Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Ichigo Ichie

In the summer of 2014, I was making preparations to open a restaurant in Portland. After twenty years of restaurant work, I finally felt ready to open my own business and be my own boss. The majority of my working experience had been in Continental cuisines, French, Italian, English and Swiss. Many people expected this pedigree to continue in a predictable way, and open a traditional Euro-American or Pacific Northwest style restaurant. I had something else in mind all along. 

Ever since I was a young boy, I had a fascination with all things Japan. It started in simple ways, origami, martial arts, medieval castles, romanticized samurai and shoguns, the mysteries of the east. As I grew up, these childish impressions matured and deepened into language, architecture, gardens, ikebana and bonsai, and of course, Japanese food and drink. When I started cooking as a career, my personal interests stayed completely separate from my professional pursuits. 

I entered the food world of Europe. My work experiences and my mentors were practiced in the European traditions. I followed that path, working in French brigades, and traveling to Europe, working in Switzerland and staging in the kitchens of France and England. Once I was established in my career, I started to realize that there was plenty of room in my profession to incorporate my interest in Japan. In 2006, I made my first journey to five cities across Honshu. I would return three times over the next year. I was hooked. The chefs who inspired me began to shift from Michel Bras & Alain Passard to Hisao Nakahigashi & Yoshihiro Murata. I jumped at the chance to get into kitchens in Japan, yet, I never felt drawn to work in Japanese restaurants here in America. Something was missing. 

When I was dining in Japan, the presentations were incredible, the textures and techniques were coming at me from another world. Not just fancy kaiseki, but the grungy izakaya places, too. Back in the States, Japanese restaurants were almost always boring sushi joints trapped in a time warp from the 1980's, with bullshit sake selections. By 2006, good sake portfolios were just starting to gain a foothold in the American market. People were beginning to learn that premium sake is served cold, and the gasoline they had been drinking hot out of coffee machines was a marketing gimmick. I felt there was little to learn in American-Japanese restaurants. So I kept working my more European repertoire, focused on seasonality and creativity, and developed my Japanese techniques in low profile. 

By 2014, I felt I was ready to break into the izakaya model on my own. As I began to circulate my business plan, I was approached by a restauranteur in need of help. He had just opened an izakaya in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and it needed some concept refinement. As I took a look at their business, we came to an agreement. I would postpone my business plan and work at this izakaya in Santa Fe. It seemed like a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to test my ideas, and for the owner at Izanami, to set up a successful business concept totally different from anything else in Santa Fe. The Japanese have an expression for this once in a lifetime opportunity, ichigo ichie (一期一会). 

After almost two years in Santa Fe, my obligations to Izanami now completed, I am able to return to Portland and pick up where I left off. Now, the ideas for my izakaya have been tested in production guests have dined on many meals, service training, purchasing patterns and scheduling, large batch recipe testing. Now, it's time to see how a twenty first century Portland will receive this kind of izakaya. I hope I'm not the only one who's excited. 

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Every Step of the Way

One of the most defining qualities of the Portland food scene is overlooked by almost everyone in the community except the farmer. That is the proximity of surrounding farmlands to the city markets and restaurants they supply. There are few cities that enjoy such a short drive into town with a van full of fragile, often highly perishable produce. 

One of my primary suppliers drives in from Canby, Oregon, a mere 30 miles from the restaurant in downtown Portland. Sheldon and his wife Carole keep about 12 acres of land productive for 11 months out of the year. His recordkeeping is very thorough, and his planting is carefully planned. One of the most impressive feats of this farm is its efficiency of delivery into the city. Every square foot of the company van is accounted for, with three different dimensions of waxed cardboard boxes tightly arranged according to the delivery route, filling perfectly the 48 inches between the wheel wells. Flats of tomatoes, tomatillos or ground cherries are stacked in the rear, so that all the boxes are secured against tipping and sliding. 

The small farmer has to have a wide skill set. Not just a green thumb, but able to fix machinery,  balance an uneven cash flow, organize their planting and crop rotation, and maximize their delivery space for the trek into the city. It's inspiring to see it all come together. So, next time you are shopping at the farmers market, remember all the hidden efforts and expenses that have gone into their lovely market stall. 

Saturday, June 8, 2013

True and False Morels

Several people have asked me about the "false morels" of spring, what they look like and how they taste. This spring has so far produced some great specimens from all the spring mushrooms, so we can take a look at them. Morchella elata, the black morel is pictured on the left. A delicious mushroom that has many different morchella species, ranging in size and color. They are all edible, and easily identified because the stipe connects to the head at its base. 

Verpa bohemica, the verpa is pictured in the center. It is a false morel which some regard as more delicious than the morel, but others regard as inedible, causing stomach distress and flatulence. It is easily identified by its stipe, which connects to the apex of the head. For this reason, it is sometimes called the "thimblecap morel," because the cap can be easily picked from the base.

Lastly, gyromitra esculenta, sometimes called "calf's brain," for its appearance, or "snow morel," for its ability to grow before the spring snows have melted. The Latin word "esculenta," means edible, and this mushroom is often regarded as delicious in Europe. It does contain a known carcinogen, and some regard it as poisonous. However, the true and false morels are often cooked together and equally regarded by some people. 

The best of them all, in my opinion, is not a spring mushroom at all. The gray morel does not emerge until summer. Morchella tomentosa is the largest and most delicious. It is distinguished from other morels by the small velvety hairlike "fur" that covers it. These mushrooms can grow up to nine inches in height, making them absolutely wonderful for stuffing with a variety of flavorful fillings! In our region, they often come from Mount Adams and the wilderness to the east of Mount Hood. 


Opening a restaurant begins a long process of decision making. What kind of tables and chairs shall we have, what kind of oven and refrigeration shall we buy, which computer systems will we use? And of course, what kind of food and service will the restaurant be known for. Raven & Rose intended to draw inspiration from the British Isles, serving rustic yet refined fare that harkens us back to our culinary and colonial ancestry. As a chef, I needed to understand not only what kind of food to serve, but what it would be served on. 

At home, I have a large collection of plates and glasses, especially Japanese plateware. Japanese utsuwa, meaning pottery or vessel, have always been my favorite kind of service ware. There is such a rich and diverse variety of shapes, colors and textures which enhance the pleasure of eating and drinking from them. For many years at Park Kitchen, I enjoyed using them to present all sorts of preparations. For the Raven & Rose project, I definitely needed something with more Anglo-Saxon connotations. 

I have always been a big fan of Heath Ceramics, in Sausalito, California. Their plates were always a leading candidate.  The speckled ceramics popularized by Noma in the Scandinavian countries seems to have sparked a great deal of interest in textured glazes and new shapes. Perhaps that was part of the inspiration for the new Craft Series launched by Steelite, the English plateware company. The moment I saw the catalog for these new plates, I knew this would be the perfect plate for an upscale English farmhouse restaurant. Strangely enough, I have used the Steelite plates alongside many of my Japanese pieces, and there has been a pleasant continuity between them. 

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Raven & Rose

Sometimes people ask me how I have time to write stories as a restaurant chef. Usually, I say something like "We find the time for the things we enjoy." It has been some time since I have found the time to write stories, and not that I haven't had plenty to write about. As the executive chef for Park Kitchen, I have taken the team on inspiring tours of Bob's Red Mill in Milwaukee, Oregon, and one of our strongest farmers at Your Kitchen Garden in Canby, Oregon. I travelled to Sweden and Denmark this spring, foraged with the godfather of the Nordic Manifesto revival, and dined at Noma, the best restaurant in the world. I'm bursting at the seams with stories to share with you.

However, I have taken on a new project which has taken up all the time that would otherwise have translated into stories about the millstones at Bob's Red Mill, the inspiring whole grain breads and cheeses from Scandinavia, or the planning that goes into a diversified farm in the Willamette Valley. After eight years at Park Kitchen, I will be leaving to open a new restaurant in downtown Portland. It will be called Raven & Rose, and it will be located in a beautiful restoration of the historic Ladd Carriage House. 

Those of you in the industry know how much work goes into the opening of a restaurant, from ductwork and electrical wiring, equipment purchasing, menu planning and recipe development, hiring and training staff, service contracts and so many other things. Once we get all these things moving together in harmony, I will be able to return to telling stories about the people, places and products that inspire me to be a chef. 

Monday, July 30, 2012

Kitchen Notebooks

Restaurant kitchens are complex work spaces. As seasonal ingredients change, or inspirations bring new dishes to the menu, everyone in the kitchen must learn new techniques, recipes and methods. This information has long been conveyed through the use of pocket sized kitchen notebooks filled with scribbles and drawings of plating directions, the formulas and recipes needed for the next dinner service. You can gather a great deal of information about the cooks themselves by how they organize and reference their notebooks.

As technology becomes faster and more compact, this ancient practice is beginning to give way to ipods, clouds or smartphones tethered to home computer databases, giving the kitchen managers and their staff a virtual up to the minute restaurant cookbook. Will it lead to better cooking, or will the young line cooks just become more dependent on explicit instructions, losing their ability to taste, adjust, and think about the principles of their skill set?

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Portland Meat Collective

They say necessity is the mother of invention. Back in January of 2009, talented editor and food writer, Camas Davis lost her job at Portland Monthly magazine. Her quest to find a new relationship with food led her to southwestern France. Through Kate Hill's cooking school, Kitchen at Camont, Camas met Dominique Chapolard and his family, who run an old-fashioned pig farm. They grow their own grain to feed their own pigs, and they slaughter and process their own pork, and sell it directly to their customers at farmers markets. Camas was blown away at this direct relationship between buyer and seller. Where had that gone in the American landscape? And why?

Camas came back to the States determined to find the answers. Her answer came in the form of the Portland Meat Collective. Determined to restore the long-lost, local supply chain, she started at the beginning, with education. By connecting the community consumers with local farmers, she conducts hands-on butchery classes that teach people everything they ever wanted to know about the meat that they eat. A local chef or industry expert conducts the class with Camas as students learn about butchering whole pigs or rabbits, primal cuts of beef, or finishing traditional products like sausages and terrines.

Why are people so interested in knowing more about meat? Are Americans really that sentimental and nostalgic? Are we really that hungry for the raw and the real? The answer seems to be "Absolutely!" When I joined Camas for a whole hog butchery class, the attendees had travelled to Portland from as far away as Denver and Vancouver, British Columbia. Motivated by environmental awareness, health concerns, and simple curiosity about what they eat, people wanted more information. Camas' students range from young professionals and enthusiasts to bold housewives and community activists. It was a pleasure to be surrounded by people who believe passionately that knowledge is power, and there are a growing number of people who want more power in their eating habits.

I made a diagram for the students that would illustrate what we were going to be doing. Of course, there is step by step instruction during the class, but when you are standing over 120 pounds of flesh and skin and bone for the first time, you could be forgiven for not remembering a thing or two. My method of butchery is a combination of French, American and Italian seam butchery. We separated the major muscle groups and I explained the difference in the muscle fibers to the students so they would know the difference between cooking a tenderloin or a tongue, an eye of round or a shoulder.

I know the Portland Meat Collective could only find an audience in a few cities in North America, but I am proud that Portland is one of them. Camas has been very keen to find the breach in the supply chain, and gutsy enough to try and patch it through education and training at many levels. I recommend you support her efforts and find the class that is right for you.