Category Archives for "Behind the Apron"
My favorite multiple-hyphenated person of late, chef/singer/songwriter/musician Susie Blue has rocked Portland’s breakfast darling Broder for most mornings in recent memory. She recently made a conceptual leap over to the Savoy Tavern where she’s been an agent of change, revamping the menu and singing “Braise Be To Meat” to all who grace their door, just in time for fall.
Give us your path to cooking in Portland
I grew up in Mexico City. My mom is a great cook, but I was also exposed to some really great street food. We moved back to the States, to Portland, when I was 12. I was already involved in music when I started waitressing and bartending in LA and bounced from LA to NYC to Branson Missouri. It was always about the music but working in food paid my rent. When I started cooking about 17 years ago with (now defunct) Ron Paul Catering & Charcuterie, I started falling in love with food.
I realized that I really loved cooking meat, braising meat – started diving into crazy French food, learning about offal. Then I started taking some butchery lessons. That was great – I got to take the good stuff home – head cheese, pig’s livers. I also did some baking for about a year for a small independent bakery, and I did desserts for Savoy for a while as well.
I was working at Henry’s Café before Broder opened. I came over to Savoy and helped out with some prep work, and I eventually worked with (Chef Alton) Garcia to demo all the food for Broder and I took over after Garcia left. I had a big hand in the menu that still exists today.
Sounds like Broder was coursing through your veins. Why the change up?
I was at Broder for 4 years and for the last year I was wondering where my next move was going to be. It had been a lot of early mornings (5:30 AM call) and they were finally starting to wear on me.
I kept talking to Pete (Bro, owner of Savoy and Broder) about leaving, maybe buying my own restaurant. I just wasn’t interested in cooking eggs anymore and by the time I moved over to Savoy, I was doing specials like blood sausage, things that were a bit of a stretch, evidence of my desire to change things up.
One day I sat down with Pete and told him that I wanted to be the chef at the Savoy, and (uncannily), a few days later the chef at Savoy gave his notice. It worked out really well. I was seeking a change, I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed into a certain kind of food. Pete approached me about the opportunity and I said, “Okay!”
Notable differences between the two businesses?
I’m now working with a lot more people and a lot wider range of ingredients. Part of the reason that Pete brought me over is because he needed to get food costs under control – something I had done a good job at over at Broder. He asked me to rein it (the concept of Savoy) back in and take it back to its origins: comfort food, basic stuff that’s really satisfying. The last chef had taken it in a different direction.
I think one challenge was that I was hopping into something (the prior chef’s menu) that was a known quantity, to a degree. I’ve brought in some new things: a lot of seafood specials, braised pork shank, and rib-eye steak that are all doing really well. The menu is super solid right now and the response to the food has been great. We’ve received lots of compliments. It’s been a really fun creative thing for me. I am glad about the change and I’m not looking back!
I’m not sure if you’re a chef with musical leanings or a musician with culinary leanings
I’ve been pursuing music for the last 25 years. It started with friends from high school – we wanted to be the next Go-Gos so we went to LA and bought instruments. Eventually, 15 years ago, I did my own thing – I had taught myself how to play keyboards and guitar. Then, about 8 years ago, I made my first album. My work is kind of folk pop, singer-songwriter stuff with an edge. (Smiles) I always wanted to be a country star, and my last album was on the twangy side. I used to carry around my albums in my bag, now (the albums have) been replaced by my knife bag.
I’m not a great business person and I became disillusioned about getting people to my shows, to buy records. It turns out that cooking is a great match for me – it’s super creative and lord, people have to eat.
Safe to assume you listen to music while you work?
I don’t listen to any music when I cook. I have so much going on in my head… I forget to turn it on – I’m so focused on being here. Often the first time the stereo goes on is when the next person on shift arrives.
I think people recognize that my cooking is creative – it’s allowed me to switch it out from music.
The creative leap wasn’t that big for you.
For a lot of the same reasons that musicians make music, I think people cook to make other people happy and to get the praise, see them enjoy it.
How do you blow off steam?
(Laughs) POKER! I love playing no limit hold ‘em at the local clubs.
Photography credits: The lovely and talented Kristy Charroin
In late 1993, Kathy Bergin and Dave Marth found a slender storefront café for sale just off of SE Hawthorne on SE 37th. Six short months later on St Patrick’s Day 1994, Three Doors Down offered their first dinner service. Kathy recalls, “Dave wanted to open on the Ides of March, but I thought it was a little too foreboding”.
In 2004 they expanded into an adjacent storefront, allowing them to dramatically increase their floor space and add a long-wished-for bar. The restaurant celebrated its 17th anniversary this spring.
Now a Hawthorne institution, Three Doors Down is on the short list of Portland restaurants whose front and back of house is staffed primarily by “lifers” – professional servers and cooks who have chosen to settle into a long-term relationship with the business, becoming as much a part of Three Doors Down’s character as its warmly lit, welcoming interior, standout cuisine and ebullient owners. That kind of allegiance isn’t easy to come by, much less keep, and Kathy generously entertained our questions about the secrets to their staffing successes.
Can we start with a shout out to your longest-tenured employees?
Sure. Matt’s been with us for 13 years, Rachel for 11 and Jeff’s been with us for 12 despite his hiring pronouncement: “I’ll give you one year of my life”. We have Christina who’s been with us 16 years – she’s only taken time away to have her kids, then she’s back in action. In the kitchen we have Lamont who’s been with us 8 years and Abraham who’s been here for 12.
When you do get the occasional opening, what are you looking for?
We offer a casual atmosphere with fine dining service – that’s a hard line to ride. I look for fine dining experience with a little bit of longevity in at least one place. We need nurturers and sales people and before I hire anyone, I try to see through the cracks in their resume and storyline- we want people who represent themselves honestly.
The major thing I ask: “Have you dined here before?” If you haven’t tasted the food, seen the service or the regulars, why would you want to work here? They really have to not only understand what it’s like to be on the team but they also have to work with and win over the regulars who are as much a part of the family here as the service. I look to hire strong people with moxie, something that sets them apart from the people who are already on staff. Addiction and neurosis are already covered (laughs), so they’ll have to bring something new.
So they passed the initial test and got the job – now what?
(Smiles) I’m a pain in the ass to work for. I have an employee handbook that’s so substantial that everyone takes it home and hosts a dinner party around it to discuss the contents (laughs). I quiz on the basics to make sure they read it and get it.
I am not going to tell you how I want you to wait on tables. You need to follow our service standards, but (our servers) need to have a presence, read tables and realize that everyone is a potential regular and needs to be treated as such. A good day for us is when everyone is mistaken for the owner.
We dance a fine line between self-respect and the customer is always right, and we try to teach our servers how to handle situations so that the house and the customer are both served. Part of our system here is “touching tables”: sending multiple staff over to check in on customers– I think everyone should be doing that. If we have trouble, we switch servers, or just make more people check with them until things are right.
In the kitchen, Dave is probably one of the nicest guys in the whole world to work with. He’s an excellent communicator – calm, not a screamer. He respects everyone and their talent, and with that, he garners respect and a crew who want to keep working with him.
Communication is a big deal.
Yes. I suggest that everyone (who joins the team) gives me an email address that isn’t their primary so they can deal with me on their downtime. The emails are pretty much continual and they understand how important the message is depending on what time I sent it – early AM if it’s something that happened the night before. That’s how I keep my team educated and updated so that they have the tools they need to serve our customers.
If issues come up, I am also able to ask our staff how we should handle certain situations. We talk in generalities. No one gets their ass kicked, no one loses shifts, but we have to consider sales and make certain that our teams work really well together.
(Kathy excuses herself briefly to make sure one of her staff “is taking good care of table 13”.)
Why do you think you have such a preponderance of lifers on your team?
I think they enjoy customers, quite honestly, and they like the comfort level. A lot of us are transplants; many of us still have detectable accents. This is truly like an east coast neighborhood restaurant: the bartender knows what you like, you nod and you get it! We have a respect for the customer and a pride in our profession and our staff.
How do you interpret other restaurants and bars with long-term employees?
It’s family! Look at Gino’s – they’re such a tight group. And educated! Their wine and food knowledge? They are so proud! Higgins! Look at Higgins! There’s not one lifer there that doesn’t come over to say hello. They do it to all their customers. There’s something to be said about going to a restaurant where you want something familiar – it’s a mix of their food and the feeling of a warm reception that keeps you coming back time and time again.
Oh Portland, we gaze unblinking at thy food scene, only occasionally looking up to acknowledge that outside your fair quadrants lies a vast metropolitan area whose populace also consider the “Portland Area” their home as well. Just like we inner city folk, they don’t eat at home every night and prefer their dining out not entail a significant commute.
Before you scheme your expansion into the empty Blockbuster space in Hillsboro, take note of locavore and Slow Food advocate Lydia Bugatti who has long ruled the territory with her quintuplets: flagship Bugatti’s Ristorante in West Linn and casual dining restaurants in Tanasbourne, Beaverton and Oregon City.
Besides her crux of contributions in bringing great food to the ‘burbs, Lydia believes in providing exhaustive training and advancement opportunities to her staff. She has many 10+ year Bugatti’s-grown veterans still on her team and her businesses have spawned the careers of countless professionals who now support restaurants in Portland and beyond.
There are a fair number of Portlanders who may not know your longstanding commitment to sourcing locally – can you talk about your participation in programs like Chef’s Collaborative?
Sure. Chef’s Collaborative was spawned by groups of local chefs committed to sustainable food. It was the mid-90s and we saw that small farmers needed help. They were struggling, needed our support, and we could see that people were increasingly relying on corporate agribusiness for sourcing produce for all sorts of restaurants and it was pushing these small, high quality local producers to the brink of extinction.
About 15 years ago, Greg Higgins contacted Marc and Deb Accuardi (of Gino’s), Cory Schrieber from Wildwood and a few others from the restaurant side, but in total there were about 20 of us in the bar area at Higgins – farmers, bakers, students, legislators and just interested citizens. We all recognized that we were polluting our streams with fertilizer, and it wasn’t sustainable…things should be farmed so that they don’t hurt the earth. We collectively invested in and promoted farmers who chose to not kill their soil, so things could be grown in the same spot forever.
But I was all about flavor (laughs). With food that’s grown locally, you don’t have to struggle for flavors. The closer to here I can stay the better it tastes. It’s a struggle at times – one of the hallmarks of Italian food is good tomatoes, yet people want large scale farming price points on those products. Fresh local tomatoes come at a cost, so I have to work hard to make affordable food that people like with the ingredients I trust and believe in.
As far as our adherence to Slow Food, it is essentially a philosophy, a belief in the importance of taking time to appreciate healthy food by supporting the traditions of raising, harvesting, preparing and sharing food. It also speaks to taking time with family and friends at mealtime, recognizing the role that food plays in our lives.
Your path to becoming a chef was non-traditional.
(Laughs) Yes. I was originally going to be an orthodontist. In college I took pre-med, microbiology, English and art classes until I found out that my parents were mortgaging their house for my education. I dropped out and concluded that I’d go back when I figured out what I wanted to do.
I started getting into cooking and discovered that food pulls from science, art and English – all the same subjects I was enjoying at school, so I just dug in.
I’m self-taught. Early on, whenever I’d tried to make or bake something, I’d try to find out why it didn’t turn out the way I wanted (these were the days before Cooks Illustrated and Epicurious). I read everything I could get my hands on – Madeleine Kammen and everything by Jacques Pepin. I loved On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee – he wrote about the science, history and technique in cooking. I eventually turned his work into a cooking course for my team at Ristorante – it lays out all the techniques. I’m a cook who likes to teach.
You have a clear path of employee advancement within your restaurants.
Absolutely. A person should be able to start as a dishwasher, go to prep, pantry, pizza, grill, sauté and then into management. They are all very definite steps and each person grows into the next level. It takes different lengths of time for each individual. Some people keep moving forward; others get to a place where they’re comfortable and that’s fine too.
It’s like the “Peter Principle” that came out of the 80s. The theory is that (within any job), a person rises to their level of competence, and then is pushed to their next level of incompetence by the business, which is where they fail. My job is to find the niche where they are successful and still have opportunity to learn, move forward, but not get pushed into something where they fail. That’s when they leave because they aren’t successful. If they aren’t successful, they’re not happy, I’m not happy and the customer’s not happy, and that is my focus of business.
You hire a lot of staff who have had limited restaurant experience– how do you get them to know their way around your busy kitchens?
Even with experienced staff, no one jumps in immediately up to speed. It’s a very athletic job. It takes 2 weeks before anyone gets the moves down and speeds up. I’ve watched it for years – getting the dance steps, learning how each other move and keep up the pace. I also have some basic speeches for my new people that are all are based on how to respect food.
When I do the more intensive course, I meet with my staff every week and go through a chapter (of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking) over 24 weeks. After completing 8 to 12 weeks of the course, they get a paring knife. Around week 18 they get an 8” boning knife and then, when they’ve attended every lesson I give them a 10” chef’s knife of good, German steel and a framed certificate as a point of pride.
Your commitment to the education and advancement of your staff has created an environment where people want to stick around.
I have some amazing people. Ricky Tapia started as a dishwasher at the café/ pizzeria, who then went into making pizzas immediately. He showed good instincts and we rewarded him: he went onto the grill station and then to Hilltop (Oregon City) on sauté. He’s a quick learner, moves fast, and has a strong palate. 11 years later, he’s now the Chef de Cuisine at Ristorante.
I also have Maria Koenig. She was a CIA grad, probably 20 when she started. She was shy, quiet and nice – she was with me for her internship.
At first, her shy, quiet demeanor wasn’t working out.
After a month I pulled her outside. I said, “You have to be more aggressive with your learning – PUSH your way to the front sauté line. The guys aren’t just going to give it to you. Be vocal, stand up for yourself, otherwise you’re not going to make it and you’re going to need to find a different kind of job.”
I made her cry. She heard what I said though, and she pushed for grill, became more vocal. She’s been with us 9 years and runs the day kitchen now. She’s got a firm hand with directing the team back there, but she also does the pastry, writes the checks and every vendor loves her; delivery guys will do anything for her. (It turns out that) she is very strong. I think (she’s been successful) because we gave her the chance and a gentle nudge.
Best attributes for the front of the house?
My focus this year is the point of “yes” – to say “yes” (within reason) and make our guests happy. (Our customers) should be able to trust us to take care of them and when I hear a “no”, we have failed them.
Service is tough now. It seems I am running into employees who want to have power struggles with the guests: “No, we can’t, that table’s taken.” I can’t understand that. We are problem-solvers. We are here to make it better for our guests.
That is my biggest challenge in training the front of the house. I am thinking this is because they don’t realize the impact of tone and body language. I spend a lot of time teaching tone.
I need people who are observant of micro-expressions – someone who can scan a room and fix a service issue before it happens, someone who will see someone squirming in their seat and ask them if their table is okay or if they’d rather move. (People who are) finely tuned to another persons’ comfort or discomfort, and they want to please. I can’t teach this, I know it when I see it but it’s hard to teach someone else to see.
Best attributes for the back of the house?
Kitchens are (where you find) the last of the cowboys. It’s tough, hot work. Lots of testosterone and you can sweat off 5 pounds in a night, but then you can enjoy the pride of battle, making it through a rough night… the visceral joy of knowing that we battled and we won.
I look for someone quiet who looks me in the eye, has a fidgeting tensile strength.
I’m suspect of applicants who present a list of demands right off the bat and want big salary up front because they are so confident in their ability. A good person will take a low position because they know you will see their talent, promote them quickly and give them a raise.
I don’t look to make one person the most important hire. I put together a kitchen team and it’s like a good basketball team – the personalities and skills have to support each other: a good technician who sees pull dates, or someone who makes sure we have great stock; a verbally light person who keeps folks happy, and a quiet workhorse who pitches in who gets huge amounts done without saying anything.
Guilty pleasures food/drink/music?
Really? I have so many for food. I love popcorn with Callebaut dark chocolate and a good German Riesling. That’s my at-home movie splurge, that salty–sweet combination with the high acidity of the Riesling.
Music? Abba. It’s fantastic clean-the-house music.
You’ve talked about the word origin of “restaurant” as if it was a mission statement.
The word showed up just after the French Revolution when a lot of chefs were out of jobs (the Revolution inconveniently killing, profoundly demoting or expelling from the country the people who could afford to employ chefs). The guilds controlled food production at the time and a chef wanted to create a soup stand for hungry travelers. He had to get a variation from the guilds to do it, and he called it “la restauration” which translates to “restoration”. Isn’t that cool, and so true?
I believe if you’ve had a stressful day and you get a good meal in you it hits your comfort button. You can relax, recharge and head back out to do it again. And it’s right here (uses both hands to frame her belly). It relaxes you and it makes you happy. If we do our job right, I think we really can restore the souls of the weary, which is pretty important work, I think.
Postscript, regarding the final gallery image above:
After talking with Lydia, we walked back to her car. She flung open the trunk and produced mini cannoli shells and a pastry bag. There, in the parking lot, she piped the shells with orange zest and dark chocolate -flecked mascarpone, grinning as she thrust them at me, imploring, “Take these – they’re delicious”.
Recent Portland émigré and photographer at Portland’s Straub Collaborative, Jenn Farrington’s beverage photography receives accolades from clients, contemporaries and discerning drinkers worldwide. Her work lit up the pages of Tequila: A Guide to Types, Flights, Cocktails, and Bites as well as the recently-released Left Coast Libations: The Art of West Coast Bartending which has been recognized by the international Tales of the Cocktail® event and nominated for a 2011 Spirited Award™ in the category of Best New Cocktail/Bartending Book.
A tireless industry advocate with an unique angle on the business, we corralled Jenn just long enough for her to sip her Bulleit, neat (ice on the side) and indulge our inquires about her adventures in food and drinks photography and what she has her sights set on since her recent arrival.
You’ve been a marketing and advertising photographer for over 13 years but your passion for drinks-specific photography developed fairly recently. What brought you over?
I was photographing a portrait of Gary Shansby of Partida Tequila at Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant in San Francisco, November 2007. Tommy’s pours one of the most extensive collection of 100% agave tequila outside of Mexico (www.tommystequila.com).
I got to talking to Tommy’s son Julio Bermejo whose evangelism for tequila earned him the title of Ambassador of Tequila to the US. Julio guides exclusive tours of tequila distilleries in Jalisco – his knowledge about tequila is exhaustive and his passion for the subject is almost palpable. As the conversation evolved, I found myself really wanting to make images to match that energy, then Julio told he was hosting a press trip for five tequila distilleries in a few weeks and offered me a spot. I couldn’t believe the offer or the timing. It was so perfect – all I could think was, “Oh my God, YES!”
The trip itself wound up being this crucial turning point for me and my photography work and going into it, I had no idea how much I needed that experience at the time. I could not have anticipated the quality of characters that were going to be on that trip. I enjoyed the company of some of the best bartenders, writers, reps and brand ambassadors from all over the place while learning about this incredible product. It was my first chance to discover that the spirits industry are my people and the relationships established on that trip became the cornerstone for all of my connections in the industry. I can’t thank Julio or anyone from that trip enough.
As for the tequila side of the trip, it was a photographer’s dream – a chance to be around something I loved and shoot the Hell out of it. And let me explain what I mean by “love”, aside from an imbiber’s appreciation of the spirit: Agave is an amazing product of the earth and I have a tremendous respect for the people who create tequila. The agave plant is both beautiful and dangerous and it takes tremendous effort to harvest it, cook it down into a sweet pulp before mashing it beyond recognition, then distilling down into this amazing spirit. So truly, the creation process itself is dynamic, fascinating and so much fun to photograph.
Since then you’ve been shooting for a number of wine and spirits clients – any favorites?
I have a lot of favorites but I have done a lot of work with the Domaine de Canton and enjoyed every shoot. I’ve captured a bunch of their Bartender of the Year events including their first finals in St Martin. It was a great event where I was shooting lots of lifestyle imagery: people and food in more natural settings, less posed and more natural light.
I am happiest when my work crosses over into capturing the people who are passionate about what they do. I really enjoy interacting with people, which is part of the reason I love photographing people in the food and beverage industry. My drinks photography has given me access to this incredible cocktail community that’s global yet very tight with one another. It’s really the only industry of its kind with so many people from wildly different parts of the world who come together to toast. They dance the fine line between work and play every day, allowing it to be a friendly, more connected community than most industries.
From the looks of your portfolio, you aren’t exactly a slump at food photography either. You shoot in varied settings – can you speak to that a bit?
In shooting food and drink, light and space are crucial. I am attracted to any image that has “mysterious” lighting- something that pulls you in a little seductively. Texture, also, is key – the shine on a brined olive, the earthy depth of grains played against each other for a counterpoint. I welcome any shoot that gives me a chance to re-think what lighting and framing I need to bring out that feel.
I have a few different approaches when it comes to shooting food. In more formal dining settings, I like to draw viewers into that environment by creating a contrast between the organic shapes of food and the geometry of the dining space and flatware. In outdoor environments, with street food or outdoor grilling you have the magic of smoke and streaming daylight to play with. It’s not as easily controlled as a dining room, but the potential for really thrilling imagery is always there.
In both situations, you have a chance to capture something that is chaotic and beautiful – half eaten steak, rinds, leftovers, “the sated image”. As much as a structured plate appeals, I think if you can leave evidence of the tell-tale signs of a story, a gathering that we would love to have to joined, we get to what the eating is about: it’s the company, the conversation that made you talk with your hands and knock over your wine… those are the things that I, and I believe others, really desire from the dining experience and creates the most compelling imagery.
I actually would love to shoot more food, but for me it’s a matter of finding those clients whose needs are a good match to my visual story telling. Relating back to what I loved in Mexico, I am fascinated with the lineage of our food, following it from farm or forest to fork – the process of transforming a human necessity (food) into something we can take so much pleasure in creating and eventually consuming. My challenge is taking the viewer to that place, translating the tactile lushness of a fresh peach or the longing and anticipation before feasting, finding the components that reveal the delicious in a visual image.
Your recent move probably had a few people wondering what you think Portland might have over our lovely sister city to the south, San Francisco.
I have family up here and had been threatening to move for as long as I’d lived in San Francisco. I do love San Francisco and knew it would be a tough act to follow, but Portland is a serious foodie town and that made the move easier. So many of my friends from the City had already moved up here, so when I arrived I felt far more comfortable off the bat than I’d anticipated.
Some may be tempted to call Portland a little SF but I recognize that the two are wildly different than one another in many ways and I feel like I am just tapping into the details of those differences. Portland has a ton of established greatness but still has a load of potential, which is completely inspiring to my work. I have only just scratched the surface of the food and drink community here.
I frequent the places where my friends work including Clyde Common, Teardrop, Irving Street Kitchen, Beaker and Flask and Laurelhurst Market, all of which assure me that Portlanders have it stupid good in terms of eating and drinking in this town. But aside from that, I want to get out and see more places outside my comfort zone, discover new-to-me gems as well as head outside of town to see the origins of all our local products. There are a lot of already existing programs that I want to investigate along with my own field trips that will help me get out see the source of what comes to our plates – visit the orchards, talk to the people who grow and harvest the products that grace our plates. I want to be an instrument in the telling of this great part of Portland’s food and drink story.
Check out Jenn’s portfolio here
Learn about Tommy’s Mexican Restaurant here
Learn about The Spirited Awards at Tales of the Cocktail here
Back in the late 1980s (verily the horse and buggy days of Portland fine dining), a high-end meal often meant trudging through menus that read like tired greatest hits albums of FILL IN THE BLANK cuisine served up in stodgy environs, as fancy food was expected to be executed at the time.
The dawning of the 1990s: cut to our sophisticated-yet-unassuming, highly-photogenic hero in a chef’s jacket at the helm of the kitchen of Zefiro, the big-bang restaurant that marked a profound change in the way Portlanders perceived fine dining with a ground-breaking blend of classic and modern components in menu, service and environment.
A culinary star was born.
Since then, Israel went on to launch the asian-fusion Saucebox and most recently Gruner, which made it onto GQ’s top 10 restaurants of 2011 list; Israel himself has recently garnered a James Beard nomination for Best Chef from the Northwest Region. These days he’s in the thick of masterminding the launch of Kask, a history-rich modern saloon.
The industrious, creative Israel kindly fielded a few Poached-centric inquiries.
Between Saucebox and Gruner you took a break to art direct at Vanity Fair for 6 years. What made you leave Portland and the restaurant scene altogether, only to return to both years later?
The opportunity (at Vanity Fair) presented itself and I was ready to make a change. I had a friend living in New York and I was ready to get out of Zefiro and Saucebox – I felt like it was a good time to leave.
Years later I came back for an event here. I had been contemplating (making a next move to) Amsterdam, but when I got here, it felt like it had changed enough that it would be okay to come back. I never want to feel like I am moving backwards. It had changed enough while I was gone that it felt different. It was pre- and post-internet Portland, the birth of the Food Network and the concept of restaurants and chefs had changed a lot. The city didn’t feel bigger but there now were more options, there was actually a “scene”. That and one of my best friends was moving to Portland. I couldn’t imagine her moving here without me here.
With each new place a big change – you made major departures from Zefiro to Saucebox and now Gruner… what drew you toward Bavarian cuisine?
I was looking for something that was an area that hadn’t been well served in the US. People here just didn’t think about that region for food very much. (German food) certainly doesn’t have the culinary traditions or appeal of Mediterranean countries but it still has a very rich culture and history and it also was an opportunity to use really amazing wines.
I had been to Vienna before, but the main eating trip was to Munich. I ate as many different regional specialties as I could. It was definitely an overview – I didn’t pursue anything in-depth but I wanted to get a sense of what it was like there. Portland is very beer-centric and that food is too, so it made sense to go in that direction. I don’t think any brew pub here is doing that type of food justice.
Since you’ve been an art director it’s safe to say you’re a highly visual person. Do you think you take plating more seriously than your colleagues?
I guess I think about the plate visually, but I think every chef does that. For me it’s always about harmony – finding harmony in whatever it is you’re creating.
My food’s not about being plated so much as natural, simply composed but something that still grabs the eye. Not all food is able to do that (laughs), like sausage + sauerkraut.
I don’t want to feel like my food has been touched too much or fussed over. It’s composition and thinking about scale, large and small, whether it’s layout or photography, I’m into the essence of opposition, balance, composition, color and light that create a whole picture.
You’re about to open Kask next door – what’s the inspiration?
We wanted to expand to a small bar. The space will be a little rougher, less polished than Gruner. We are calling it a modern saloon… I was thinking about the book Handcrafted Modern – it’s got woodworkers, designers… the hand-made work that takes into the account of the shape of the tree that it came from. Like the food (we make): it wasn’t made by a machine, it’s not perfect. We are looking to something that evokes the past – looking into history, bars, the private little enclave with a cabin, outdoors and the west, the high desert a bit. Also there’s going to be something a little vintage about it. I like old liquor bottles, ephemera. I hope to have a place that has old cool things on display that are not necessarily bar-related.
The menu will be a more curated selection of both food and alcohol. Handmade is the inspiration, so it’s about who’s making the stuff. Cured meats, cheeses, cocktails and beer featuring artisans and their products. We won’t be curing our own meats, but we will be making our own pates. I don’t want to burden the Gruner kitchen, so I want to make it as independent as possible, so that means no hot food.
I want people to come over to explore something different than Gruner, a North American focus that complements the traditions that are happening now – artisenal cheese, breads, meats, all of it. The reason that they are traditions is that, for a long time, it was a matter of survival, extending the usability of foodstuffs. If you didn’t cure meats, they’d rot and you’d have nothing to eat.
Look for work from John Paul from Cameron, Ancient Heritage Cheeses and Barnaby Tuttle from Teutonic Wines. I am looking to focus on people who are really into what they do and are making good product.
Do you like your new manager Yasu? Yes! Oh my God, amazing. Yes, I don’t want to get too excited about it, but yes, I think he’s uniquely good at what he does, the calm counterpart to me.
Back of the house — most important attributes
I want people who are clean, alert and curious. I look for people who want to learn and gather knowledge.
I think obviously if you are a line cook, the expectation is that you’re really good at what you do. You need to be energetic – you can take the heat and keep your cool, find your groove and work it hard. With line cooks, I expect 5 years or less experience. You are either working your way up to a sous or you go into a different line of work. If you’ve been doing it longer, you’ve quit growing – I want people who are growing.
Front of house – most important attributes
I am looking for someone who shines, someone who takes their job seriously. I can’t take that (greenhorn), “I can be a waiter” line. No, it takes a lot of skill. It’s a highly skilled job in a lot of ways.
I look for people who walk in the door with a smile on their face and take it on. Up beat. Positive. Smart and intuitive. I need people who can read a scene.
It’s finding that balance between corporate and just good business.
At the end of the day, the waiter is a sales person and the more they can sell, the more money we all make.
If a waiter’s that way with me when I go out, I will totally go on the ride.
I want the experience, give it to me! Of course, if you think its the best thing in the house, I’ll get it!
Of course if it isn’t amazing, I will give you a hard time about selling me short, but if you can make it happen? I am completely on board, and I’ll come back.
I think the same thing for our waitstaff. You have this opportunity, sell it! We are giving them the back up to do that. They need to let our customers know, “You’ll be glad I made you buy it”.
Favorite BAD answer to a restaurant interview question
I always ask them, “what’s your strongest skill and what do you still have to learn”.
If they say nothing to the second — death nell. No faults? I don’t need you. Show some awareness, everyone has something they can be better at.
We’re doing an industry foot care article — do you have magic shoes or socks that make your feet happy?
Most of the kitchen wears the Birkes (points to his feet), the plastic kitchen clogs. For me, I have discovered padded wool socks, they’ve changed my life.
I thought they’d make my feet too hot, but the wool gives you a cushion and cools. It breathes really well and wicks moisture. They’re more expensive but so worth the investment.
Guilty pleasures food/music/drink
Oreos. Coca-Cola. Music? (laughs) There are so many. I feel like I have a constantly changing pop music jukebox in my head. I have no idea where it comes from. I don’t know if it’s normal or not…. I know 3 lines and I’ll sing them over and over again. Jason (my partner) looks at me and says, “Don’t you know any other lines to that song?”
Most often missed or overlooked kitchen design component that makes your crew’s life easier
I haven’t worked in any other kitchens but my own. For me, it’s all about utilizing all the space that you can. We’ve switched out some of our equipment since we started. I try maximizing space since kitchens are typically all too small. I’ve never had the luxury of working in big kitchens.
Congrats — heard you bought a new house. Is the kitchen perfect as-is or is it getting an overhaul? What’s going in or coming out?
Thank you. I don’t feel like I have to do anything right away. I can be sensitive – in the kitchen we have now, I don’t even like cooking in it – it’s poorly ventilated, it bums me out. In the new place, the electric range will be changing to gas, but for now, it’s habitable – it just needs a coat of paint to start.