Jesus Perez Goenaga, Tio Pepe founder, dies

He rose early in the morning to make his signature desserts including the famed pine nut cream cake

  • Jesus Perez Goenaga
Jesus Perez Goenaga
May 19, 2011|By Jacques Kelly, The Baltimore Sun | Baltimore Sun reporter

Jesus Perez Goenaga, a founder of downtown's Tio Pepe restaurant who as its pastry chef created desserts that were "sinful perfection," died of pneumonia May 10 at Lakewood Ranch Medical Center in Bradenton, Fla. He was 77.

Born in Burgos, Spain, he was the son of the personal chef to Francisco Franco, the country's military leader and dictator. His father taught him to scrub stock pots with sand.

Mr. Goenaga attended culinary and pastry-making schools and worked in Madrid's Ritz Hotel and the Jockey Club as well as in a San Sebastian restaurant. The Spanish ambassador brought him to Washington as a chef in the embassy in the early 1960s.

"He was a Basque and proud of his heritage," said his son, Yahder Palomo, who lives in Joppatowne. "He spoke Spanish and he spoke Basque. I speak Spanish and my mother and I could never understand a word of his Basque."

Family members said he looked to open his own restaurant. On a trip to Baltimore, he stopped for lunch at a small basement-level restaurant, the Dutch Door at 10 E. Franklin St. He found the place was up for sale and joined with its owner, Ethel V. Major, to open Tio Pepe there in 1968. Also joining him was another chef, Pedro Sanz. The original partners enlarged the former tea room, adding a bar that they made themselves.

"He lived just a few doors away on Franklin Street and he would arrive early in the morning so nobody would interfere with his dealings," said Francisco "Paco" Lobo, the maître d', who began working at the restaurant shortly after it opened. "He made the chocolate and grand Marnier soufflés and the baked Alaska. He could do anything because he was a professional baker."

He said that once Mr. Goenaga finished making the day's desserts, he returned to his home, took a nap and reappeared at the restaurant dressed in a tuxedo. He then greeted and seated guests as the restaurant's maitre d'. His partner, Mr. Sanz, ran the kitchen and supervised the main dishes and appetizers.

"My father poured his heart and soul into making the pastry. He whipped his own cream and made the sheet cakes for the pine nut roll," his son said. "He never complained."

His son said his father's restaurant caught on and was a success "from the day it opened."

While on the job, Mr. Goenaga met his future wife, Mirtha "Tita" Palomo, who ran the coat check and often took phone reservations.

While Mr. Sanz made the restaurant's pork and seafood dishes, Mr. Goenaga's desserts also caught attention. Baltimore Sun food critic Carlton Jones described his "feathery light cream cake, sliced from a huge pastry roll not unlike France's traditional bouche de Noel but lighter, a sinful perfection of whipped cream, nuts and light cake."

By the mid-1970s, the restaurant had established itself and diners found they faced waiting time to get a table.

"I can remember after stuffing myself with 'mushrooms from the caves of Segovia' and listening to the waiter tick off this litany of sweets beginning with 'pine nut,' I always said, 'Go no further,'" said the Rev Michael J. Roach, pastor of St. Bartholomew's Roman Catholic Church. "I always attempted to double my order but never did. That dessert alone made it worth the claustrophobia I always experienced in that crowded basement."

Mr. Paloma said his parents got to know the leaders of Maryland politics, the legal community and society at the restaurant. They found themselves being given tickets to sports events. They met show business personalities.

"It is hard to remember the era when Baltimore had so few 'signature' restaurants. Tio Pepe was one, and its whipped cream cake with pine nuts ranked with Marconi's chocolate sundae and Haussner's strawberry pie in the local holy trinity of desserts," said Stan Heuisler, who was Baltimore Magazine's editor from 1976 to 1992.

Friends said that Mr. Goenaga's desserts were typical of Spain and parts of France.

"He worked with peaches, pears and strawberries and bananas and pine nuts," said Mr. Lobo. "He was the artist and after he left the restaurant, we kept everything on the menu."

Mr. Goenaga, who had been president of the restaurant, retired in March 1989 and moved to Florida in 2001.

"When he resigned, it was one of the lowest points of his life," his son said. "You talk to people and they still remember the first day they stepped into Tio Pepe."

Services are private.

In addition to his wife and son, survivors include three sisters, Pilar Perez Goenaga and Arancha Perez Goenaga, both of Spain, and Teresa Basurco of Bradenton, Fla.; and a granddaughter.

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