"Tell the little stage that I want her to make me something, whatever she wants."
Adam Pechal announces this in a voice so loud it turns heads from two tables away at Tuli Bistro. He's the co-owner and chef of this compact yet highly regarded restaurant at 21st and S streets in midtown. On this night Pechal is auditioning the stage, an unpaid kitchen apprentice, for a possible gig at Tuli. A plate of pappardelle pasta with andouille sausage arrives.
"To be honest, I don't love the arugula salad on top," said Pechal, dissecting the dish with his fork. "It kind of covers what the dish really is she won't be back."
That may sound like a cutting critique, but Pechal isn't one to dish out what he can't take himself. This Sacramento chef is a contestant on ABC's "The Taste," which debuts at 8 tonight. The show gathers 16 chefs from across the country, each trying to impress a judging panel that includes the culinary rock star known as Anthony Bourdain, plus Nigella Lawson, the British grande dame of celebrity chefs.
Think of it as "The Voice" with veal, or an edible version of "The X Factor."
Reality shows like this don't just look for contestants, they need characters to keep the drama and get over-the-top personalities to pop off the flat screen. They've found a perfect player in Pechal.
Pechal, 37, has pedigree from one of the country's top culinary schools. Through Tuli Bistro and downtown's Restaurant Thir13en, Pechal has become renowned for a gutsy approach to seasonal ingredients and a repertoire of worldly influences. Think the "midtown meltdown" turkey-and- bacon sandwich, pizza topped with hummus, handmade pastas, carnitas tacos and diver scallops with duck-fat potatoes.
But don't expect some precious chef in a towering toque and lilting French accent. Pechal wears his long hair in a samurai-style bun, a bit of grizzly beard on his face, scabs on his knuckles after partying a little too hard while watching his beloved San Francisco 49ers (a fall, not a fight). A Pechal entrance is generally accompanied by a beer or shot of Jameson whiskey, and his greetings are often at a volume that's the opposite of an "inside voice."
"He comes in a room, his voice is loud, his persona is big," said Jessica Petersen, Pechal's ex-girlfriend and the events director for Tuli and Restaurant Thir13en. "Some chefs in town get irritated, but a shy guy doesn't get where he has."
Cooking in the moment
Back in December, with his belly full of Korean street grub from Tako, Pechal was off in a hurry.
"Sorry, guys, gotta go," Pechal said. "I've got to get ready to feed Bill."
Such a cavalier way to refer to "Bill," who in this case was Bill Clinton, the former president and leader of the free world who was speaking that night at Sacramento Memorial Auditorium. Pechal was referred by event organizers for the task of feeding Clinton a vegan menu, including house-made spinach pasta with golden cauliflower that was largely improvised.
"I really like to cook in the moment," Pechal said. "I do some of my best work when I get a bunch of ingredients in front of me and then figure out what I want to do, instead of sitting in a sterile environment and writing a menu."
Pechal honed his cooking chops at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. Bourdain's alma mater but being a chef has been in his blood since he was a toddler. Pechal was raised in the Pocket-Greenhaven area of Sacramento, where he learned to cook while his peers were still playing with Hot Wheels.
His mom, Chris Pechal, said her son was making homemade spaghetti sauce by age 3. He's always been fearless, always a bit of a handful.
"He is a risk taker, and when he takes something on, he is determined to succeed," Chris Pechal said. "Hiking, he's the first to go to the edge at the highest point and lean over. (It) drove me crazy. When snowboarding, he's always outside the boundaries. He's always pushed the limit on anything he would do."
Pechal has paid plenty of kitchen dues since launching his career at age 15, first taking a job in the Downtown Plaza food court at Steak Escape. He's since become a staple of Sacramento's restaurant scene, with other stints in Napa, Seattle and Washington, D.C.
Pechal served as sous chef and head of the grill station at downtown's Esquire Grill, where dinner rushes meant a spool of ticket orders running to the floor, and hovering over the hottest spot in the kitchen.
"I got my butt kicked at that place," Pechal said. "It's not 'Esquire Sauté,' it's Esquire Grill."
Pechal once worked days on the wok station at P.F. Chang's and nights cooking Asian fusion at the now- defunct Sammy Chu's. ("We got to do these amazing recipes. To this day, I made the best pad thai I've ever had.")
In Napa, Pechal manned the fish station at Bouchon Bistro and learned the finer points of pasta and risotto at Bistro Don Giovanni.
The end game was always to open his own restaurant, which happened with the launch in 2007 of Tuli Bistro at 21st and S streets. Pechal scored the opportunity after wowing the father of Petersen, his then-girlfriend of six months, with his cooking. The Petersen family became key investors in both Tuli and Restaurant Thir13en, where Pechal serves as a co-owner and chef.
Looking back, the timing couldn't have been worse to open a bistro. The restaurant industry got hammered as the Great Recession kicked in, yet Tuli has thrived, once receiving 27 out of 30 points for food in the influential Zagat restaurant guide.
"It's been very rewarding, though some days are very challenging," Pechal said. "But it's been great because I feel like I got to add something to Sacramento. We have a lot of regulars. We hit the ground running and it's packed all the time."
An audacious attitude
A realty TV camera crew could get plenty of good fodder just by following Pechal around Sacramento. Picture this actual scene: Pechal is dining at Mulvaney's B&L, perhaps the signature restaurant of Sacramento's "farm to fork" movement, headed by chef and proprietor Patrick Mulvaney.
"He came in and said, 'Hmmm, typical Mulvaney, needs salt,' " said Mulvaney, snickering at the memory.
Now, in the world of white-tablecloth restaurants, asking for salt is the ultimate insult to a chef. It's like telling Dale Schornack of News10 (KXTV) that he has bad hair, or a painter like Wayne Thiebaud that he needs to go back to the drawing board.
Keep in mind that Pechal and Mulvaney go way back. They first crossed paths in the mid-1990s when Pechal was a newbie at River City Brewing Co., and Pechal has since done catering work in the past for Mulvaney's Culinary Specialists company. And nothing like some good-natured ribbing between chefs, right?
"I'm not sure he was kidding," Mulvaney said. "He's got a big mouth for sure, and that alienates people sometimes.
"But he is a good cook at the end of the day, and I admire that he stepped into the water and said 'Let's make a go of things.' "
It's all about one taste
A $1 million non-disclosure agreement prevents Pechal from saying how well he fared on "The Taste." Filming for the series has already wrapped up, but as far as America knows, the season begins tonight with all the contestants trying to get past the audition phase.
The format seems familiar: In a series of culinary challenges and blind taste tests, the contestants have to wow the all-star judges with a single spoonful of food if not, the chefs get sent packing.
Pechal had already tried a couple times to land a spot on Bravo's "Top Chef," though an opportunity never panned out past the audition reel stage. A "Top Chef" casting director whom Pechal previously worked with helped get him on "The Taste."
Pechal hopes this network exposure brings some publicity for Restaurant Thir13en, where business has been more hit-and-miss than at Tuli. He's feeling a little burnt after all these years on the cooking line, and looking to establish himself more as a brand and to scout new opportunities.
"I enjoy the entire restaurant experience, but being stuck in the kitchen limits me," Pechal said.
Pechal typically has held his own in cooking competitions, which bodes well for "The Taste."
Either way, Pechal knows how to play to an audience. He arrived at the 2011 Raley's Grape Escape to defend his crown from the previous year, sporting a red bandanna on his head and a bottle of bourbon in his hand.
Pechal pumped up the crowd by taking shots straight from the bottle and then doused some lamb chops with bourbon. The crowd loved it but the judges agreed that the dish was sunk by too much alcohol.
Pechal laughs while remembering that day. Right now, he's savoring the spotlight of network TV.
"Bourdain is larger than life, as you can expect, and Nigella's looking better than ever," said Pechal, winding down his evening with a little cabernet franc. "I got to meet some great chefs from around the country and it'll be interesting to see who makes the cut. I've done cooking competitions before and I function well in that high-pressure situation. I'm feeling pretty confident about it."