PORTLAND, Ore. – Far from the expectant gaze of major restaurant critics and the accompanying pressure to produce the Next Big Thing, this little-big city offers chefs a unique opportunity — the chance to experiment with less fear of scathing reviews, empty tables and For Sale signs after an adventurous flop.
Innovation is rewarded here, and maybe that's called for in a region that's looking beyond the novelty of farm-to-table, toward something new. But what?
A dozen chefs from Los Angeles to British Columbia recently came to Portland to wrestle with that idea. For people who hate labels, here's one they particularly dislike: “modernist cuisine,” that murky term that's come to mean vacuum sealing, gel layering, foams, globules, centigrade measurements and one famous 2,400-page, $625 cookbook.
It is, however, the one that best describes the culinary wave that has crested over big-city restaurants. Now even humble Portland, nearly a decade on, is finding its own way to express it.
Chef Gregory Gourdet — who organized the Chefs Week PDX event — says the catchall of “modernism” in the Pacific Northwest can vary by the chef. “Portland is still not modern-technique heavy,” he says. “It keeps things very approachable, but it's applying some of the tools (of modernism).”
The romantic vision of Portland restaurant kitchens — loud and tattooed and full of open flames — is fusing with this new notion, combining the region's reliance for that which is fresh and nearby with the inevitable encroachment of high-powered kitchen toys. It's a marriage that was on display with yuzu mousse riding alongside a shard of bigeye tuna and Oregon black truffle at one of the chefs' dinners.
“We're kind of the Wild West,” said Justin Woodward of Portland's Castagna. “We don't have a Michelin Guide. We don't have The New York Times breathing down our neck. We can basically do whatever we want.”
That attitude led to shelves full of awards, a reputation for risk and dishes like smoked rabbit pie with mustard ice cream. But it also created a bit of an archetype for what Portland cuisine should be, dangerous to a city that's food scene is built on invention.
“A lot of menus look the same these days,” said Jason French of the Portland wood-fired kitchen Ned Ludd. “Everyone has charcuterie.
Everyone's dabbling in some aspect of molecular gastronomy.”
The Pacific Northwest still values its comfort food. Avant-garde drizzles and dabs haven't taken root here, and despite Portland's reputation for culinary innovation, most of its residents — the Tuesday-nighters, not the tourists — will take salmon on a plank over piquillo pepper spheres.
The food scene in Portland finds itself nearing a crossroad. The city was largely shut out of this year's national James Beard Awards, and in late February, pioneering farm-to-table restaurant Wildwood closed after 20 years.