October 2009

Chef Zoole: Full Circle

Author: Paul deVere

When 10-year-old Peter Zoole was building sandcastles on the beach at Palmetto Dunes 25 plus years ago, he wasn’t thinking about how he would be preparing the catch of the day at the Ocean Grille. When he was a boy, his family spent summer vacations there. “We had a big family outing here every year,” said Zoole, who grew up in Spartanburg, South Carolina. “I always had fond memories of Hilton Head.”

Even when he got his first job at a restaurant in Charleston, he didn’t think of making a career as a chef. “I was in school and needed a job. I started just to make money. Then I fell in love with it—the atmosphere, the pace. I fell in love with being super focused. When I got really serious about cooking, it was the creativity; it’s artistic,” Zoole said. He started his job as chef of Ocean Grille in August. But he thinks the desire to become a chef might have had to do with the importance his father placed on dinner when he was a kid. “We always had dinner as a family. No matter what, I had to be home by six,” he laughed.

There was also the fact he simply liked restaurants. “We didn’t go out that often, but when we did, it was very special. The way people dressed, I thought restaurants were really cool,” said Zoole.

While his first restaurant job was in the “front of the house,” his curiosity about what was going on in the kitchen grew. As that curiosity grew, his desire to remain in school didn’t. “I just couldn’t see myself sitting behind some desk,” Zoole explained. So he decided to leave school and take up a career in the kitchen. There was just one obstacle.

“Everybody in my family went to college and got degrees. Even my grandmother. I remember coming home from school to tell my dad. With my family’s educational history, I was really nervous, really scared. When I told him I wanted to be a chef, Dad said, ‘I always did what my parents wanted me to do. Sometimes I thought I could have done something different with my life. You’re old enough to know what will make you happy. So sure, we support you.’ That was like the best thing that ever happened,” Zoole recalled.

He spent ten years in Charleston, working his way up, then had the opportunity to study at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris, easily the best known and most respected culinary school in the world. “France gave me a whole new appreciation for food, for ingredients, by just living there,” Zoole said. It also helped him a bit with his already well-honed culinary skills.

After France, Zoole and his wife spent about seven years in San Francisco where he worked at a very high-end, fine dining seafood restaurant. “I learned a lot in San Francisco. It’s a great food town, but it’s no place to raise a family. We missed the Lowcountry, missed the weather, the beaches. We missed the whole lifestyle of being here,” said Zoole.

An opportunity to work with The Lowrey Group at CQ’s Restaurant came up last year, and there was no question about it for the Zooles. And when Zoole had a chance to be the chef at Ocean Grille, that was like a dream come true.

“When I came in here [Ocean Grille] for the first time, knowing that it was going to be mine, I began looking at it with a different eye. This is a fantastic restaurant. It’s got everything you need, including a beautiful dining room. The kitchen is fantastic—nice, clean, very serviceable. It’s just a great place to be. The sky’s the limit for what we can do,” Zoole said.

With his 10 years in Charleston, Zoole became enamored with Lowcountry cuisine, which he considers his specialty. “Seafood with a Lowcountry flair, with French training to back it up,” Zoole said, smiling.

He said that he feels like a kid in a candy store when it comes to the Ocean Grille. “I’ve been here in the morning, and these ladies were peeking in the window, trying to see inside. So I opened the door and showed them around,” said Zoole. “We really do have that million-dollar view,” he added, referring to the double views of the Shelter Cove Marina and the mouth of the harbor extending out to Broad Creek. “I don’t think there’s another restaurant with a view like this on the island.”

Zoole also likes to take a peek into the dining room, just to see how the evening is flowing, to watch as guests enjoy the fare. He takes it personally. “I talked to a couple last night. They were celebrating their 42nd wedding anniversary. They had been here a few years ago. They wanted prime rib, but I told them unfortunately we couldn’t do that because it’s something that takes a great deal of advance preparation. But I wanted to make a special effort. I came out to the table and talked to them and see if we could do something different. I found out what they wanted to have and cooked just for them. I enjoy that—making people feel special. I get to see a finished product, the last piece of the puzzle,” Zoole said.

When asked if he thought he would ever end up at the resort he so enjoyed as a child, Zoole said, “If you’d told me five years ago, I wouldn’t have believed you. I guess the wheels of fate were turning our way.”

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