Twenty years is a big anniversary for Shadyside chef with Parkinson's disease

Tucked into a residential stretch of Spahr Street in Shadyside, Cafe Zinho is a charming neighborhood restaurant celebrating its 20th anniversary this month: It would be a big deal to any restaurateur, but it’s especially significant for owner Toni Pais, a dean of the city’s restaurant industry. He’s had Parkinson’s for more than a decade.

“I almost forgot about the anniversary,” Mr. Pais, 63, says before service last week, sitting at a table by the window of his dining room. He wore jeans, running shoes and a baseball cap with a semi-official-looking logo of Portugal — one of many reminders of his heritage. He’s from Cascais, a seaside town outside Lisbon known for its fish market. Fish plays a significant role on the menu at Zinho in homage to his homeland.

“Twenty years,” he recalled to his wife Becky Pais. “Let’s do something special.”

That something special was a 10-course dinner with wine pairings earlier this month, a production for a small staff of his 40-seat restaurant. They included fois gras truffle with sardine crostini as well as a scallop wrapped in smoked salmon dressed with caviar.  “I tried to keep the portions as small as I could,” he says. His chef de cuisine helped him, the Moroccan-born Dounia Touil, who has been with him for the past four years.

Ms. Touil had been Mr. Pais’ right hand — both figuratively and literally — before he sought a special treatment for his Parkinson’s disease in 2012.  Before then he relied only on medication to steady his tremors but the efficacy of drugs was increasingly intermittent, with longer stretches between periods of relative normalcy. Using a knife (safely) in the kitchen was growing particularly risky. Parkinson’s is a progressive disorder of the nervous system that affects motor skills, speech and balance. He is among as many as a million Americans living with the disease; 60,000 people are diagnosed each year, according to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. 

The Power of Ritual

The special treatment was deep brain stimulation, for which doctors planted electrodes in Mr. Pais’ brain and ran connections to a pacemaker-type device called an implantable pulse generator near the collarbone to stimulate dopamine production and help reduce symptoms. Since then, DBS has helped control symptoms, though something else has too: The daily routine of work.

“Believe it or not, I’m here every day,” he says as he looks around his restaurant. He still starts the morning with a workout at the gym, followed by trips to the market to shop for the day’s ingredients. Then he’s back in the kitchen at the restaurant with Dounia, a daily routine that “I use as my therapy,” he says. “I don’t think about my illness if I am occupied.”

Doctors say that has been key to his success in fighting the disease. “He has exceeded our expectations,” said one of his doctors, Valerie Suski, a specialist at the UPMC Movement Disorder Clinic, in an interview in 2013.

Still, Mr. Pais has seen a few signs of the disease’s encroachment. An avid soccer player, he gave up the game about 1½ years ago — “for balance issues,” he says. His stutter has become more pronounced, affecting his everyday speech, but also forcing him to give up something he loves: talking about wine through wine lectures at the restaurant.

Nothing gives me more pleasure than talking about wine,” he says. “That I am not able to do that really kills me.” He can still drink it — “though not like I used to” — and he enjoys the bouquet of a bottle. He smells wine often throughout an evening’s service, believing there are health benefits not only to drinking wine, but smelling it. too.

The Role of Cooking

Food moves to the forefront as wine plays a secondary role in Mr. Pais’ work life. His eyes light up as he talks about dishes, like a BLT layered with peak-season tomatoes and bacon holding a grilled sardine atop Portuguese cornbread. He scrolls through his tablet to reminisce about what he has been cooking, like a refined plating of panzanella with mozzarella and tomatoes, usually a rustic dish.

His focus on food is an evolution from decades ago at La Normande, when he was a front-of-the-house guy after arriving here from Portugal. Many years and three restaurants later — Baum Vivant in Shadyside and Cafe Zao Downtown, both closed — along with Cafe Zinho 20 years in, and Mr. Pais is decidedly a chef, though he still has a hand in greeting and seating guests in the dining room.

He’s not the only one who has changed: So has Pittsburgh. Though Mr. Pais believes restaurant competition is good, he is also seeing that, since the restaurant boom, it has been hard for some to survive. He points to the revolving door of restaurants in the city and in his neighborhood in particular. He was disappointed to learn that one of his favorites, Thin Man Sandwich Shop in the Strip District, had closed. “I can’t keep up with them,” he says of the restaurant rotation.

Back in the dining room, Mr. Pais, his wife, Ms. Touil and the rest of the staff readied the restaurant for service. Tables were dressed with tablecloths and flowers. An employee made a pre-service espresso. The room would fill up with a mix of Carnegie Mellon University students, neighbors and regulars over the years, including those from his earlier restaurants.

What’s the formula that keeps people coming back?

“I try to come up with very popular dishes and use the same ingredients presented in a different way,” he says. “It works.” And with favorite dishes selling out, “Sometimes too well.” or @melissamccart

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