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.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Online Reservations

In an increasingly fast-paced world, more restaurants are beginning to provide online booking systems. Most of the time, this is convenient for both the customer and the restaurant. The restaurant doesn't have to answer the phone as often, and the customer can check on availability without commitment. Park Kitchen uses Open Table, which not only makes online reservations, but also maintains a database about the customer, when is their birthday or anniversary, or whether they have food allergies.

Some of the world's most famous restaurants have customized booking systems with servers that can accomodate high volume. I recently made a reservation at Noma in Copenhagen, which opened its booking for the month of May at a precise date and time, three months in advance. I later learned that in just two hours, over 30,000 people were competing for a mere 1,500 seats over the entire month. In Chicago, Next launched their season tickets last month, including the coveted El Bulli tribute menu. Co-owner Nick Kokonas said that within the first 10 seconds, they had received 1,500 requests for tickets. When they opened the restaurant, they had decided to sell their tickets like a theater or concert venue, with a similar price structure based on peak demand, and now using similar booking technology. Yet another example of merging industries in a world that spins faster each day.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Winter Farmer's Market

Having a vibrant winter farmer's market demonstrates several things about the Northern Willamette Valley that we should all be thankful for. First of all, there is a strong agriculturual community that is willing and able to grow and harvest in the cold and rain. These crops are typically not as highly valued as summer crops, yet the work and the conditions are much more difficult and unpredictable. Roots, tubers, brassica's, and chicories may not be as glamorous as asparagus, tomatoes and peppers, but for those of us who enjoy cooking with the seasons, we know there is a time for everything, and the hearty and robust cooking of winter foods is a satisfying comfort. As with any other ingredients, quality shows at the table. Take a look at this huge celery root! It's almost the size of a basketball, and yet its incredibly dense, with no soft, spongy, hollowed interior, as often happens with poorly harvested or stored roots.

How beautiful is an arrangement of carrots of all colors? These are coming in to the city from the rural surroundings of Portland twice a week, even in the winter. There are some logistical reasons that make this possible. We do have relatively mild winters here in the maritime Northwest. Also, the proximity to the city is manageable. In larger cities, like Chicago, Seattle, and New York, it's simply a longer drive for the farmers, ranchers and cheesemakers to bring their product into the city, time and transportation costs that few small scale producers can afford. I hope you will all continue to support the wealth of our fortunate surroundings.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Piglets and Mark Payne

The time has come again when I will lose one of my finest ranchers to the harsh business climate of responsibly raised animals. Every few years, a great contributor in our community throws in the towel, and looks for another way to make a living. This leads me to find new producers, and I always learn something more about the choices that farmers and ranchers have to make to grow our food. This took me to Payne Family Farm in Carlton. Mark Payne breeds and raises pigs, which are distributed by Eat Oregon First, a co-operative effort to bring small producers to a larger audience, and keep the work as local as possible.

Mark Payne not only breeds his own pigs, which is a big enough task for a small rancher, but he also grows and mills his own feed. This makes the price of his pork very competitive against the domination of large scale commercial pork. In order to keep it that way, he pens a new mother and her piglets into farrowing crates for several weeks. You can see in the photo the alluminum bars that separate the sleeping sow from her young. Some people think this kind of containment may be cruel, but is it less cruel to leave them on their own. Typically, sows crush up to twenty five percent of their litter, just from rolling over in the middle of the night. Dead piglets are not much use to anyone, and after they are large enough, they are turned into open pens to romp around and suckle as freely as mom allows.

Thanks for taking the time to show us around the farm and entertain our questions, Mark. We look forward to buying your pigs this year and wish you the best of luck. It's not easy work, but I think you're putting together a strategy that will be local and sustainable, but also affordable, which seems to be one of the most influential factors in people's decision making these days.

Herbs and Spices

Any kitchen that prepares their meals from raw ingredients knows the benefit of a few herbs and spices in the cupboard. Restaurant kitchens often have an extensive arsenal of dried seeds, leaves, roots, flowers, barks and berries. Storing them becomes increasingly important when they are used so often. At Park Kitchen, we have a very open kitchen where the guests can see just about everything. I spent several years looking for the right container for our spice rack, which seemed like an eye sore in our otherwise tidy and presentable kitchen.

I finally found these great containers at Consolidated Plastics, a science lab supply company. They neatly accomodate the one pound increments that commercial herbs and spices are sold in, they have a wide lid that is easy to measure from, they are wide so you can reach the bottom with a tablespoon, and they also have convenient indentations for gripping. In short, they are everything I was looking for. Of course, I wouldn't recommend buying or storing spices in these quantities for a home kitchen. By the time you made it to the bottom, their potency would be a shadow of its former glory.