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Portland Fever

While other great food cities might rely on their ethnic communities (like Miami’s Calle Ocho) or age-old culinary traditions (New Orleans’ creole cooking), Portland’s status as a food capital is homegrown—it stems directly from its wealth of fresh, local ingredients.

On a rugged bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, I stand with Ben Jacobsen, looking at his future. Early this cool, crisp morning, we drove his pickup from Portland, Oregon, west on Route 6, following the Wilson River through rolling fields and then thick forests of spruce and fir, up over the Coast Range and down into the flat pastureland of Tillamook that stretches out toward the sea. I watch a few people comb the immaculate white beach of a narrow inlet far below us, where oceanic waters rush in to fill the sheltered cove called Netarts Bay. To the north, past the craggy islands of Three Arch Rocks, the Pacific Ocean is a deep, cold, vibrant blue, as far as the eye can see.

Ben Jacobsen sees all this, too, but he sees something else. He sees salt.

Not to say that Jacobsen is unromantic; it’s just that he is a budding salt magnate, if such a thing can be said to exist. The blue denim baseball cap that hides his tousled, coppery hair bears his company’s logo: Jacobsen Salt Co. It goes well with his red flannel shirt, beat-up khaki shorts and running shoes, the de facto uniform of the corporate man turned artisan, and not uncommon in the Pacific Northwest.

Back in 2009, when his Internet start-up went bust, Jacobsen had some time on his hands. He made trips from Portland out to Netarts Bay to go crabbing, but, he says, “I’m not all that skilled. I’d come back with zero crabs.” What he did come back with was five-gallon containers of seawater, which he lugged to his car. Through months of experimentation and a few ruined pots, he found he could make a great sea salt out of it, simmering away the water for hours until all that was left was a pile of snowy, white, perfect crystals. At that point, he decided to go pro.

It’s precisely this kind of endearing, slightly twee enterprise that’s captured the imagination of the food world in general, and New Yorkers in particular, for the past few years—ever since we all caught Portland fever. I swore I wasn’t going to make any references in this article to Portlandia, the hit TV series on IFC that lampoons all things precious about Portland’s culture—its extreme farm-to-table ethos, its fascination with brunch, its quirky aesthetic (two designers spruce up wares at a boutique while reciting their mantra: “Put a bird on it!”). But I didn’t expect to look up from my first brunch in Portland, a spot-on radicchio and green-olive salad and an English-pea frittata at Tasty n Sons, to see Portlandia’s star, Carrie Brownstein, eating brunch with her friends—which, by the way, is like going to Sardi’s for a steak and spotting Al Pacino. While my girlfriend and I were whispering about that, the illustrator seated next to us at our communal table handed us her business card. It had a bird on it.

And at first glance, Jacobsen’s enterprise seems profoundly silly and quixotic, as if lifted straight from a Portlandia script. I mean, hauling ocean water home by the gallon to make salt? Isn’t there an easier way? His line of products even includes a cutesy slide tin that otherwise might hold breath mints, so you can “take your favorite finishing salt with you wherever you go and make each bite of food that much better.”

In Portland, however, this all makes a lot of sense. To say the city is food-obsessed is both an understatement and a mischaracterization. Food, drink and the enjoyment of such are as much a part of the fabric of this city as the Willamette River, which meanders through its center, and like that river, it’s nothing new. The surprise is that it’s taken us New Yorkers (and the rest of the world) this long to notice.

Maybe it’s the recent flush of press the city’s food scene has gotten; maybe it’s the recent arrival of prominent Portland transplants to Manhattan’s shores, whom we’ve welcomed like long-lost family. Stumptown Coffee Roasters barnstormed New York back in 2008, redefining coffee culture; Pok Pok NY gets breathless reviews for its gutsy Thai street food and block-party-in-Chiang-Mai vibe. One thing is certain: New York City and Oregon have a thing going on.

And why not? “You think about what’s great about the Portland food scene, it’s like a list of greatest hits,” says Brad Farmerie, chef at New York’s Public and Saxon & Parole and a “late convert to the world of Portland.” Food trucks? Portland has close to 700, with two or three new trucks opening every week. Locally made spirits? At least 11 distilleries in town, making everything from Aviation Gin to Eastside Ouzo. Craft beer? Please! They’ve called Oregon “Beervana” from way back. Coffee? See Stumptown, et al. Plus salmon runs to die for, oysters and Dungeness crabs from the pristine coast, deep forests for foraging chanterelles and white truffles, and nine urban wineries bottling killer pinot noir. It’s no wonder that New Yorkers have been jumping on the Oregon Trail, and giving Portland the kind of respect as a foodist destination that was once reserved for bigger cities like San Francisco and Montreal.

Factor in cheap rent and mild winters, and the Northwest becomes, to some New Yorkers, irresistible. As Vitaly Paley, chef at Paley’s Place and the soon-to-open Imperial at the Hotel St. Lucia, told the New York Times in 2007: “We sold our 500-square-foot New York apartment, and with the money we bought a house with a swimming pool, two cars and had enough left to open a restaurant.”

While other great food cities might rely on their ethnic communities (like Miami’s Calle Ocho) or age-old culinary traditions (New Orleans’ creole cooking), Portland’s status as a food capital is homegrown—it stems directly from its wealth of fresh, local ingredients. And eating local isn’t just a fad out here—it’s backed up by the law. In the early 1970s, Oregon created urban growth boundaries to protect farms and forests from encroaching sprawl. All this makes traveling through Oregon a little surreal—it’s as if the roadside strip mall hadn’t been invented. “When people ask [if growth boundaries are] working, I say, ‘Drive between Portland and Salem,’” says Jim Johnson, a planner for the Oregon Department of Agriculture, on an online television show called “Cooking Up a Story.” “Where else can you drive an interstate freeway … and see nothing but farmland between major metropolitan areas, except Oregon?”

The sheer proximity of abundant farms-to-tables in Portland is enough to turn a Gotham chef green with envy. “We grow way, way more food than we can consume in this state,” says Johnson—which makes eating local a no-brainer. The agriculture department calls the Willamette Valley “perhaps the most diverse agricultural region on earth,” and thanks to the mild winters, fresh produce abounds year round—and not just on elite, effete menus. At Community Plate in McMinnville, Oregon, chef Jesse Kincheloe estimates 80–85 percent of his Americana menu’s ingredients are grown nearby, right down to the Tillamook cheddar in his mac and cheese, the Oregon albacore in his dynamite tuna melt and the hazelnuts ground into milk for your coffee. All over Portland, chefs use local ingredients to make standard dishes superior, like chef Tommy Habetz’s unforgettable housemade sausage, egg and cheese on a poppy-seed roll at Bunk Sandwiches, or the instantly addictive carbonara served at Riffle NW, where local squid stands in for spaghetti.

The Willamette Valley—with its rich, alluvial soil and warm, dry summers—has been compared to another notable growing region: Burgundy, France. That’s because winemakers in the Willamette have had great success growing pinot noir, the grape considered the Holy Grail of winemaking—famously difficult to grow, and even harder to make into good wine.

“You can’t mess with pinot. It remembers in the bottle. It’s like an angry teenager,” says Ellen Brittan, general manager of the Carlton Winemakers Studio, a co-op winemaking facility in the heart of Oregon’s wine country. An industrial-chic wonder of green engineering, utility and good design, the Studio is home to 10 different winemakers who source grapes from nearby vineyards and make wine, from crush to bottle, at the shared facility. For these vintners, winemaking is a collective act; they’ve come together to share equipment, but naturally end up sharing ideas and opinions in the process.

For one of the winemakers, Joe Pedicini, that sense of community defines the Oregon food and wine scene at least as much as its natural bounty, and has for at least a generation. Pedicini has been “fascinated with fermentation” since he was boy, watching his Italian grandfather fill wine barrels in the basement of their suburban New Jersey home. But it wasn’t until he moved to Oregon in 1993—for a job at Deschutes Brewery, then at the cutting edge of Oregon’s still-booming craft beer movement—that he found lots of like-minded people, fascinated by the things they ate and drank.

“It was a small scene with a lot of overlap between the farmers, the brewers, the cooks and the winemakers,” Pedicini says. “Everyone knew that we had such potential.”

In a way, the Studio is the realization of that potential, a model program that gives more winemakers access to the means of production. It’s little wonder that the members feel like they’re part of something big. “This community is the most cooperative environment I’ve ever seen. There’s a sense that we’re all in this together. You know, Oregon first,” says Brittan, who worked in Napa wineries before escaping to the Northwest. “Starting a winery is a cash-intensive business,” she adds. “This is another way to get it done—share the equipment.”

That’s also the idea behind the Southeast Wine Collective, a co-op urban winery started by Tom and Kate Monroe. Located just off hip Division Street, where Stumptown and Pok Pok both got started, the Collective is home to a cadre of scrappy young winemakers who might end up changing the way wine is made in Oregon. In a state that cherishes diversity and experimentation, the wine world is surprisingly monocultural: It’s all about pinot. I couldn’t help but wonder: If a winemaker wanted to set himself apart from the pack, wouldn’t it make sense to try something different—like another grape?

“You just summed up my business plan in one sentence,” says Scott Frank, who makes wines under the label Bow & Arrow with his wife, Dana Frank, at the Collective. Both the Franks and the Monroes are in their early 30s, and they share a love of the wines of France’s Loire Valley—especially gamay, which Tom and Kate have started to bottle under their label, Division Winemaking Company. Together, they aim to literally transform the Oregon wine landscape—to convince winegrowers to rip out some of their sure-thing pinot vines in favor of more obscure Loire varietals, like pineau d’aunis and melon de Bourgogne. That’s a tall order from a bunch of young upstarts, but they hope the wines they make at the Collective this fall will be good enough to give the tiny Collective a little bargaining muscle.

Tom Monroe, whose shaggy hair and mustache make him look like an oenophilic Doobie Brother, says Portlanders like to support economic underdogs; he sees this as key to the Collective’s success, and one of the city’s “core competencies”—the only time I hear him speak like the New York investment banker he once was. But he’s right—big business is anathema here. I came to town expecting every café to pour coffee from Stumptown. But while that bean business was busy taking Manhattan, dozens of microroasteries have bloomed in the Rose City—Ristretto, Coava and Courier, to name a few—many of which will deliver to your house via bicycle. “Moving to Oregon was a wine decision,” Tom says. “Moving to Portland was a lifestyle decision.”

Most New York transplants, like chef Gregory Gourdet, find the Portland lifestyle to be a welcome breath of fresh, Douglas-fir-scented mountain air. Gourdet worked his way up to chef de cuisine at 66, Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s now defunct Shanghai-inspired restaurant in TriBeCa, but his Manhattan lifestyle took a toll. “I was staying out too late partying, getting chewed up and rundown. I was ready for a change,” Gourdet says. Now he’s traded late nights on the town for early mornings in Portland’s Forest Park, the sprawling, thickly wooded reserve to the west of Portland’s center, where he’s trained for eight marathons. But he kept what Jean-Georges gave him: a love for contemporary Asian cuisine, which he puts to use at Departure, a swank, cosmopolitan affair on the roof of the Nines Hotel, in dishes like roasted mushrooms with wild ginger and spruce.

Since arriving in Oregon, he’s been rummaging through the spectacular natural pantry of the Northwest, exploring the wide range of ingredients that define the region’s cuisine. Early in Gourdet’s tenure at Departure, his friend Ben Jacobsen (the salt guy) brought the chef bundles of wild greens that he had gathered near Netarts Bay while filling his buckets of seawater. “It was, like, ‘Here’s a bucket of nori, let’s see what you can do with it,’” Jacobsen says. Soon after, Gourdet returned to the coast with forager Justin Wills, chef at Restaurant Beck in Depoe Bay, Oregon, to harvest ingredients for a special dinner in New York. With Wills, Gourdet found sea peas and sea beans on the beach, and salmonberries growing wild in the dunes. He brought his quarry on the plane with him, along with a cooler full of Chinook salmon that he served three ways: slow-cooked, kelp cured and smoked with cedar boughs.

Gourdet doesn’t look like your typical forager; he’s got a relaxed mohawk (he’s a hair model for a hip salon in town) and wears the kind of oversized frames favored by both chef Mark Ladner of Del Posto and Charles Nelson Reilly. For Gourdet, this kind of intimate relationship with the earth and sea is new, despite his experience cooking in some of Manhattan’s top kitchens. “In New York, you can get wild king salmon flown in from somewhere, and you know what it’s going to taste like. Here, the salmon I get changes from week to week—sometimes from Copper River, sometimes from the Columbia, wherever the fish are running. And I’ve learned how to tell them all apart, and how to cook them differently.”

Back in Manhattan, chef Matthew Lightner has had to relearn that intimacy with his ingredients, one lichen at a time. Before he was scouted to open Atera, the jewel-box-size restaurant in TriBeCa, Lightner was best known for his work at Portland’s Castagna, where he brought ideas gleaned from working with modernist chef Andoni Aduriz to the Northwest table. His playful, intricate presentations, like buffalo tartare and pea shoots arranged to look like a divot of prairie sod, delighted Portland’s critics. Since he moved cross-country, he’s been exploring the ingredients of the East Coast, like the lichen called “rock tripe” that he forages in Harriman State Park.

For Lightner, New York offers a chance to prove himself on a big stage. “It’s just like any other world—publishing, theater, business—New York’s a place where people go to work at the top of their field,” Lightner says. His ambitious “haute-forager” tasting menus, which include a tiny baguette painted with squid ink to resemble a razor clam, and a “Beet Ember” coated with hay ash, have earned high praise from New York’s toughest critics, as well as his professional heroes, who dine at Atera on an almost daily basis. “On any given night, there could be some of the best chefs in the world sitting in front of me—Daniel Humm, Paul Liebrandt, who knows. And there are always chefs from Europe passing through. It’s pretty amazing,” Lightner says.

Strivers have always come to New York to prove themselves. What draws people to Oregon is something different—less the desire to stand apart than to come together. Late on a Friday night, just back from my visit to the coast with Ben Jacobsen, I knock on the window of KitchenCru, a culinary incubator on the edge of the Pearl, Portland’s fashionable shopping district. Like Portland’s progressive collective wineries, KitchenCru is a shared space; its slick, spacious kitchen, filled with expensive equipment, can be rented by small food companies by the hour, and its management helps new businesses get off the ground.

Jacobsen opens the door for me—he’s halfway through his salt-making process, and ready to hand over the reins for the night to one of his three part-time employees. As the Pearl’s restaurants overflow with giddy summer Friday crowds, a handful of industrious entrepreneurs are busy making the food that’ll get Portland through its weekend. In one corner, bakers are proofing dough for the bagels that’ll be served tomorrow at Bowery Bagels, just across the street, and owned by KitchenCru founder (and native New Yorker) Michael Madigan. Jacobsen is developing a special salt, made of bigger, hardier crystals, so Madigan can add salt bagels to his menu. Across the room, Sara Suffriti rolls out crust for the pies she sells under her brand Pieku—Jacobsen’s salt is the secret ingredient in her salted caramel apple pie. Around the corner, Aaron Silverman finishes a batch of fresh pork sausage that he’ll sell under his label, Tails & Trotters—soon, he hopes to be able to legally sell his Northwest prosciutto, made from pigs finished on a diet of Oregon hazelnuts. Though it’s a business incubator, KitchenCru feels as downright socialistic as Portland itself, a lefty workaround to the traditional capitalistic system. Despite the hour, there’s a sense of jolly camaraderie in the air, where everyone seems to know one another, and the kitchen hums like a beehive. That buzz, that energy that Joe Pedicini felt when he first moved to Oregon, where everyone knew they had such potential—Joe’s dream of the ’90s is alive in Portland.

Jacobsen Salt Co. has thrived at KitchenCru; in fact, it’s outgrown its incubator. After our trip to the coast, Jacobsen shows me what might be his new production facility, much closer to his seawater source. It’s a low-slung, mid-century warehouse, built to service the nearby WWII blimp hangar, a comically enormous building, bigger than a Manhattan block, and claimed to be the largest wooden building in the world. All around the warehouse, the plains of Tillamook stretch out, open and empty, perfectly flat for miles till they reach the Coast Range. There’s just so much open space out here that it’s dizzying, and the warehouse rents for pennies a square foot. When Jacobsen starts to talk about building ponds in the fields to experiment with traditional solar salt production, my mind drifts. I imagine what it would be like to live out here, to be part of this community, to grow things, to work harvest, to pluck gamay grapes just before sunrise, the vineyard’s shoulders shrouded in mist. I look out across the fields at the distant hills in the east and my eyes glaze over. Either I’m experiencing acute real-estate envy or vertigo.

I remember my conversation with chef Brad Farmerie, my neighbor back home. “In New York, the prices will keep you down. It’s tough to be creative when you need to finance the rent. But in Portland, whether you want to roast coffee, make beer, cook food, whatever, the base overhead is so low that you can afford to go balls-to-the-wall in whatever you’re doing. If it rained a little less, you’d see the whole world flock there,” Farmerie says, then pauses. “I almost don’t want you to write this article.”

 Oceans of inspiration. Ben Jacobsen’s enterprise—hauling the Pacific home by the gallon to simmer down into perfect grains of sea salt—seems lifted straight from a Portlandia script.

To say that Portland is food-obsessed is both an understatement and a mischaracterization. Food and drink have long been as much a part of this city as the Willamette River. The surprise is that it’s taken New Yorkers this long to notice.

__________________________________________________________________________________________________________

One of Frizell’s favorite dishes from his trip to the jewel of the Pacific Northwest was from a restaurant called Smallwares, which calls its culinary approach “inauthentic” Asian.  See the recipe below.

Fried Kale with Fish Sauce, Mint and Bacon

From chef Johanna Ware of Smallwares (4605 Northeast Fremont St., Portland, Oregon, 971.229.0995)

Serves 4

1 bunch of kale (Ware prefers cavolo nero, but any will do)

8 cups canola oil

Tempura Batter (recipe follows)

½ cup fish sauce dressing (recipe follows)

¼ cup chopped, cooked thick-cut bacon (the smokier the better)

2 tablespoons chopped cilantro

2 tablespoons chopped mint

Bring a pot of salted water to boil. Tear kale leaves off of the stems, and cut larger leaves in half. Boil kale in salted water for 1 minute. Strain into colander and spread out onto a sheet tray. When cool enough to handle squeeze out all of the water from the kale.

Heat 8 cups of canola oil in a wide high-sided pot to 350º. In a large bowl put fish sauce dressing, cilantro, mint, and bacon. Dip the kale into the tempura and place into the oil. It is important to try and separate the leaves as it goes in the oil to avoid clumping. Fry for 30 seconds. Using a spider, take kale out of oil and place into the large bowl. Toss the kale so all the ingredients coat it. Place into individual bowls.

Tempura Batter

2 cups rice flour

1 egg

1 cup cold seltzer water

Dash of salt

Whisk all ingredients until they just come together.

Fish Sauce Dressing

½ cup fish sauce

¼ cup water

2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar

6 tablespoons sugar

1 lime, juiced

1 garlic clove minced

1 Serrano chile minced (keep the seeds if you like things spicy)

Whisk all ingredients together. Stored in the fridge, this will keep for a couple of weeks.

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St. John Frizell writes about the liquored life for Bon Appétit, Saveur, and other magazines such as this one, and runs a café-bar in Red Hook, Brooklyn, called Fort Defiance. When not writing or bartending, he haunts the pubs around Port Authority, carrying a shoebox.

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  • http://twitter.com/PortlandFoodAdv PDX Food Adventures

    Frizell nailed it here. I’m a transplant from Connecticut who moved away from the white clam pizzas of New Haven to the bounty of everything else in Portland after discovering the most beautiful coastline in the world, followed by a three-day visit to this gem of a city. I thought it felt like a cross between Montreal and Amsterdam when I first saw PDX. Now, I can’t spend enough time exploring the whole state. The hits just keep on coming. (My sophomore venture to the Wallowas last week was like a trip to Switzerland) Somehow I still manage to get in lots of table time in Portland. I started a business celebrating the community-minded spirit of our approachable, laid back chefs, which is one of the reasons this blog struck a chord for me.

    Thanks for writing it.

  • http://twitter.com/zambito zambito

    This is a beautifully written, inspiring article! Frizell really captured the joy we Portlanders feel for our community & our food.

  • Stumptown (“Stumpy” for short)

    Dear Yorkies:

    OK. Let’s not pop a group woodie over me and rent those
    U-Hauls just yet. Your newly-minted acolyte has some learnin’ to do…

    First, get an editor fergodsakes. Mr. (Ms.?) Frizell could have said the same
    thing in 1500 words. Whaddaya get paid
    for volume or are you working for free?
    Goddam bloggers.

    Second, about the abundance. You’re about a century off, but appreciate
    the nostalgic moment. Dungeness crab is boom
    and bust. Columbia River salmon runs are
    puny compared to bygone glory days and they’re unpredictable too. Most of the
    salmon here comes from rivers in BC or Alaska, which haven’t been raped as thoroughly as
    the Columbia River basin. The “year-round produce” is pretty much limited to
    hearty greens and root vegetables from January through April.

    For the winos,
    sure pinot is big, but the effort is already underway to bring back chardonnay—the
    grape that was being grown down in the Valley before the pinot craze hit. Supposedly the new chard will be way better
    than the crap your parents/grandparents drank in the 70’s. Domaine Drouhin is
    planting a bunch of it. But who
    knows? The wine wanks who have moved here
    by the wagontrain load are insufferably optimistic capitalist pigs.

    Third, the weather here really does suck. Dark, gray and damp for a good eight months of the
    year. Let that sink in for a
    minute. It’s why Gourdet will never last
    here. Oh, and it’s pretty chilly for
    about half those months. You know, high
    in the high 40s, low in the high 30s. Day
    after day. Good for indoor sports, if you know what I mean, and that’s about it. And while we don’t have blizzards or baking
    heat, the “big one” is just around the corner as those fickle tectonic plates
    dig and dance under the Pacific. Shake,
    rattle and roll…I’m toast.

    Fourth, the TV stars were sort of fun to have around for
    a while, but now they’re like your great-uncle from out of town who just won’t
    leave. Their trucks block the
    streets. Their roadies and hangers-on act
    like they own the place. And it’s not like they are paying much of anything to
    be here. Hell, the mayor (yeah, the same
    dude who was dorking the teenage “lolito” boy a couple years back and lied
    about it to get re-elected) thinks it’s a mitzvah just to give me (and him) a
    little face time. And Carrie Brownstein isn’t exactly Al Pacino…more like a homely
    Kardashian.

    So, dear Yorkies, just a little truth for you nosh on
    with your artisan sea salt.

    Love and knishes,

    Portland

    P.S.: I {heart}
    New York

  • Joanne

    um, Stumptown – overreaction much?!

    I really appreciated the writing in this article. Great read and interesting stuff. :)

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