Czech immigrant Peter Cipra, who closed his influential Labuznik restaurant in downtown Seattle in 1998, died of pancreatic cancer Friday at his home in Seattle. He was 68.
In Seattle’s restaurant circles, Peter Cipra was a pioneer.
In 1970, just two years after arriving in the U.S., the Czech immigrant started The Prague in Pioneer Square — later renaming it Labuznik — serving up classical European dishes at a time when few fine restaurants existed here.
Over the next 28 years as a restaurateur, Mr. Cipra was also a working chef who kept his hands on virtually everything that went on in his kitchen.
He insisted on it, in fact; if he wasn’t at his restaurant, it meant the restaurant wasn’t open.
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“He did all of his own butchering, all of his own stock, all of his own pastries,” said longtime friend Peter Miller, a Seattle architect and bookstore owner.
“There was Peter making every single meal, every pepper steak, roasting his own peppers, making his own sauces. His pork!”
Mr. Cipra, who closed Labuznik in 1998 and retired, died of pancreatic cancer Friday at his home in Seattle. He was 68.
Friends and family describe a man driven by his convictions, possessed of a great passion for good food and an unwavering dedication to family.
Mr. Cipra, they said, could also be controlling and intense. He once admitted in a newspaper article that he was not always nice to his customers.
Susan Cipra said her husband was hardest on himself, that much of what people perceived about him was rooted in a tough childhood spent in a war-ravaged country. “I think a lot of it was about proving to himself that he could do it and do it well and successfully,” she said. He had an energy about him. He could never really relax — not even on a beach in Hawaii.”
As a teenager, Mr. Cipra attended trade school in Czechoslovakia, where he learned the art of cooking, but went on to work first in construction and later in the coal mines because that’s where the money was.
He served two years of mandatory service in the Czech Army and later fled to Austria, where a Seattle-based Jewish organization sponsored him for residency in the U.S.
Two years after he arrived in 1968, he opened The Prague in Pioneer Square, quickly drawing a following for legendary Tournedos Rossini.
In the mid-1970s, Mr. Cipra bought and renovated a building at 1924 First Ave. near Pike Place Market and moved his restaurant, which he renamed Labuznik (Czech for gourmet), onto the ground floor.
Loyal customers followed him to an area of Seattle that at the time, according to Miller, was like “the Wild West of First Avenue.”
Longtime friend Scott Carsberg, who owns Bisato in Belltown, remembers the desolate state of an area that is today popular among tourists. “There was nothing in the area, really: a few low-income projects, a porn shop across the street and parking lots. Everything was boarded up.”
Carsberg is a student of the same classical style of European cooking as Mr. Cipra and sees a lot of his friend and mentor in himself.
“Peter had the same respect for potato that he did for lobster,” Carsberg said. “He was old school, and it was very real. In my life as a cook I can name five people that I really respect, and he was one of them.”
Carsberg said he and Mr. Cipra had long discussions about food — some of them animated, some not. His respect for the man never wavered.
“When the fight’s on, some people run and some stay. Peter Cipra never ran. And that’s the most telling story of a man.”
Industry icon Tom Douglas dedicated a chapter of his cookbook “Tom’s Big Dinners,” to the dishes inspired by Cipra, whom he calls a “mentor and a friend.”
By 1998, the Cipras decided it was time to close Labuznik. Susan Cipra said they never once entertained the idea of selling it. “We felt it was time for a different chapter.”
But Peter Cipra kept cooking — for neighbors, for friends, for family.
One day, his wife said, he took his 3-year-old grandson on a hike where they picked mushrooms that became a part of that day’s meal. At the table, the toddler declared the food “tasty.”
“After they had all left, Peter turned to me and said, ‘That was a perfect day.’ “
Besides his wife, Mr. Cipra is survived by his daughter Ariella (Stuart) Cipra, sons Peter (Kat) Cipra and Karel Cipra, and three grandchildren, all of Seattle; and a sister, Eva Les, and a brother, Pavel Les, both in the Czech Republic.
A private memorial service will be held in January.
Seattle Times food writer Nancy Leson contributed to this report.
Lornet Turnbull: 206-464-2420 or email@example.com. On Twitter @turnbulll.