Champe Speidel '00, chef/proprietor of Persimmon and Persimmon Provisions, will be awarded an honorary Doctor of Culinary Arts at the 2016 JWU Commencement ceremony in Providence.
Chef Speidel is extremely giving of his time and frequently returns to campus to lecture, judge competitions and otherwise offer his wealth of expertise as a 6-time James Beard Award nominee for Best Chef: Northeast. (He also drums in a chef-centric rock band with fellow alum Derek Wagner '99 of Nicks on Broadway.)
He and wife Lisa Harrison Speidel recently moved their restaurant Persimmon from a 40-seat space in Bristol, RI, to a larger space in Providence formerly occupied by Rue de L’Espoir. Here he speaks about his career arc and offers advice to the next generation of cooks.
For Champe Speidel '00, cooking is a mixture of artistry and practicality, craft and commitment.
The acclaimed chef and co-owner (with wife Lisa) of Persimmon in Providence, RI, first “fell in love” with the culinary industry thanks to a part-time job at a butcher shop in college. There was one problem: he didn’t really know how to cook.
“When I started at JWU I didn’t know anything. I was all thumbs,” he admitted to a packed house at the Harborside Academic Center. He persevered by working hard, devouring every cookbook he could get his hands on, and building his real-world experience. “Use all the tools at your disposal. That’s what I did. I took advantage of everything.”
That meant “getting out there” and getting busy. He honed his craft, first at the Ritz-Carlton’s famed Dining Room in St. Thomas, then at Providence’s top restaurants, including Empire, Neath’s and Gracie’s.
In 2005, he and Lisa opened Persimmon. With just 38 seats and a modest budget, the restaurant’s farm-fresh, technique-driven cuisine quickly drew local and national acclaim. In 2006, Boston Magazine dubbed the restaurant a “hidden gem.”
Speidel admits that running Persimmon can be “a battle” that requires constant commitment. It’s also clear that he wouldn’t have it any other way. “Every day we keep pushing ourselves to get better and better.”
Use all the tools at your disposal. Take advantage of everything.”
Persimmon’s menu changes seasonally, and the bulk of the produce is grown locally. According to Speidel, all chefs should be thinking about this. “Question your sources. You need to know where your ingredients come from. Does this really need to be flown in? How was this meat raised?”
For a restaurant like Persimmon, sourcing from local farmers and butchers also makes financial sense. By cutting out the middleman, Speidel can negotiate for better pricing.
As he recounted his life and career, Speidel effortlessly assembled and plated 3 very different dishes.
Painterly yet precise, his salmon carpaccio was a riot of color and texture, thanks to unexpected touches like a perfectly poached quail egg and a scattering of spicy micro greens and edible flowers. “With a dish like this you need perfect knife cuts, perfect dice,” he noted.
A riff on the classic ballotine, his chicken sous vide with glazed cipollinis, Brussels sprouts and infused jus balanced earthy, floral and herbaceous notes, thanks to fresh bay leaves, thyme, rue and black garlic, which added a complex funk.
For dessert, he created a vanilla panna cotta, a lustrous combination of mascarpone, heavy cream and Narragansett Creamery yogurt served with a citrus salad, blood orange sorbet and dehydrated blood orange chips.
Career Talk: Ask a Jean-Georges Executive Chef