Paul Mason studied philosophy at the University of Illinois and was a student there when he got his first real kitchen job working in a local restaurant and brewery.
After college, he “wanted to continue down the culinary path,” so he moved to Chicago with the intention of working at the best restaurants he could.
And, he said, “I did.”
Mason, 29, came to Vine and Olive in Coeur d’Alene from Boeufhaus, a French- and German-inspired brasserie. “That place rocks,” he said. “I learned more there than anywhere else I’ve worked.”
Mason has been cooking professionally since 2009. In November, he helped proprietor Naomi Boutz open a wine bar specializing in small plates at the Riverstone development. Vine and Olive serves Pacific Northwest wine and European-inspired fare made with seasonal ingredients.
Mason dreams of cooking with gooseneck barnacles. But he’s not above dining on the $1.50 hot dog and a soda at Costco.
Here, we get to know him a bit better.
What’s your favorite dish to cook at home? A church amount of chili. It’s a thrill to make enough of something to last a winter.
Where do you eat when you eat out? Love the Pho Thanh and, for a sandwich and beer, Moon Time – both in Coeur d’Alene. Drummin’ Up BBQ, also in Coeur d’Alene, has a tremendous chicken sandwich. But the $1.50 hot dog and a soda at the Costco food court is the best deal in town. There are a lot of spots in Spokane that I still need to try.
Who or what inspired you to become a chef, and how? I was always curious about how it was done. The process, in the professional context, is almost always out of sight, so that was a mystery that I wanted to figure out. It’s rewarding now to go to a restaurant and think, “OK, I see what you’ve done here.” That said, cooking is such a massive subject that it’s still pretty mysterious.
What are your go-to ingredients? The basics: butter, shallots, chicken stock, wine and fresh herbs. I’m also a huge fan of seafood in general.
What was the first dish a customer ever sent back to you, and how did you handle it? I remember a grilled chicken that I undercooked. It came back to the kitchen, and my chef explained to me how embarrassing that was, so I fired a new one and moved forward with a healthy sense of shame and humility.
What’s a dish you’ve never made but would like to, and why? Percebes, aka gooseneck barnacles. People in Galicia risk their lives to harvest those things. They grow on cliffs off the shoreline, so you have to rappel and grab them before the tide comes in. Diners pay hundreds for a plate. I got to try one once. It was steamed, then dressed with mango vinegar and tarragon oil. It was sort of chewy and briny, and really, really tasty. Maybe one day we’ll get some for the restaurant. Cooking with that type of luxury ingredient really makes you focus.
What dish or ingredient best represents you? Junior Mints. To quote Cosmo Kramer on the famous 1993 “Seinfeld” episode about the candy. “Who’s gonna turn down a Junior Mint? … It’s very refreshing!” Or, also to quote Kramer on the show, maybe a Mackinaw Peach, “a miracle of nature that exists only for a brief period. It’s like the aurora borealis.”
Roasted Pear Panna Cotta
This is a dessert based on a dish I had to plate approximately 5,600 times … so this technique has definitely carved its own neural pathways in my brain. The original dish this recipe is based on calls for torchon of foie gras, liquid nitrogen and PVC piping. But my version is far less complicated and just as tasty. The technique is the important part here, so this recipe could be used with just about any fruit puree. Also, for a dairy-free option, you could use coconut milk instead of cream.
For the pear puree:
6 ripe Bartlett pears
For the panna cotta:
10 sheets gelatin (silver)
600 grams roasted pear puree (recipe below)
600 grams heavy cream
2 grams salt
1 1/2 grams citric acid (if unavailable, use 2 ounces lemon juice)
45 grams sugar
Make the pear puree: Cut pears in half from top to bottom, and scoop out the core and seeds with a spoon. Place halved pears face down on a sheet tray lined with parchment paper or a silicone liner. Roast in 400 degree oven for 35-45 minutes or until completely tender. When cool enough to handle, peel off the skins and process in blender until smooth, adding water if needed. Pass puree through a fine mesh strainer.
Make the panna cotta: Place gelatin sheets in bowl of ice water for at least 5 minutes to bloom. Warm pear puree and heavy cream in a sauce pot. The mixture needs to be just warm enough for the gelatin to melt (95 degrees or more). Do not boil. Whisk in salt, citric acid and sugar. Squeeze the bloomed gelatin to remove most of the water, and whisk the gelatin into the mixture. Taste the panna cotta base; it should be sweet and slightly acidic. Adjust with sugar and citric acid if needed. Ladle panna cotta base into desired molds, such as wide, shallow bowls that hold about 4 ounces panna cotta, and place in refrigerator to set. The panna cotta will be fully set in about an hour. Any leftover base can be warmed and set once more. Garnish however you please; it’s going to be great: fresh fruit, roasted pears, candied nuts, chocolate sauce, a sorbet or, like we do, with almond crumble, caramel, and apples sautéed in butter.
Yield: 8-10 servings