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Pete Souvall left his L.A. comedy career to come home to Utah during the pandemic — and found his calling in food

The comic and baker talks about how he battled eating disorders, and built up his sense of humor.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Pete Souvall, who had a successful career in comedy in L.A. before returning to Salt Lake City to recover from an eating disorder, holds one of his cheesecake creations on Friday, Nov. 11, 2022. Part of how he did that was by changing his relationship to food and is considered to be one of the best bakers in town, currently supplying cookies and other sweets to Central Ninth Market and Coffee Noir.

If you’ve eaten brown-butter chocolate chip cookies at Central Ninth Market, or an espresso chocolate chip cookie at Coffee Noir, you’ve tasted Pete Souvall’s magic touch with anything sweet.

Though he’s worked as a line cook, a prep chef, and a barista, Souvall didn’t plan on a career in food. Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he was working full-time as a standup comedian in Los Angeles, where he moved in 2017.

“I started at open mics, and then I was moving up the ladder while I was there,” he said, adding that he eventually landed regular bookings at such venues as The Comedy Palace, The Ice House, The Comedy Store and Hollywood Improv.

When the clubs shut down during the pandemic and it became impossible to find gigs, Souvall moved back home to Salt Lake City. And while the rest of America made sourdough, Souvall started making bagels, working to perfect them through the spring, summer and fall.

Eventually, he lost interest in bagels and switched to desserts, especially cookies. He drops a batch off every Friday at Coffee Noir (1035 E. 200 South, Salt Lake City), and delivers a bunch of different sweets every weekend to Central Ninth Market (161 W. 900 South, Salt Lake City).

“I fell in love with Central Ninth. I started talking to them directly, made friends with them, and wanted to do something for them as people, and offered to bake them cookies, just for fun,” Souvall said. “When I brought them, they said, ‘Do you want to sell these?’ Absolutely!”

On Friday, Saturday and Monday, he drops off his standard espresso chocolate chip, as well as a new recipe that challenges him, like London Fog (an Earl Gray cookie with lavender frosting), mini-cheesecakes or Swedish cinnamon rolls. On Sundays, he brings cookies and pies.

Souvall has known Noir’s owner, Alek Juliano, since third grade — and said he stopped by on a whim.

“He DMed me on Instagram, and said, ‘Hey, do you want to make cookies for us?’ I was like, ‘Yeah, totally!’,” Souvall said. “They make a little event out of it, where every Friday I bring cookies. It sounds like their customers have started to know, and every once in a while I get people DMing me and saying, ‘Oh, you make the best cookies,’ or, ‘I get cookies every Friday.’ It’s been kind of cool.”

Souvall said he gets bored quickly; switching up the recipes every week, he said, “is a task no one asked me to do.” People love his basic brown-butter chocolate chip, and he could get away with just delivering those. “I need to do something different every week for every cookie,” he said. " I just try to think of what’s going to challenge me the most.”

Souvall also writes about food for the GastronomicSLC blog, and on his own site, peteingdisorder.com. That’s where he updates a megalist each month, dubbed Salt Lake’s Quintessential Food Experiences, where he writes about significant food experiences he has in the Salt Lake Valley, both high-end and earthy.

He’s written about Arlo, which brought Bay Area food sophistication to Capitol Hill, as well as The Other Place, an old school Greek-American diner that, as Souvall points out, is probably the only place in town where you can order scrambled eggs and spaghetti at the same time.

The dangers of self-deprecation

He said he’s heard from people about the name of his blog, including some who pressured him to change his name because they assumed he was being flip about eating disorders. A closer read reveals the opposite, as Souvall writes frankly about how he’s struggled since childhood with yo-yo dieting, bulimia, body dysmorphia and orthorexia (an obsession with eating healthy until it gets out of hand).

“Nobody who’s been through dark times doesn’t have a sense of humor,” he said. “People who have an eating disorder in their past are either going to look past my [website] name, or they’re going to think it’s funny. …

“I’ve been through drug treatment, alcohol treatment, I’ve detoxed, I’ve been to the hospital for eating disorders. Laughter is the only thing that can really get you through. All of the people you meet [there] are some of the funniest people in the world, because they know how to laugh at the darkness.”

For Souvall, he said, cooking has been a way to allow himself to have certain foods that he was afraid to eat when he was deep in the throes of his eating disorder. (He said he considers himself still in recovery.) He said part of his process is shedding binary thinking about food and exercise. It’s not either/or, he said; you can be a fit person who goes to the gym and eats cookies.

“I grew up not an athletic person,” Souvall said. “I was bigger. I got made fun of for it, a lot. Even kind of ostracized in my own family. My whole family’s very fit and athletic. We do live in this culture that there’s this prevalent narrative where you’re more virtuous if you’re skinny, and if you look this way. And I can say that firsthand. I was treated horribly. I remember every instance, and now it’s ingrained in me as a person.”

At his lowest point — right around the time he left L.A. — Souvall was purging everything he ate. He said that was another reason he had to get out of stand-up.

“I have yet to meet anyone in comedy who’s fully just happy and self-realized,” he said. “It’s not a conducive lifestyle to being a happy person, because you’re getting rewarded for telling jokes at your own expense.”

He said that his self-deprecating persona became his identity, and that it put him “on a very dark path.” Leaving comedy was a necessity, even though he felt like it was calling.

“Humor was the way I grappled with the bullying,” he said. “And how I dealt with issues with my family. I always broke the silence with laughs. That’s how I was able to defuse situations. That’s why I thought, ‘OK, I think I can be good at this.’”

He said comedy wasn’t only a spiral down — it made him a lot more resilient.

“I’m more self-actualized and comfortable with myself because of that,” he said. “Getting up on stage and, you know, mostly not getting laughs, what better way than that to be comfortable with yourself, and to learn to not really care about what other people think?”

Embracing a love of food

When he came home from L.A., Souvall said, his recovery was at zero. He started working with a therapist, with support from his wife and mom. And he began working through food phobias — in the kitchen.

“I remember what I started out doing was cooking, and then I would get to taste the thing that I cooked,” he said. “There was a process to cooking that thing, but if I wanted that thing, I would have to make it. I’d make it this whole event. Then you get to taste the product, and there’s so much satisfaction to that. I wanted to eat Scotch eggs, so I made Scotch eggs. I wanted to eat croissants, so I made croissants. Just the appreciation for the entire process, start to finish, it makes you realize there’s so much beauty in food in general.… If you can see the merit in the thing that’s being made, it makes you realize there’s so much love in this, and so much care, that it bypassed ‘Oh, I’m scared of this.’ It was, ‘I made this. So why would I not eat it?’”

The most important thing for him, Souvall said, has been to embrace, and not be embarrassed about, his love of food, and especially food that’s taboo because it’s rich or perceived as unhealthy. He said he still feels extremely anxious when he eats burgers and fries, pancakes, and pasta. He said it’s been only recently that he can eat pastries or a piece of cake, and not let the resulting anxiety ruin his whole day.

“My love of food, and my being in touch with how I approach the world through food, has only been that deep because I’m able to see now, my embrace of it is just like, I get a second chance at everything,” Souvall said. “I haven’t let myself enjoy these things before, and now I get to see and experience these things through a brand-new lens. … You can have all of the things.”

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