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.

 

 

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Discussion Post #1- “TWO COOKS ENTER, ONE COOK LEAVES!”

Good afternoon, friends and neighbors!
Today I figured I’d introduce something a little more interesting than my usual posts- I want to put a question to you, and find out what YOU think! Every now and again, I’ll set up a conversation and ask all of you to tell me what you think in the comments. I won’t put in too much, but I will be reading, so no matter what STAY CLASSY and keep it respectful, alright? 

Let’s start with an easy one….

     Afternoon, all! Have you seen the latest episode of Chopped? How about Master Chef? Hell’s Kitchen? Top Chef? The Great British Baking Challenge?

Neither have I, and I don’t intend to.
No judgment on you if you do, of course- you do you. To my mind, though, they just do not interest me, or represent the culinary world as I like to see it.

When I was a kid, the only cooking competition show I ever watched with any fervor was the original Iron Chef, dubbed for American audiences from the Japanese. I loved seeing the crazy ideas that a genius could whip up under pressure, given the barest hints of what the secret ingredient would be, a team of cooks and stocked pantry to make it happen.

Since becoming a professional cook though- and even while I was a student, when you think someone in my position would be watching religiously and taking notes- shows that have tried to follow in its footsteps simply don’t impress or thrill me anymore. While I allow there is still something exciting about watching cooks MacGuyver fine food under pressure, to me it feels like these shows take something I love and think about often and turn it into a gladiatorial bloodsport.

 

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Up In Smoke

Good evening, friends and neighbors.

The day had not been an especially good one. Between a hefty workload, arguments at work, and my own physical exhaustion, 7pm last night found me wearily huddled outside in my raincoat, under the portico of a friendly beer cart.

The weather had been threatening a nice, heavy, Portland soaker all day, and now it was coming through. My body ached in places I didn’t know existed. I was angry, cold, and exhausted. Bryan, my friend at the beer cart, poured me a Cherrywood Smoked Porter. Saint Burrito was also open a few steps away. I could smell the grilling meat and yellow rice.

One porter and an ancho chile chicken burrito later, I was feeling much better.
Yeah, it could have been low blood sugar or something similar- maybe “hanger issues.”
Either way, the taste and smell of smoke helped.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Holidoldrum

The bakeshop is quiet as I write this. The cafe has closed early- everyone hustled through their chores, their closing routines- the maddening crush of the morning receding into exhausted bones and weary souls as they grab their coats and slip out into the gray Portland streets (threatening rain, but they always are. You stop paying attention after a while.)

 

Me? I’m waiting on quiche for the next couple days to finish in the oven. They’re almost there, but not quite. They slosh too much in the middle, where it should be an all-around uniform jiggle- “like a perfectly toned ass,” as Victoria said once. I’ve mentioned before how cooks use weird descriptors and get excited by the strangest things. Emily’s gotten used to hearing it when I’m in the kitchen.

Once the quiche are done, they get cooled, labeled (I’ve got my own system to separate the meat from the vegetarian) and set in the walk-in.
I’ll shut down the cafe, lock up, and make my own way home.

 

It’s Christmas Eve. I’ll be married in a little under two weeks. In five days, I will work my shift, and then get on a red-eye flight to see New Jersey for the first time in nearly two years.

Why this apathy, then? I want to look at myself in the mirror and say “Dude! 10 days off from work, you’re getting MARRIED, AND you get to go home again! Cheer up!” That’s what I’d like to say to myself- if I could just stop thinking it and then saying, “And then what?”

Cooks tend to think procedurally. Their days are laid out as an order of operations, and they approach much of their lives through the philosophy of mise en place- every day is a dish to be prepared in the right way, on the right timeframe, to be finished completely and well-executed.
Bakers are the same- but often 24 hours in the future. To make sure everything gets the time it needs to finish, bakers will plot out their production schedules days in advance to make sure that when the deadline comes- as always- everything is done completely and well.

The quiche are out of the oven now. Crusts of bronzed gold, filling like the last bits of a sunrise before it’s truly day. They need to cool a bit, otherwise they’ll crack in the walk-in.

I guess the holidays feel like a finish line- the wedding will be in January, the holidays will be a breeze. I don’t feel like I can enjoy them though. I feel I can’t let myself stop and experience them as anything more than another completed task. Am I afraid of something? Running from something? TOWARD something?

One of the crusts sunk in a little bit. It’s fallen back from the lip of the plate.

Not perfect, but useable.

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