Pam Chittenden takes food seriously.
Her eyes narrow behind thick-rimmed glasses as she mixes salt, pepper, garlic, butter, olive oil and red wine vinegar for her Basque green beans. She says it’s one of her uglier dishes, but what it lacks in visual appeal, it makes up for in taste.
The dish isn’t even close to complete and the smell is already intoxicating.
The Denton resident has served up dishes delighting local foodies for nearly 30 years and has earned a reputation as a creative chef with a notorious temper (there have been rumors of flying spatulas).
While Chittenden has worked in every type of restaurant environment — from short order in Denton to fine dining in Dallas — few kitchens have been able to contain her. Her freewheeling ways have turned her into freelancing chef who cooks what has endearingly become known as “PamFood” to a sort-of cult following of local fine food enthusiasts.
Chittenden whips up multicourse meals weekly, clad in cargo shorts and sandals, her graying hair tied back in a ponytail and a single earring dangling from an earlobe. Her low-key look is deceiving. The gourmet food she prepares is anything but low-key. Known for innovative and flavorful food, Chittenden is not afraid to experiment.
“There’s really no food I don’t like,” she said. “I just enjoy the act of cooking, and it calms me down. It’s what I was born to do. I have an innate sense of how to pull flavors together. I enjoy the research. I enjoy the process. I enjoy people liking what I do and coming up with new things.”
The longtime chef’s years in the Denton restaurant scene have cultivated a following. Andrew Hime, whom Chittenden describes as her biggest critic and biggest champion, coined the phrase “PamFood.” She helped Hime grow to appreciate some of his least favorite foods, such as beets, by preparing them with her special touch.
“Well, if your mom wasn’t a good cook and just opened a can and cooked the things to death, you won’t like them,” she says.
Over the past seven years, PamFood has evolved into a weekly gathering where in-the-know foodies gather to eat, drink and dish on everything from politics to local happenings. Meetings have taken place in local dive bars. All Chittenden needs is an adequate kitchen. She says she is resourceful enough to get by nearly anywhere.
On Wednesdays, PamFood is served at Paschall Bar, upstairs from Andy’s Bar on the Square, with Sunday brunch once a month. Ten dollars buy you a three-course meal — if you bring your own plate. Chittenden will provide the plate for an additional dollar.
She announces the menu of the day through the PamFood Facebook group and through e-mail. Sometimes, she doesn’t announce the menu until she is already in the kitchen sifting and sauteing.
Denton librarian Sunny Purdin has been a loyal guest for the past seven years. She says Pam’s whiskey cake — prepared with Jack Daniels — is one of the best things she’s ever eaten.
“It was just amazing,” Purdin said. Chittenden pours the Jack Daniels over her sponge-like cake after baking it. The cake soaks up with whiskey, creating a mouth-watering and moist dessert.
Chittenden said good cooking is in her blood. Raised in a family of great cooks, she started collecting recipes as young as age 7. She’s always had an artistic flair, she said, having come to Denton to settle over a hot kiln in the University of North Texas ceramics program. She enjoyed the program, but call of the kitchen was strong than the pull of the kiln.
“They both use fire,” she jokes.
Her cooking career began as a cashier at Fry Street’s long-gone breakfast haunt, Jim’s Diner. She worked her way from cashier to the kitchen, where she felt she belonged.
“I was such a terrible cashier that they switched me into the kitchen,” she said. “Eventually I got made manager and just fell in love.”
Chittenden flipped flapjacks and eggs with the magic touch that PamFood lovers have come to appreciate. Everyday breakfast platters and sandwiches kept patrons coming back for more. Local resident Samantha Castillo remembers frequenting Jim’s nearly every day.
“I went almost every morning for breakfast,” she said. “Sometimes I would go back for lunch. She made this amazing sandwich. I tried to replicate it but just couldn’t get it the same. I don’t know what she did to it.”
Eventually, Chittenden continued her cooking education in more formal settings. She worked at the Denton Country Club before moving on to the Riviera, which in its prime was a hot dining destination for affluent Dallas folks. It was during her time there, she says, that she honed her cooking skills, while studying the cuisine of the men who wrote some of the cookbooks she read.
“They taught me the finer points of how to taste food and how to make the food taste good — how to butcher, how to make raviolis and bread,” she said. “You name it, I learned it from them.”
Chittenden sneaks a bite of chocolate in the kitchen below Paschall Bar as she reflects on the time following her days at the Riviera, which closed down about 10 years ago. She is whipping up a vegan chocolate pudding for those “pesky vegetarians” whom she’ll serve later in the evening.
She says she left the Riviera to work at the Classic Cafe in Roanoke for five years. She jumped around, working temporarily at a few other places, before ending up at Dan’s Bar, owned by Dan Mojica, her boyfriend of the last 17 years.
Dan’s Bar had a kitchen and Chittenden had a knack for putting an innovative spin on tired bar food. (Her pickled eggs earned raves, for example.) It was an ideal match. Mojica says he loves life with a chef, and happens to be the beneficiary of PamFood leftovers — if there are any.
“It’s amazing,” Mojica said. “It’s kind of ridiculous, actually.”
The icing on the cake?
“She’s really cute.”
Chittenden spent five years at Dan’s Bar before it closed; then, in 2002, Mojica opened Dan’s Silverleaf, a staple in the local music scene. But Dan’s Silverleaf lacks a kitchen, so Chittenden packed up her knives and moved on to work at the Wildwood Inn. She was fired from the Wildwood twice. She says she officially got fired for cursing.
Profanity aside, Wildwood Inn wasn’t a good fit for Chittenden, she says. She appreciated the stability but lacked the freedom to explore her creativity. Chittenden says she’s a good chef, but a horrible employee.
“I have to have a kitchen that I have control of because I have to be able to teach people to have the standards that I have,” she said. “There’s no use in putting out a product that you aren’t proud of. Ever.”
She said she tries not to be overly critical of other chefs, but feels not everybody can cook at her level. Whether it’s a dish worth $2 or $22, what’s important to Chittenden is the love that’s put into the food.
“It doesn’t have to be foie gras,” she says. “It can be a fried green tomato. If you do it with love, the $2 appetizer is just as good as the $100, and probably better because that love is translated into what you do.”
She has plans to write a book of her recipes and musings and to open her own restaurant. She says she has “irons in the fire” but won’t discuss details at this time.
Her vision is not for a high-end restaurant offering overpriced entrees, but for a breakfast joint downtown where guests could connect and feel like a part of something in the community.
For now, the kitchen at Paschall Bar will keep her busy. That, and her gig at Natural Grocers, the new market on University Drive.
Chittenden is happy feeding her regular PamFood followers. She appreciates her core audience and the support they show her. The weekly meet-ups help pay the bills (she admits not being gifted with the “money gene”) and give her the opportunity to experiment with various dishes.
Her weekly menu can vary from comfort food to Vietnamese, depending on what she is hungry for and what she is interested in making.
“This gives me a lot of latitude to experiment,” she says. “I try to replicate things that I’ve had. I have a pretty vast cookbook selection, and I have a real thirst for figuring out how to make things taste like I want them to taste. It’s fun.”