September in Portland Oregon was a lively food-lovers month. Foodportunity PDX, the Nicky USA 10th Annual Wild About Game cookoff and dinner, and Indulge 2010 at the Jupiter Hotel, all contributed to a veritable plethora of nibbles and sips from the top restaurant operations of Portland (with some help from Seattle and the San Francisco Bay Area).
I’d like to relate a conversation held with Morgan Bownlow, Butcher/Partner of Tails & Trotters, followed by a conversation with Chef Greg Taylor, former chef instructor in the early days of Western Culinary Institute and now a corporate chef with Nestle.
Portlanders live in the Eden of North America. There’s a reason the Oregon Trail held such allure in the 1800s – it really is a promised land here. The abundance and diversity of land and sea foods provides culinarians a broad seasonal palette with which to create culinary art from.
In the last year, several of our chefs have been on Food Network and prepared meals at the Beard House. What chefs and food businesses in Portland have done the last few years is astounding. A year ago, both Anthony Bourdain and a NY Times food writer have declared Portland the hottest restaurant scene in the world. We consistently get top accolades for our beer and wines. There’s an explosion of tiny distilleries, producing vodkas, gins, rums, tequilas and whiskies. Our coffee roasters and baristas are the best in North America. In August, CNN Travel stated Portland has the most dynamic food truck scene in the world.
We’re truly blessed here with food and beverage opportunities. I think understanding the lineage behind this creative explosion is necessary, though. I want to take you back about twenty-five and thirty-five years, even fifty years ago in Portland.
Building blocks were put down in Portland’s food scene back in the early 1980s, when the Chef/Owner of the Rheinlander, a large German restaurant in SE Portland, grew frustrated at the lack of knowledge and skill of cook applicants to his restaurant. The founding of Horst Mager’s Culinary school, (what would later become Western Culinary and then the local Cordon Blue affliate) was the first cooking school in Portland. Many of Chef Horst Mager’s early sous chefs became chef instructors. The chef I apprenticed to, David Strouts, traced his culinary lineage to this early school.
Even earlier, 1960s hippies had started organic farms in the area, leading to the first Organic Coop – Oregon Tilth – and certifying system in North America.
In the early 1990s, these top chefs of Portland were beginning a Pacific Northwest culinary movement, winning international competitions and spearheading the local chef/local farmer movement in the USA (collaboratively through Chefs Collaborative out of Boston).
In 1993, on the Portland waterfront, as Chef of Riccardo’s Ristorante in Lake Oswego, I signed the Chefs Collaborative Statement of Principles with Greg Higgins, Cathy Whims and others, pledging a chef career devoted to local chef/local farmer relationship. Two years later, I followed a redhead to Boston and wound up staying in northern New England for fourteen years. I returned to Portland in early 2009. This town has exploded in its food scene.
While some of the old guard are still around, making waves and leading by example (Greg Higgins, Cathy Whims, Philippe Boulot, Annie at Veritable Quandry and some others), they, and the good chefs and farmers here in the late 90s and early 2000s, attracted the attention of other top chefs from around the country.
I wish not to lower the praise and/or reward of our regions top chefs today. I merely seek to thank the chefs in the Rose City from the early 60s to a few years ago, who, sweating long hours themselves, led a fine city to world-renowned culinary mastery.
Thank you Chefs past for setting the path. Thank you Chefs today for grabbing hold the knife and plunging us into the future. We are truly blessed in the Rose City to have you all.