Prima's Peter Chastain
For 20 years, the chef has set the standard in Walnut Creek’s dining scene.
Peter Chastain leads his team in Prima’s kitchen.
Walnut Creek’s Prima was already 22 when Peter Chastain stepped in as executive chef. Twenty years on—this very month—Chastain still crafts his sublime Italian cuisine, championing a concept that’s remained resilient through countless trends and scores of noteworthy openings (and closings) in the restaurant-crazed city. He bought Prima in 2005, partnering with wine director John Rittmaster (who happens to be celebrating 25 years with the eatery this year).
Chastain sees himself as neither pioneer nor artist but a steward of well-sourced ingredients and true hospitality. “Hospitality is a matter of compassion,” he says. “A restaurateur restores.”
Chastain often reflects on his grandfather’s favorite adage: “God gave us food, and the devil gave us cooks.” This refers not to the hardworking souls in his kitchen (“Chefs are put on a pedestal, [but] we don’t do squat without our staff,” he emphasizes); instead, it hints at a certain type of “creative” or overly elaborate cook who might drown a pristine fillet of fish in assertive sauce rather than simply dress it with, for example, perky chervil tossed with lemon, sea salt, and Sicilian olive oil.
With the loss of local dining stalwarts Lark Creek Walnut Creek, Corners Tavern, and Stanford’s, just to name a few recent casualties, Prima’s gracious sensibilities stay rooted. Having both spent years in Japan, where mastery is achieved to honor nature’s harmony, Chastain and Rittmaster run a restaurant that is in the service of simple pleasures. There are no gimmicks or greed here—just homage to the grape, the ground, and the sea. White tablecloths and fine crystal add a thing or two, too. (Chastain admits he was seduced by the movement toward wood tabletops and rustic Italian menus designed for sharing—“I tossed and turned about it,” he says—but ultimately decided that Prima wasn’t built for the volume a concept like that would need to succeed.)
P.F. Chang’s and Il Fornaio opened in Walnut Creek the year before Chastain came on board, and it was this new age of upscale corporate behemoths that inspired then-owners Michael and Janet Verlander to seek out Chastain, who at the time was chef of Berkeley’s lauded Mazzini Trattoria. He was hired to transform their well-worn Prima—still using Libbey glassware—into a ristorante that would rise above the competition. Before his stint at Mazzini, which had connections to Chez Panisse, Chastain worked in San Francisco alongside top chefs including Michael Mina, Bruce Hill, and Joël Robuchon. He appreciated that ultrafine cuisine, but pulling off dishes such as, say, Robuchon’s three-caviar terrine at Prima would have called for a huge staff. In fact, when Chastain started at Prima, the chef who was supposed to train him on the menu left before he arrived and took his staff with him, making for hectic early days. It required time and tenacity to win over most of Prima’s regulars, but soon enough they were putting their complete trust in Chastain; nearly a third of diners would forgo menus entirely, letting Chastain cook for them as he saw fit.
The competition has come and gone, but never ceased, over the past two decades. Now fresh, top-end chains such as Pacific Catch and True Food Kitchen are offering smartly designed menus with prices that are hard for an independent restaurant to match—especially given the high quality of Prima’s products.
In response, Chastain has gone deeper. “In many ways, we’re doing the same simple things—but with more alacrity. More energy. More passion,” he says.
You’ll still find Walnut Creek’s best house-made pasta, finest cheeses, carefully roasted and braised meats, and unsurpassed seafood—often seasoned with little more than a rare, aged balsamic vinegar—sourced from places like Berkeley Bowl, Monterey Market, and Tokyo Fish Market. But there’s no snobbery at Prima. You can also order an exceptional steak and Caesar salad.
“Being stewards of good product is more important than being creative and so-called edgy,” says Chastain.
Twenty years on, it still holds true. primawine.com.
Recipe: Spicy Pear and Currant Condiment
From Prima chef Peter Chastain
Makes about 4 cups
- 1 cup sugar
- 1 cup water
- ¼ cup good-quality balsamic vinegar of Modena
- 1 vanilla bean, split
- 2 bay leaves, fresh or dried
- 1 tablespoon black peppercorns
- 2 cloves
- 2 tablespoons orange zest
- 2 tablespoons lemon zest
- 6 Bosc pears, peeled and diced
- ½ cup currants (small raisins)
- Salt to taste
- 2 tablespoons good-quality red wine vinegar
Make a syrup by combining the sugar, water, balsamic vinegar, vanilla bean, bay leaves, peppercorns, cloves, and citrus zest (reserving 1 tablespoon of orange zest) in a pot and boiling for about 15 minutes. Place the pears and currants in a separate pot. Strain the syrup over the pears and currants, adding the reserved zest, salt, and red wine vinegar. Heat until it boils. Immediately remove from heat and set aside to cool. Use a slotted spoon to mound the condiment into a serving bowl. It will keep for up to a month in its syrup if refrigerated.