by April Lisante
Something beautiful has happened in Chestnut Hill’s restaurant world this winter.
And I can proudly say I witnessed it. There really is no way to qualify what I saw and heard, though I will try. I witnessed a legend, an icon of our city’s food scene, find his own Zen. I listened to a man explain to me how he found his peace through the life he built.
After 51 years leading kitchens across the country and our city, Chef Al Paris has stepped down from Paris Bistro and Café, his eponymous gem at the heart of the Hill. He did it on his own terms. Though the Hill will be so much less for his exit, I am here to tell you what happens next, when a man follows his heart.
Chefs are artists. Their hands can knead dough, paint, write and create, and Paris is one. A lifelong lover of philosophy, strong leadership and hard work, Paris is now using his gifts as a life coach for companies, individuals, CEO’s and many others who could use a little bit of his inspirational mantra.
“My story leads me here,” said Paris, sitting in his study at his Wyndmoor home, flanked on all sides by books and photos. On one wall hangs framed photos that timeline his career: he and Georges Perrier, James Beard honors, his 15-year stint in Northern California. The remaining walls are lined floor to ceiling with cookbooks, philosophy books and classic tomes that inspire him daily.
His journey began mid-last year, when he explained to his Paris Bistro business partner Rob Mullen, also owner of Campbell’s Place, that he wanted out.
“I was 62, staring at the stainless steel line [at the restaurant] at midnight like how am I really going to contribute at this point and continue to grow and develop myself,” Paris recalled.
He stayed at Paris until November, when he left the kitchen finally to embark on a new journey in his life with One Degree owner, Ed Doherty.
As a coach for One Degree, a Center City-based boutique consulting agency, Paris now helps companies build morale, leadership and productivity, among other things. Up to 80 percent of successful CEOs have had some type of coaching to keep employees happy and inspired, Paris says.
Paris has already begun working with two restaurant clients, helping them to see where their goals and motivations lie. It turns out, his kitchen career had been training him for this coaching job all along. He always believed that if chefs weren’t passionate, or happy, or in the kitchen for the right reasons, it meant certain failure. Now, he is all about figuring out why people do what they do and inspiring them to do even better.
“This is a movement,” said Paris. “Consultants show you how to run a business, but coaches help you find out what your purpose is. It’s a huge difference.
“I had been doing this all my life to create an environment, but Ed has all the systems and mechanisms in place to quantify and measure them in business. He is my coach mentor and we are having a fabulous time.”
The move seems a natural fit for Paris, who spent a career opening dozens of restaurants both for himself and others.
As a writer who has interviewed many chefs in the past 20 years, from Philadelphia’s greats to stars like Bobby Flay, Giada De Laurentiis, and Rachel Ray, I can say that the difference between cooking for the sake of cooking or fame is sincerely different than creating—really creating—a mantra that lies in the heart of the chef and permeates the morale of a kitchen.
Paris has the knowledge, but also the heart. He approaches a kitchen as a Zen master would a yoga studio. Who am I? What do I want to create? How can I inspire others to create?
I first met him in the early part of the millennium, when he was opening TSOP, The Sound of Philadelphia, for the Bynum brothers. Unassuming, he spoke to me not as a man who had launched the restaurant Renaissance in the city, but as a man who loved food.
But where did the Renaissance begin in the city? The rebirth we all now enjoy came from pioneers like Paris who not only took a chance, but chanced to try and give the city what it needed: Restaurants with real food and an upscale twist, and always with a musical component to end the night.
Born in Germantown, Paris began his career at age 11 as a dishwasher at the Coach Inn in Fort Washington on Mother’s Day 1968. He lied about his age, claiming he was 14 to get the job.
“It was the most exhilarating experience I ever had,” he recalled. “We did 850 covers that day.”
His early 20s found him in Northern California, as a chef at the San Francisco City Club. He then took a job at a Napa Valley restaurant, and then at an upscale winery.
But Philadelphia was fortunate that restaurateur Neil Stein called Paris back to his roots in 1989 to open the Northern Italian gem Pomodoro on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway. Paris would not stop there. Happy to be back in his hometown, his imagination and talent launched a restaurant Renaissance downtown with Circa, Rococo, Guru and a dozen restaurant-bars within a decade. Philadelphia’s dining out and going out scene was forever changed.
Now, Paris hopes to inspire others to do the same.
“It’s awesome. I get to express myself and what I am about,” he said. “Not many people get to do that.”