All roads lead northwest for Cajun cook

  • CHRISTINA HARPER / Herald Writer
  • Tuesday, December 26, 2000 9:00pm
  • Life


Herald Writer

The night that Henry Arce graduated from high school he hitchhiked out of Lacombe, La. and moved to the French Quarter of New Orleans.

Thus began Arce’s colorful journey on the road to being a chef and owner of Cafe Pinceau in Edmonds.

Arce’s life is as resplendent as the food he serves.

"Food is art that lasts about 10 seconds," Arce said. "Then you want people to eat it."

One of seven children, Arce spent his boyhood in woods and swamps, hunting squirrel with his brothers.

"We would trade a case of squirrel for a case of fish," he said.

Being Cajun meant growing up with food such as gumbo and sausage, soul food, and red beans and rice.

"Cajun food to me is all about full, rounded flavors," Arce said.

Arce worked summers on farms and was always active in 4-H and Future Farmers of America. It’s no surprise then that he thought being a veterinarian was his purpose and in fact received scholarships to help him reach that goal.

"I was number one in the state," he said with a wry smile.

But being a vet wasn’t on the cards for Arce. He gave his scholarship to one of his classmates, and after moving to the French Quarter, he discovered his passion for cooking.

He got into the restaurant business and worked his way through the whole industry in fine restaurants, going to work on his own time, and volunteering to do anything that he could to help, including prep work.

"I found my love was cooking," Arce said.

Arce served a two-year apprenticeship at the five-star La Provence in Lacombe working for $4.50 an hour.

He acquired a Volkswagen van, packed his tuxedo and traveled all over the country studying food and how to cook it. Among other things, Arce worked on the Delta Queen riverboat and traveled often, not too concerned about his destination.

"Once, I hitchhiked from Louisville, Kentucky, to New Orleans and got to Key West," Arce said.

Arce met his wife of 27 years, Deborah Rose, when her family moved to Louisiana from the Northwest with The Boeing Co.

"My wife has always been there," he said. "She’s my quality control," he said. The couple has one daughter.

In 1980 the Arces came to the Puget Sound area for a vacation, visiting among other places, Whidbey Island and Pike Place Market. They went back to Louisiana, packed and moved to the Northwest.

"We sold everything we owned except my kitchen stuff," Arce said.

Arce enjoys the quality of life in the Northwest and likes being in Edmonds, but he misses the sun.

"I feel like a turtle on a log," he says laughing.

Arce’s work ethic is a very important ingredient at Cafe Pinceau. He mops floors, does maintenance, designs, creates and gardens.

"The restaurant is a machine that puts out really good food," he said. "I oil the parts."

Like most other owners and chefs, Arce puts in a lot of hours at his business. Some nights he works till 2:30 a.m. When he cooks, Arce does it with his own style.

"I hate recipes. I don’t use recipes," he said firmly.

What Arce doesn’t hate is playing the guitar, sometimes playing at Cafe Pinceau when other musicians take the stage Thursdays through Sundays.

If Arce’s plates are his palettes then the unique herb pastes he develops are his paint pots.

Arce has created 10 flavors of low-fat, low-sodium, no-sugar herb paste for his own use and to sell. The pastes can be used with meats, bread, condiments, vegetables and fish.

While Arce was stacking some pastes one day he noticed that the colors looked like a box of paints, hence the name Cafe Pinceau, French for paintbrush.

Arce’s travels, hard work and creativity have paid off at Cafe Pinceau but this chef doesn’t take anything for granted.

"You’re only as good as the last plate you put down," he said.

Back when he was a boy in Louisiana he would look ahead at his life and imagine what he wanted to be at 45.

"I thought you should be able to identify yourself at that age," he said. Arce be 46 in March.

"Here I am," he said. "All roads led here."

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