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Nourishing a Passion 

Chef/owners are like overburdened jugglers, but Sandpoint’s Peter Mico still finds time for Downward-Facing Dogs.

click to enlarge Spuds Rotisserie and Grill owner Peter Mico - YOUNG KWAK
  • Young Kwak
  • Spuds Rotisserie and Grill owner Peter Mico

Most chefs are passionate about many aspects of cooking: the flashy sizzle of something hot yet fleeting, the dense drama of a food combination that’s savory or sweet, the slow rolling boil of a fragrant, hearty soup.

That last example — the aromatic stew that appeals to all the senses — is closest to the heart of Peter Mico, a longtime and well-respected Sandpoint-area restaurateur and yoga instructor whose passion for cooking extends back 35 years.

“This all started a long time ago when I was fortunate to have helped open a restaurant in the French Quarter of New Orleans,” explains Mico about his collection of exotic spices. (They occupied a shoebox once, but now fill several shelves.) “I discovered the amazing work of Paul Prudhomme, chef of K-Paul’s and author of several cookbooks on Cajun cooking.” Mico was bowled over by Prudhomme’s writing, honesty and openness, including his theories on cooking: “I couldn’t get enough of it.”

Mico’s fascination with flavor translates to what might be called the art and science of cooking. At his Sandpoint restaurant, Spuds Rotisserie and Grill (102 N. First Ave.), he shares his assortment of sea salts with students in his occasional cooking classes. Hawaiian, Japanese, Mediterranean — he says he has “salts so specific, you can actually taste the country.”

Like a chemist, Mico is meticulous about process.

“I like to get here a half an hour or so before the staff,” he says, adding that “there is also a certain amount of concentration that is involved, so there can’t be a lot of distraction” while prepping for the day.

“As soon as you unlock the back door,” he says, “it begins: maintenance, vendors, employees, sanitation, food costs, service, promotion, public relations” (and the occasional Inlander reporter).

In the kitchen, the day begins with soup. Up to six are offered daily, such as roasted butternut squash with maple, fall vegetable with pesto, Sopa de Lima and split pea with ham. All are available for tasting before you order, and all are made from scratch.

After three to four hours of soup-making, Mico meets with staff, then works the floor through lunch. He likens the experience of being a chef/owner to juggling. “From the time you unlock the door to the time you drive away, you’re like the juggler in Cirque du Soleil — juggling not just plates, but knives, chickens, broken faucets and time cards in the air.”

On the upside, Mico has wife and partner Gail “to keep most of it all together,” he said, pointing to the less-than-glamorous aspect of running a business at which she’s so adept: scheduling, billing, cash flow. “I am grateful for her,” he said.

Another thing he’s grateful for — and something that informs his relationship with food — is yoga. He runs Downtown Yoga and serves on the Sandpoint Wellness Council, a group of local holistic-health practitioners.

The menu, for example, is generally low-sodium, uses gluten-alternatives (like potato flour) and has a lot of vegetarian dishes, often using locally grown organic products. The potato features prominently (hence the name). Some dishes, however, reflect less-than-healthful approaches to cooking, says Mico, like the enormously popular clam chowder.

Mico continues to tinker with the menu, always looking for ways to improve it, whether in healthfulness, taste or simply responding to the customer. “The question is: How can you satisfy the greatest number of people per shift and try to turn a meager profit? It is not a profession you do without having a passion for it.”

Dining Out 2010

Get a chef to confide in you*, and one of two things will happen. If that chef is passionate about her work but works for someone else, she will undoubtedly talk about the frustrations and constraints of working around customers’ whims — or, maybe worse, an owner’s perception of a customer’s whims. She’ll talk about wanting to be free to make her art on her own terms — to open a restaurant that is only hers, and to make the food she loves making, regardless of who comes in the door.

Now get a chef who is also a restaurant owner to confide in you. She might complain about many things — payroll, a ruined panna cotta, an inexplicable kale shortage — but she won’t complain about feeling boxed in. At worst, she’ll feel misunderstood. But feeling misunderstood is a trait of all artists, isn’t it?

The chefs in Dining Out 2010 belong to that latter category. They have taken on tremendous personal and professional risk in the hope of reaping the tremendous reward of both freedom and success at the thing they love most. Their food and their stories inspire us. We hope they inspire you, too.

— Luke Baumgarten, Section Editor

* This may take a drink or two, and you may have to do some confiding yourself.

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