. At this year’s event, restaurants will feature themes that playfully tie into ‘60s TV programs.
He and Percy’s owner Pat Kroetch have already put together the menu for a gourmet five-course feast taking off on “Batman.” Among the cleverly named dishes are the “Holy smokes, smoked salmon, Batman” appetizer and the “Dynamic duo” entree, which pairs scallops with a raspberry-shallot sauce.
“It was a lot of fun working on it,” Fechser said.
Percy’s own dynamic duo also is getting the word out about heart-healthy food at a cooking demonstration Feb. 26 from 4 to 7 p.m. at Tidyman’s at Sprague and McDonald. They will offer low-fat cooking classes starting in late March.
Still, Fechser doesn’t always practice what he preaches. “When I cook at home, it’s usually something with heavy cream, like an alfredo sauce,” he said.
And the one thing he’s always got in the freezer?
Corn dogs. “I just love them,” he said.
That’s OK, he’s young. And he burns a lot of calories pursuing his other passion - snowboarding.
“When we first moved here from Palm Springs, it was winter and I wanted to go right back, but then I discovered snowboarding,” he said.
His two passions rarely intersect.
“I don’t really think about food when I’m snowboarding unless I go into the lodge and get something really good to eat,” he said. “But most of the food at ski resorts is pretty bad.”
Jamaican Rice With Sauteed Prawns
The only fat in this recipe occurs naturally in the prawns and rice. Fruit juice is used to “saute” the ingredients.
1/2 cup tamari or low-sodium soy sauce
2 teaspoons turmeric
2 tablespoons frozen apple juice concentrate
1 cup unsweetened pineapple juice
10 large prawns, peeled and deveined
4 teaspoons fresh garlic, minced
2 heaping cups cooked brown rice
1 cup fresh pineapple, cut into chunks
1 teaspoon jalapeno, finely minced
1/2 cup red bell peppers, sliced thinly
Mix tamari, turmeric, apple juice concentrate and 1/4 cup pineapple juice. Set aside.
Saute prawns in 3/4 cup pineapple juice and 2 teaspoons minced garlic in a large heavy skillet over medium heat until the prawns are opaque, approximately 3 to 4 minutes. Remove the prawns and set aside.
To the pan juices, add the rice, remaining 2 teaspoons minced garlic and 4 to 6 tablespoons of the tamari mixture. Stir over medium heat until the rice is well-coated and turns slightly yellow. Then add the pineapple chunks, jalapeno and red bell peppers and heat through, about 3 minutes.
Adjust the seasoning by adding more of the tamari mixture if needed.
Yield: 2 servings.
Nutrition information per serving: 340 calories, 2.5 grams fat (6 percent fat calories), 13 grams protein, 67.5 grams carbohydrates, 53.5 milligrams cholesterol, 1,336 milligrams sodium.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo