Altstadt’s James Pech has been cooking since he was a child, making pies and fried chicken with his grandmother, but he didn’t pursue it as a profession until much later in life. “Somewhere in high school, I kind of forgot about it for a good 10 years," he says. After a few years of bartending and serving around the country—last in Anchorage, Alaska—Pech came to Seattle to pursue food as more than just a job. “My sister had just purchased a house in Seattle and invited me to rent a room, so it was a good time to start at the bottom and work my way up.”
And work his way up he did. Pech was in his second year as the sous chef at Hitchcock when Brendan McGill offered him the opportunity to lead the kitchen at his new venture, the German-style beer hall Altstadt in Pioneer Square. The transition to bratwursts and sausages made sense: Pech started a sauerkraut program while at Hitchcock that is still used in their deli. Plus, “to take out that ferry commute was a nice bonus.”
Now with Alstadt open, and a four-year-old boy and 18-month-old girl at home, Pech spends any free time he has with his kids, going to the zoo or doing craft and cooking projects at home.
Here, a few of James Pech’s favorite things:
Item on the Altstadt menu: The Bremen grunkhol: braised kale and buckwheat groats. It's one of the first dishes I found when researching the menu for Altstadt. I adapted it from a hearty northern German dish that includes sausage, bacon, and beef stock; it's now a vegan dish. Reminds me of collard greens, but sweeter.
Banned from your kitchen: Olive oil. And squirt bottles for plating.
Guilty pleasure: Back to Nature brand cheddar crackers. Salty, crunchy, umami...and when combined with dark chocolate, an addictive snack.
Three things on your countertop right now: Four types of salt. Coconut milk. Fresh fruit.
Hangover remedy: My daughter is a year and a half old, so the closest I've come in the last two-plus years to having a hangover is a bad night of teething...and for that, I'm not sure there is a cure.
Place to drink on a day off: Day off, day on, I invariably go to Caffe Vita in Seward Park. It's a couple blocks from my house, and the baristas (especially Chelsea and Ryan) are always cheerful and accommodating. They make getting coffee for the family a pleasant chore.
Breakfast dish: Breakfast burrito. I've been a sucker for them since childhood, and as an adult, I find them convenient and versatile. The previous evening’s dinner often finds its way into my morning burrito. The keys are good tortillas, quality fresh eggs, and a hot sauce with some depth.
People I’d like to cook with [and why]: Rene Redzepi, because he has changed the way I look at food. On that same note, Blaine Wetzel, whose food I have actually eaten. Jacques Pepin, because he was, through his book Complete Techniques, my first professional culinary instructor. My great-grandmother Erma Davidson, because she passed long before I truly learned to cook, and I just now am beginning to learn the questions to ask to truly benefit from her experienced knowledge. And Keegan O'Brien, because we have cooked with each other so much, and we have been through so many services, we have an unspoken language when cooking together, which is a fun way to cook.
Bratwurst is…Variable. I think everyone has his or her own idea of what it should be. For me, it has to have pork, should be slightly spicy (without any specific spice being the forefront), juicy, and definitely needs that "snap" when cut or bitten into that can only be provided by a natural casing.
Craziest work story that can be committed to print: A couple years ago, at Hitchcock, we were doing a prix fixe meal for New Year’s Eve. At or right around midnight, a patron locked himself in the restroom and passed out. At that time, the restaurant only had one customer restroom. The boyfriend of one of the other cooks was in the restaurant at the time, a big burly construction worker/fireman. He literally busted the door down. The sleeping patron still comes in to Hitchcock fairly regularly.