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Stardust Inspiration: A spiritual seeker who had to overcome his shyness, John Pisto had a humble beginning and ended up with a dining dynasty on the Monterey Peninsula. You’ll never meet a man more enthusiastic about his work. On a mission for mushrooms, he travels from shining seas to South Seas to sample the cuisine and bring back exotic recipes for his popular national TV show. To this day, he daringly follows his passions.

John Pisto, intrepid Traveler and Cookin’ Pistol

If John Pisto’s zest for food, travel and life could be bottled, he’d be the most popular carbonated drink since Coca-Cola.
Anyone who’s seen his national TV show, “Monterey’s Cookin’ Pisto Style,” can see the joy in his cooking with such friends as (the late) Julia Child. He has acquired four local restaurants, and his cookbooks chronicle his journeys around the world to find the perfect mushroom.

Just back from Fiji, unscathed and effervescing about the wonderful Fijians (“sweetest people in the world”), he sat in his Cannery Row office overlooking the bay.

Among the frolicsome entourage of eight couples who joined Pisto and his wife, Cheryl, in Fiji were George Rodrigue, the “Blue Dog man,” and Myles Williams, a partner in the Fijian resort where they all stayed.

Q: So, what was the Fiji fiasco, a publicity stunt?
A: Absolutely not. It was a giant misunderstanding. It had people coming here crying.

Q: What did happen?
A: We were all standing in line at the airport and were handed a letter saying there’s been a coup, and they had taken hostages. Canadians were to stay in their homes under heavy security, and if we wanted to get off the plane, we had a choice. I, at first, said no way was I going. How do you tell a Canadian from an American, unless you say “mate”? But Myles talked me into going. When we landed at the airport, everything seemed peaceful and calm, although there was military presence there. All the action was on other side of the island.

Q: Your bio?
A: My father was a tailor, and mother was a seamstress. They had a business downtown on Alvarado for many years. I was born in New York, but we moved here in 1941, when I was 6 months old. I went to Larkin Elementary, Monterey High School and MPC.

Q: Your history regarding the restaurant industry?
A: I made sandwiches at my cousin Nino’s deli in Milbrae. There I discovered I loved the food business, talking with people and slicing pastrami for them. People were in a good mood. I thought, “My God! This is great.” I had found my calling in life.

Q: So, then, did you study at the Cordon Bleu?
A: I went to chef’s school here in Monterey. It was a government-sponsored program through the Department of Education. After I graduated, I became night chef at the Monterey airport in 1964. We opened the airport, the place jumped. Then I wanted to get on my own. So I found a soap shop on the wharf and converted it into a restaurant, The Captain’s Gig.
I loved English fish ‘n chips and came up with an incredible recipe. We had a blast there; it turned into a hippie joint. Clint (Eastwood) and celebrities would sit there and eat my fish ‘n chips. Then I wanted to start a dinner house. In 1970, Cheryl found a deserted building. With her and her two brothers, we remodeled it, and it’s now the Whaling Station.
I started experimenting. Everything was meat and potatoes in those days, but I had a barbecue pit and did fish . . . Bill Rice, the food and wine editor of the Washington Post, was so impressed he did a full-page article, and that’s what kicked it off.
With Domenico’s, I did another daring thing. The Wharf at that time was all casual and deep fry. I opened a fancy restaurant with white tablecloths, and it took off like gangbusters. My next acquisition was Abalonetti’s, and in ’95, I opened Paradiso.

Q: On TV you seem to let it all hang out. How private are you?
A: What you see is what you get. My wife, Cheryl, is the protector of my privacy. She says when it’s OK to entertain, otherwise I’d have guests over every night.

Q: What do you eat when no one is watching?
A: A 3-inch-high pastrami sandwich on Jewish rye with mustard and sauerkraut. I take one across the street and give it to Ted Balestreri, too.

Q: Something you do that’s not chic?
A: I hate to go to formal parties. I hate them. I hate small talk.

Q: Is there any such thing as crude food?
A: I think everything is OK in moderation. I even get a burger at the In-and-Out burger in San Jose. I’ve been to Philadelphia for a Philly steak tasting. Another time, we started in Miami, and any place that said “key lime pie,” we’d pull over and taste test. We ended up in Key West.

Q: Did you chew and spit?
A: No, I ate the whole piece.

Q: Is “thin chef” an oxymoron?
A: Never trust a skinny chef.

Q: Do you exercise?
A: With my right arm, like this (shovels food into mouth). No, really, I try to. I walk and wild-mushroom hunt.

Q: Are you always ebullient?
A: When we start talking about food and doing taste-testing, I get high.

Q: Your philosophy on problems?
A: Hit ‘em straight on. Let ‘em come. I’ll deal with ‘em. This job, owning four restaurants, you end up putting out fires and becoming a problem solver.

Q: Most interesting culture you’ve encountered in your world travels?
A: The Chinese were the most interesting. I went places where they’ve never seen Westerners before . . . Most think of Corsica as dangerous. But they took me around the island and said, “Make sure you tell people we’re not savages here.” . . . We went truffle hunting in France. It was the greatest honor being included in the highest echelon of the French culinary world, being treated as an equal.

Q: A list of joys that costs nothing?
A: It’s all food-related: seasonal fruit at its peak; the smell of the island of Corsica in springtime with wild leeks, onions, thyme, lavender, oregano and rosemary growing wild.

Q: Food you loathe?
A: Overcooked foods . . . Man, I’ve tried it all. We’ve eaten huge wasps with onion and rice; grasshoppers deep fried, nice and crunchy, except their raspers got stuck in our teeth.

Q: Any character defects you’re working on?
A: I eat too much.

Q: Ever seen a shrink?
A: Absolutely.

Q: What about?
A: My shyness. I was a skinny kid and so shy in high school that if a pretty girl looked at me, I’d sweat. I’ve also done EST. I’ve been a seeker – TM, Rolfing, meditation. What I’m into now is my need to travel and explore.

Universal Update: Long after this interview, Pisto was returning to France to truffle hunt and asked me if I’d like to come along as a journalist. I declined, saying I’m a sissy about travel, and have kicked myself ever since . . . I have no interest in cooking, but I’m still mesmerized watching his enduring TV show. Whether hunting wild mushrooms in Europe, salmon fishing in Alaska or cooking calamari in a sizzling skillet at one of his world renowned restaurants, Pisto does it with pizazz!

 

 

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