Where Did All The Chef Hats Go?- Portland’s Impact on American Cuisine

Good afternoon, friends and neighbors!

This morning, I had the great fortune of getting contacted by an old teacher of mine from culinary school. Chef Joe Sheridan was appearing on WOND, a local New Jersey radio station, discussing culinary education, the industry, and seeking the voices of alumni. I was having a slow morning and agreed to call in.

After catching up a bit on the show and brief introductions (including plugging this blog and my book. #shamelessselfpromoter) Chef Joe asked me an interesting question.

 

“Matt, I’ve recently been reading this book “Burn The Ice” by Kevin Alexander and- well, to stereotype your entire city, we came from an era of white table cloths and pressed napkins. Now we have chefs with tattoo sleeves, in black T-shirt’s with hats on backward, serving in dining rooms with bare tables and distressed walls. It’s all different!”

Now, I gotta own that since coming to Portland, I’ve gotten a couple food tattoos. I haven’t worn a proper white chef’s toque since I graduate culinary school (I hated them anyway. The paper ones tore and had a habit of knocking things off overhead racks, directly onto my neck.) There’s no denying that the Pacific Northwest spawned a reckoning in how fine dining was treated in America.

 

While I have yet to read Kevin Alexander’s “Burn the Ice” on the subject (I just bought it on Kindle a few minutes ago. It’s officially on The Pile,) the sharp cultural difference between living on the West Coast and training on the East is something I’ve mulled over plenty.

 

Why PORTLAND of all places? I have some thoughts…

 

 

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It isn’t called “Bridge City” for nothing.

 

 

 

A Different Story for a Different Time

As I’m going to mention at length in a future book, I firmly believe that restauranting isn’t simply “going out to eat” or “feeding people”. Instead, the act of feeding people in a restaurant is a sort of interactive storytelling– in which the diners are the main characters living a fantasy provided by the chefs and owners.
That can’t be too surprising. Any owner who has ever hired a restaurant designer or architect is keenly aware of the money involved before you even touch the food. The decorations. The linen. Table placements. The color scheme. The PLATES AND FLATWARE. All of it requires a coherency to a specific story, which goes like this:
“You go out to dinner, and order your food. Suddenly, magic happens, and you remember it forever. Tip your waiter.”

 

 

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The real catch is that the genre of story diners have come to expect has changed- just as the actors and the settings have. The idea of “fine dining” once came with- nay, DEMANDED- the signifiers of class that the Old Guard has come to expect. The white tablecloths, the pressed napkins, the stoic uniformed waitstaff, a three- or four-figure check to pay for all of it- overseen by a pristine, commanding chef. Likely a lanky, ferocious Frenchman, or perhaps a large Italian man with a mustache.

In the last decade or so, that has radically changed. The chef cranking out Michelin-grade plates is a bearded hipster with ink on their arms and holes in their ears. Their team straps up in individualized aprons, with rags or caps replacing the classic toque. That dining room with a reservation list going out two years is a distressed-looking warehouse with concrete floors and exposed masonry. The waitstaff smiles. Your table is a polished, but barely carved, slab of lumber that they say was reclaimed from a sawmill and crafted by a local artisan.
All this, but the food is beyond description, and you pay that still-hefty check gladly.

 

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“Kids these days…”

Why the change? Because that’s the story we all know now- and it’s the story we want. Bear in mind, the last decade saw a renaissance not just in food, but in food media. We live in an era built by Emeril and Batali, Nigella and Oliver. Most chefs my age saw Anthony Bourdain on “No Reservations” before they read Kitchen Confidential, and that likely before they even knew about Orwell’s “Down and Out in Paris and London”- previously heralded for its short series of chapters as “the truth of working in a kitchen.”
The once-easily-ignored kitchen worker now has the potential to be a superstar, and in an age where we romanticize blue-collar work… well, will a black T-shirt suffice?
Restaurant-goers with the cash to spend want edgy and “real.” They want authentic. Just as the crime novels of Agatha Christie and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle gave way to the noir of Dashiell Hammet and Raymond Chandler, the realities of the world demand recognition- even in the context of fantasy. Chefs aren’t just serene, stern geniuses in white coats anymore. They are rock stars, and rock stars do things their way. Screw polish and uniformity- it used to be about the food, man.
Stop expecting Beethoven at a Bruce Springsteen concert. It’s a different story for a different time- the men don’t go off for scotch and cigars anymore, women don’t need fainting couches, and your chef has a “mise en place” tattoo somewhere on their body that they kinda regret because it’s so cliché.
That’s only half of the answer to Chef Sheridan’s question though. It explains the “why this…” but not the “why here?” Why Portland?

 

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Pioneers Never Died- They Just Got Smartphones

I’ve now lived in Portland for about four years. Portland had exploded onto the scene as a food Mecca, and I followed my future wife out here from the Jersey Shore- certain of new experiences and challenges.
In these four years, I have witnessed the sharp distinction in the “West Coast attitude” that was absent in New Jersey. This beyond the differences I’ve related in earlier blog posts on job hunting in Portland (hint: get a tattoo, bring food, and cold-drop resumes) or the working environments (I was told “You’re from the East Coast, so you’re serious. You’ll get hired immediately over local flakes.”)
It’s a difference in entrepreneurial spirit, and a reaction to the demand for authenticity and innovation. Back at home, a person started a business to “be their own boss” or “create a legacy.” Those still hold true out west, but here there is what I can only describe as a “pioneer” spirit- and I use that term advisedly.
Beyond the “be my own boss” mentality is a strain of “do it yourself”- an idea of self-sufficiency that must have been handed down from the settling of these territories. “You’ll never have what you want unless you make it yourself. So get started- don’t worry if it’s cold, the heats in the tools.”
In addition to this is an open atmosphere for invention and innovation- an urge to “throw things at the wall and see what sticks.” Where else in America can the concept of food trucks become such an ingrained part of the culture? A young cook decides to try a new project- the barriers to entry are low. They can try a new concept through a food cart and keep their investment low. If it works- sweet, new career! If not, try something else later.
That is, if the people approve.

 

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*crickets*

The People’s Meal

Part of their sway I attributed to the democratization of food and food knowledge- another gift of the explosion of food media. Everyone now knows just enough to be their own critic and have an opinion on what makes “good food”- and “good food” no longer means a hefty price tag or pressed napkins.
Remember- in Portland, the barriers to entry for a young cook striking out on their own are low. Good food, by classically-trained cooks and chefs, can be found on the street corners, and belong to everyone. From food carts, the story they tell is immensely simple:

Diner: “Dude, you know who has the best shawarma in town? This guy down at the corner of…”

 
The diner is hero, guide, and acolyte all in one- it’s a story for everyone, at a price they can afford.
None of this is to discount the work of chefs who own brick-and-mortar restaurants- OR who operate restaurants with linen service and uniforms. They operate amazing places and prepare quality food– but as I like to remember, “the best chefs in the world have a favorite dive bar, burger shack, and doughnut shop.”
In the compulsively-mutating culture of Portland, restaurant concepts spring up and die out like mushrooms in a rainforest. The good ones last, the bad ones linger on or die. You might hear about closings in the weekly magazines, or realize it when you drive by a boarded-up door that was busy the last time you checked.
But when was the last time you heard of a petition being sent around to keep a bistro open? I never have… but when the largest food pod in the city was being shut down because the owner of the lot wanted to develop, you can bet I signed that one.
It’s part of the culture- our creations, by us, for you, but our way. As far as restaurant concepts to spread across the country, that’s not a bad one. Regardless of the face it wears now, Portland was historically a port city on the Willamette River. A factory town, a trading hub… a working-class town. Even as software moguls crawl in, the majority of those beardy hipsters who call Portland home aren’t living in Downtown. They live in Southeast, or “the numbers”- and they have a favorite saj cart, and will cry harder over its loss than the latest fine restaurant.

Setting in the West

Portland has provided America inspiration for its culinary renaissance… but all things end. As a new seriousness and cynicism sweeps the country, we start to wonder- what will the next story look like?
Economic uncertainty might lead to a slowing of innovation as fewer people want to take risks… or it might see a rush of new ventures as young people find better job security by working for themselves.
We might be up for an ongoing train of blasé food fads… or a reimagining of beloved recipes as we start to crave the comfort in the familiar.
I can’t predict the answers to that, but I don’t believe Portland or the Pacific Northwest will offer up their place in the vanguard quite so quickly. We breathe innovation and embrace the wild here… all with a firm declaration of “F*** this, I’m doing it my way.”
 
The sun may set in the West… but that just means there’s more time before the next day.
Stay Classy,

 

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