By Maggie Grainger | Photos by Manny Espinoza
Just when you think your life is going in one direction, it suddenly throws you a curveball and you find yourself going a completely different route. That’s exactly what happened to a young Soerke Peters, the co-owner and chef of Carmel’s successful Basil restaurant, in the early 1990s.
As a young man growing up in Germany, Peters was set to take a job in exotic Hong Kong when he was drafted by the German Army. Realizing he had no choice but to cancel his travel plans, he visited his father in the north, and through a series of mishaps and miscommunications, he found himself out of the Army as well as out of a job.
Distraught but not completely deterred, Peters took this as a sign it was time to reevaluate what he was meant to do with his life. “Growing up, we didn’t have Halloween, but we would dress up for Carnival,” he remembers. “Ever since I was five, I would ask my mom to be a chef.” Peters mom would have to make a new costume every year because children’s chef costumes were scarce. As Peters puts it, “No kid wants to be a chef!” He continues: “She would beg my father to convince me to be a fireman or something else so she wouldn’t have to make another costume!”
It was then that he decided it was time to throw caution to the wind and follow his childhood dream. He bought a one-way ticket to the culinary capital of the world: New York City.
With little grasp of the English language and no job, Peters knew the transition to the big city would be a challenge, but it was one he was excited to accept. He promised his father he would call the second he arrived. Then, he packed his bags, and was off.
Upon landing in New York, Peters instantly realized he was in for more of a shock than he expected. Hoping to keep his promise to his father, he went straight to a payphone with a stack of quarters and started dialing.
He was shocked when a mechanical, but pleasant, woman answered the phone. Not knowing much English, he assumed he had called the wrong number and hung up. More than $40 worth of quarters later, he still hadn’t gotten ahold of home. “I didn’t realize it at the time, but I kept hanging up on the operator,” he remembers with a laugh. “I ended up mailing him a postcard to let him know I was okay.” Despite these bumps in the road, he fell in love with the city and all the possibilities it held.
Back home in Germany, Peters had worked at various hotels and restaurants for years and drew on these experiences to land a job in Manhattan. Working under Mr. Pino Loungo’s Toscorp, Inc., he worked his way up in hot spots such as Coco Pazzo and Le Madre.
After years of paying his dues in the kitchen, Peters knew it was time to open his own restaurant. He set forth to open Meritage in 2001. Unfortunately, two weeks before opening his doors, the Twin Towers fell and Peters’ dream of opening an eatery in Manhattan went down with them. Once again, Peters had to face a challenging roadblock in his life and decided it was time to head west to Los Angeles. The City of Angels proved to be an excellent move for the chef, as he instantly found work at hot spot Ca’del Sole and opened his own cheese shop on the famous Melrose Avenue.
Life was good, but when his good friend called and asked him if he would be interested in moving to Carmel a few years ago, he took a risk once again. And he’s glad he did. “It’s a whole different lifestyle here,” he says. “I always thought I was a city boy, but I love it. It’s wonderful.”