In memory of Peter Cipra.
I met Peter Cipra when I was five and he was my kindergarten classmate Peter’s father. I knew, vaguely, that he had a restaurant; I wouldn’t understand what that meant until later. Meanwhile I sat in the bright kitchen of his home and made “spaghetti” out of blue Play-Doh with a garlic press (presumably not a garlic press used in his restaurant). His wife, Susan, made spaghetti and meatballs (not out of Play-Doh) for our lunch and told wild stories about Peter (senior) and his career as a chef. How he used to terrorize his cooks, and how once, in a fit of anger, he threw a butcher knife at someone who’d made a mistake (fortunately he missed). As a child, you come to know the mothers of your friends because they pick you up from school and cook you meals; fathers are tall, shadowy figures glimpsed on their way to and from work, around whom legends are spun and myths are made.
Years went by, and our paths did not meet again until Peter (junior) and I were once again classmates in middle school. It’s possible that my parents had been dining at Labuznik all these years without my knowledge, but I only remember the day in 6th grade when my old kindergarten friend Peter came up to me and said, gleefully, “Your dad didn’t finish his carrots last night!” I immediately went home and confronted my father at the dinner table. As a child who had to finish everything on my plate, it gave me a deeply subversive thrill to catch my own father out, and for years I was convinced I had found a chink in his armor, that he didn’t like carrots. (He does). I wouldn’t dine there myself until high school, in that narrow, high-ceilinged restaurant down on 1st Avenue, a few steps away from the Pike Place Market. I remember succulent lamb chops, tender spinach, and yes, those carrots that were my father’s downfall years before.
Labuznik, as I remember it, was formal but not stuffy, warmed by the good humor of Susan Cipra who ran the dining room while her husband ruled the kitchen. You went there if you knew what you wanted, and if what you wanted was Peter Cipra’s uncompromising vision. He used to have this rule: no matter how many were dining at the table, you couldn’t choose more than four of the entrée options. That is to say, if there were six of you, and six entrée options, you couldn’t try all of them. It was maddening, but if you didn’t like his rules, you didn’t eat there. There isn’t anyone who runs a restaurant like that anymore, in these ME ME ME times. That era has passed. The closest successor might have been Lampreia, down the street, which in the nineties and noughties had that same uncompromising attitude, but without the warmth, which made for some interesting dining experiences. But all that is another story. We were talking about Labuznik, where Peter Cipra could do whatever the hell he wanted because he owned the damned building and didn’t have to answer to anyone.
The last time I had dinner at Labuznik was some six months before it closed, on the night of my 18th birthday. We had just returned from Prague, and my mind was full of the addictive pickled red cabbage that came with every meal. It came with our dinner at Labuznik, too, though only recently did a friend tell me that it was from a can. I had the Tournedos Rossini, and Peter explained to me that traditionally, Tournedos Rossini is topped with foie gras, but he made it with a slice of pâté atop each medallion of filet mignon, which would melt into a rich sauce as you ate it. This was followed by a berry Pavlova, which Susan brought to our table lit with a sparkling candle, reed-thin and twinkling with all the promise of the years ahead. I would be leaving for college soon; childhood was at an end. I’ll remember that dinner, though, and those stories, forever.
I was sorry to hear of Peter Cipra’s death last month, all too soon and terribly from cancer. He and his wife were a part of my culinary education, and therefore my life, from a very early age. Food was something beyond a bowl of cereal at breakfast, a PB&J sandwich in my lunchbox, the Chinese food I ate at home. It could be something creative, as creative as “blueberry spaghetti” made from Play-Doh or tender carrots spiced with something from a faraway land. It was part of a wider world that was and continues to be forever expanding, forever changing, and I hope it never ends. How lucky I was to have known him.