Almost three years ago, an East Coast native moved to California to take over as executive chef of the Limewood Bar & Restaurant inside the historic Claremont Club & Spa in Berkeley, California. Chef Joseph Paire III’s accomplishments in that time are remarkable, considering what happened right after he was hired. “I get hired, take a pay cut and get furloughed within the same week. When we reopened, I actually had to prove my worth because no one actually got to meet me,” says Paire, now the resort’s executive chef.
Five months after the pandemic furloughed him, Paire walked into the Limewood ready to show off his talents as a chef and manager. He describes how he felt at the time. “I had a chip on my shoulder to come out guns blazing and make sure they knew they made the right decision. I was the perfect chef for the property.”
From Furlough to Freedom
Chef Paire put his pandemic downtown to good use preparing for the restaurant’s reopening in August 2020. He spent much of his time researching and developing recipes. With at least 12 menus and some 100 menu items ready to go, Limewood’s new executive chef was poised to make his mark when outdoor dining brought patrons back. “Having the dishes already played out in my head and practiced, I was able to go straight into training and showing the guys what we wanted to do when I got my team into place,” he adds.
Interestingly, the pandemic worked to Paire’s advantage in some ways. He had been hired to cook Northern Italian cuisine. The Claremont Club & Spa is a Fairmont Hotel property, and Limewood is the signature dining room for the premier wellness destination. Although voted a 2019 Diner’s Choice and the recipient of Wine Spectators’ Award of Excellence, the menu had not changed much in two years.
“I rewrote the script on what the food could be,” Paire explains. “That’s what the pandemic did. It allowed me to be carefree and make good food that people would like.” Regional vice president and general manager Paul Tormey told him to make simple, healthy and good food fast. The diners that did show up would only have about 90 minutes to finish their meals outdoors. “I designed an extremely efficient menu because we had limited staff. I had three cooks when I came back from furlough. Before furlough, we had seven cooks working every night,” Paire says.
For the native of Washington, D.C., that also meant changing the mindset of his staff. Some of Limewood’s employees had been there 20 years or more, so there was some skepticism when Paire replaced the eight-ounce hamburger that took almost 15 minutes to grill with a smash burger.
“Cooking is one part of it, but the folks around you really have to believe in your vision. The restaurant’s vision before my arrival was completely different; the style of service was completely different.”
Paire’s vision fits perfectly with the restaurant’s needs during and after the months of restricted pandemic dining. The chef recalls how the reaction of diners turned doubters into believers. “One server was like, ‘No way. No one wants a smash burger. They want a juicy, medium-rare burger.’ We did the tasting, and he said, ‘This is a really good burger.’ I think we sold a couple thousand smash burgers those first couple months.”
The Limewood’s executive chef exceeded expectations by bringing a different flair and approach to the restaurant, long-frequented by local diners and hotel guests. “I’m proud of the growth I’ve been able to create. I am also proud of exceeding sales expectations,” says Chef Paire. “When you walk into a space, you’re living in the shadow of the previous years. Breaking Limewood out of that space was a huge win for me.”
The Claremont Club & Spa’s management rewarded Paire’s achievement by promoting him to resort executive chef in July 2022. He is now responsible for leading and inspiring 52 culinary professionals while overseeing the creative and business sides of the food and beverage operation.
“I’ve always looked at hotels as a place where I wanted to end up. I actually started my career in hotels. Taking a step from the restaurant chef to running the operation was a huge moment that I’m super proud of,” Paire comments.
Sharing the Glory
Becoming the executive chef of a resort built in 1915 and sitting on 22 acres between Berkeley and Oakland with stunning views of the San Francisco Bay is reason enough to be proud. However, Chef Paire is also thrilled about what his presence has meant for some culinary team members. At least five of his employee colleagues have been promoted to supervisory and management positions. “I am creating space where growth is attainable and necessary in our field. Those are my proudest moments,” he says.
The staff Paire supervises is still only about one-third of what the resort had pre-pandemic. With today’s staffing challenges, the executive chef knows it is more important than ever to inspire employees and give them opportunities to express their voices.
For instance, the menu now offers a chicken wing dish with an adobo sauce created by a Filipino cook. The Parker House rolls served with bone marrow butter came out of collaboration with a baker on staff.
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Paire expresses why that matters. “These are dishes, but there’s this excitement because the menu represents all of us. My younger chefs can feel comfortable working in these spaces. The hardest part of this business is finding your voice, finding your voice through food.”
The graduate of the prestigious Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island brought more than 20 years of culinary experience to the Claremont Club & Spa. Paire has worked alongside well-known D.C. area chefs such as Robert Wiedmaier, Todd Gray and Robert Gadsby.
He wants to use his passion, creativity and innovative spirit to inspire others. “I’m really a coach when it comes to cooking now. I want to teach people and guide them in the right direction. I do that with the menu. It tells subtle stories.”
Subtle Southern Influences
Some of the stories Paire tells through his cooking come from spending time with his grandparents in Roanoke, Virginia. Almost everyone in his big family knew their way around the kitchen. “Cooking was just natural for me. I was on the stove when I was nine, at least,” he recalls. “I loved to cook because that is where everyone was. That’s where people hung out. On Sundays, it was clipping coupons and popping green beans.”
Today, Chef Paire calls his cooking style simplistic and rustic, but his roots in southern cooking still shine through some Limewood dishes. “We don’t have overtly southern dishes on the menu, but we have subtle nuances of southern cuisine. “I like to represent the whole of my people’s food. My corvina is a sea bass with hoppin’ john. When you eat it together, you understand what the dish is, not just the individual ingredients.”
Living in California makes it possible for Limewood’s chef to incorporate fresh local produce, meats and seafood into his dishes. He also brings influences from his work in Spanish restaurants to the table. “I’ve always loved that format of food. If you go to a tapas restaurant, you have to really impress someone with one bite. I always prided myself on getting people with that first bite,” Paire proclaims.
The chef shares his views on preparing food with more flavor than frills. “You just have to make good food really well. And there’s a lot of love and care. Sometimes, there are techniques involved; sometimes, it’s as simple as salt and pepper. The simple steps really make the dishes.”
More recently, Limewood has become a place that is ideal for social dining. The dinner menu lists several shareable dishes among the table plates, starters and entrees. One of Paire’s favorites is the whole branzino. “We do a beautiful spice rub for the fish now. It’s smoked paprika, mustard, cumin, thyme and garlic. It’s beautifully seasoned, and we simply grill that fish.”
Paire’s love of Caribbean cuisine shows up in the escoveitch sauce, a stew of scotch bonnet peppers, onions, bell peppers and vinegar. “We put the escoveitch on the bottom of the plate and over the top of the fish. This is what eating is about. The flavors and the layers of complexity in that dish make it super special.”
Diners who are as big a fan of brunch as Paire find some exciting choices at Limewood. The chef doesn’t like restaurant waffles because they never seem to arrive hot. He serves crispy fried chicken over a fluffy pancake made in a small cast iron skillet. Almond or walnut syrup comes with it.
“The kicker to this dish is truly the candied bacon made with brown sugar, cayenne, cinnamon and smoked paprika. If anyone wants to open a restaurant and see a miracle, put that on the menu, and something special will happen,” the chef declares.
Limewood’s executive chef seldom makes substitutions for his menu dishes. However, he does allow the fried chicken, perfected with years of practice, to be served with French toast. He laughs while explaining why.
“Chef Nicki Shaw came in and said I don’t really do pancakes, so we’re going to do French toast. She tells everyone, and people keep coming in and ordering the fried chicken with the French toast.”
Another chef friend gets credit for Paire presenting a heritage pork shank with sweet potato grits as one of Limewood’s signature dishes. “I was talking to another chef, Nyesha Arrington. She said I’m making short ribs and sweet potato grits. I had never heard of that. I thought that was the most genius thing ever.”
Expanding the Vision
Chef Paire enjoys sharing ideas and recipes with other people who are passionate about cooking. He plans to offer more collaboration events at Limewood Bar & Restaurant. The Heritage Dinner held on February 5 was a five-course dinner prepared with Richard Ingraham, the private chef for former NBA standout Dwyane Wade and movie star Gabrielle Union-Wade.
The Limewood is uniquely located for exceptional dining experiences in an exciting setting. The checkerboard floor, stone and metal bar and beautiful wood trim get your attention. But the view of the San Francisco Bay, from the Golden Gate Bridge to Alcatraz, strikes you the moment you walk into the restaurant.
“I’m not mad to come into work every day and see 365 different sunsets because they are all different,” says Paire. “I always tell the team that we need more pictures of the view around the hotel. There is something to be said for that patio and the view.”
The resort’s new outdoor patio is part of Paire’s vision for expanding the restaurant’s reach. The pandemic prompted ownership to create an oasis for outdoor dining that shows off the spectacular view. “We started with three fire pits. Now there are seven fire pits and an outdoor bar. We’ve got a pizza oven, and we use the outdoor spaces for banquets. That is something that was never done in the past,” Paire says.
The resort’s executive chef has other ideas about improving in-room food service and setting up a Claremont Cantina by the property’s beautiful pool. Paire has plans for a 24-foot food truck that will serve Mexican and Oaxacan-inspired dishes to the hotel and spa guests. He shares why he remains optimistic about the restaurant and hospitality business.
“The restaurant business has always pivoted. We’ve always been flexible. The evolution and future of restaurants are going to be built on flexibility. It will be built on everyday people, making sustainable food for the everyday lifestyle.”
In the coming months, Paire will continue to enjoy his love of cooking, sharing his talents and making his mark at the California resort and restaurant. “I bring the energy of youthfulness to the space and allow my team to have fun. I have so many chefs I’ve brought up, now I’m excited to see what they create, what their growth is like, and what new dishes we can create together.”