Jersey on the Plate
Pepe found a place that was in juxtaposition to where he was raised – from the hard knocks ‘whatcha gotta be’ of Hoboken to a new relaxed lifestyle.
Rich Pepe was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, a stone’s throw away from Frank Sinatra, who was a family friend. Like most Italian immigrant families, the Pepe home revolved around the kitchen – a pot of fresh sauce boiling on the stove at all times, sometimes crab fetched from the Hudson River. It was there, in his grandparents’ kitchen, alright with the smell of basil and oregano, that a young, scrappy, street savvy Pepe learned to appreciate home-cooked meals, an appreciation that he tries to instill in the customers of his various restaurants and culinary businesses.
“It seemed I was more interested in food than the other kids, but I was also more hungry,” jokes Pepe. “You got a little extra if you hung around the kitchen.” In a large family – consisting of 28 aunts and uncles, and the same number of first cousins – you had to be tenacious to get what you wanted.
It was perhaps this same tenacity that led Pepe to seek adventures far beyond the stoop-filled blocks of Hoboken and into the terra incognita of the West Coast. He was one of the few who moved away. “My family likens me to the grandparents who left their families to pursue new lives,” says Pepe.
In Pepe’s mind, California was the place to start anew. He says he wanted to find a place that was “in juxtaposition to where [he] came from – from the hard knocks ‘ whatcha gotta be’ of Hoboken to a new relaxed lifestyle.” He found it in Monterey.
Drawing on his skills as a baker that he developed in his family’s shop growing up, Pepe, then 21 years old, took a job at a Monterey bakery. And he’s been on the Peninsula ever since. Today he owns Carmel Bakery, along with three restaurants, a budding wine company, and a homemade sauce company.
It’s the new sauce company that Pepe seems most excited about. Pepe & Pants, named after himself and his childhood best friend, Joey Pantoliano (“Joey Pants”) is a relatively small operation and risk compared to running three restaurants – Little Napoli , Peppoli and Vesuvio. With his new business, everything on a Pepe restaurant table will be proprietary, just like it was at his home growing up. Pepe and Joey have been in business together before, but this is the first time they’re working on something that reminds them of their childhood. “We’re really excited about this, and much of the proceeds are going to charity,” says Pepe.
But it’s not just the sauce-makers who are excited about the project. Even the Kennedy family has gotten on the Pepe & Pants bandwagon. Joey Pants lives near Bobby Kennedy, and when Bobby and Mary Kennedy needed to cook for an 80-person Kennedy family reunion, they called on Pepe & Pants to help them out. Ethyl Kennedy especially loved the sauce and talked with Pepe for hours. “She is fascinated by cooking. Some of the top people in the world are just fascinated by guy who can cook,” he boasts.
It’s more than just his culinary skills that bring people to Pepe. He’s got that East coast extroversion that we often long for on the West Coast. Pepe is magnanimous, the way that you want your Italian chef to be, singing and yelling jovially form the kitchen, walking out to greet his regular customers with a warm handshake. And he knows this about himself. “I like making friends. Sometimes you just gotta go knock on the door and say ‘hi’ and ask what do we have in common? The answer is usually food.”
65 Degrees Winter 2010 | Author: Kristin A. Smith
Photography by: Hemali Acharya | Photo Direction: Richard Perez- Pacheco