Michael Madigan owns the best kitchen in Portland. It's 3,200 square feet of gleaming stainless steel, filled with stoves, grills, mixers, slicers, smokers and fryers, manned day and night by a wealth of local culinary talent.
Madigan isn't a restaurateur or a chef. He's a businessman, and this is his latest venture, KitchenCru. It's ostensibly a commissary kitchen—a place where anyone from caterers to food-cart operators can legally prepare food for sale—but Madigan prefers "culinary incubator."
"I've got more to offer than just kitchen space," he says. Madigan spent 25 years in the computer industry, buying, growing and selling businesses and helping others do the same. An avid home cheesemaker, winemaker, brewer, baker and cook, he decided to combine both passions, and KitchenCru was born.
Since launching in March of this year in an empty storefront on Northwest Broadway, the kitchen has grown to 25 clients, each paying around $15 to $21 an hour for use of the space. Some are fledgling entrepreneurs looking to crack the shelves of New Seasons, others are experienced chefs hosting one-off dinners, wine tastings or cooking classes.
But in five months, the space has become more than just a place to prepare food without getting a slap on the wrist from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "It's kind of formed a community," says Madigan. "Everyone that's in here, it is what they love to do. That intensity is infectious—I love being here all day."
On a July morning, Madigan sits working at the tiny 10-seat chef's bar that faces into the kitchen. He has an office but says he prefers sit here, watching the bustle of the kitchen. In front of him, chefs from Sassafras Catering prepare desserts with fresh, local berries. In another corner, the ladies from MaggieBell Naturals fill bags of vegan trail mix. A worker from artisan pork purveyors Tails & Trotters tends to various pig parts curing in the dry store. Cheflebrity Naomi Pomeroy uses Cru's vacuum sealer to pack trays of beef cheeks to be sent to New York. In a few hours, temporarily homeless izakaya Tanuki will transform the bar into a pop-up lunch counter.
Over the proceeding week, I watch the kitchen morph from bakery in the morning to fine-dining destination at night, getting to know the people, food, smells and stories that make up this melting pot of culinary creativity.
THE RELUCTANT BAKER
Joe Sterling has been cooking since 3 am, but you can't wipe the smile off his face. Surrounded by slabs of butter and chocolate, his conversation is punctuated with belly laughs and big grins, and his voice lilts into a subtle Southern accent every time he talks about his food.
The New Orleans native moved to Portland four years ago, but it's only this year that he has been cooking his own recipes, his own way. In February, Sterling—who formerly worked the line at New Orleans' famed Commanders Palace and Paley's Place in Portland—formed his own catering company, Sterling Catering (sterlingcateringpdx.com). But the venture has taken him in an unexpected direction.
"I've been doing a lot of corporate catering, I've been doing some box lunches and cookie platters," he says, "And the more of those I did, the more people were like, 'You need to sell your cookies at the farmers markets.'"
Sterling began selling cookies at the Beaverton and Salmon Creek farmers markets earlier this year. He's now baking 100 to 175 dozen a week, starting work at 3 am four to five days a week, in addition to catering jobs. "I do these little pecan tarts that's got a cream cheese dough, that's my mom's recipe.... I'm doing a peanut butter and banana whoopie pie—people are loving that right now," he says, reeling off the ingredients and story inside every cookie. "And…I developed a brown sugar [cookie] recipe, and then I'm doing a tablespoon of praline on top of that. And those I can't make fast enough either. So it seems the more Southern things I'm doing are kind of flying out of here."
"I say I spent $20,000 to go to [the Culinary Institute of America]," says Sterling. "But I learned to cook in New Orleans."
THE BIG FISH
Many of the cooks in KitchenCru are still dreaming of a big client, grocery-store account or business loan. But Ken Norris' dream is so close he can taste it. After years working in fine dining restaurants in New York, he and his fiancée, Jennifer Quist, moved to Portland in February to start a restaurant of their own.
"We want to bring a really good contemporary seafood restaurant to Portland," says the self-assured Norris on a Tuesday afternoon. "Because there's great chefs, great seafood, but there aren't any places that really celebrate the catch of the day…. I've done everything, worked every cuisine, but the catch has always been my pride.â
It's an ambitious plan. When celebrated seafood restaurant Fin closed earlier this year, many in the food community wondered whether there is really a market in Portland for fish-focused eateries that aren't prefixed by the name "Jake's." Norris believes there is. The couple want to open their restaurant, Riffle NW, near Northwest 23rd Avenue, offering lunch, dinner, brunch and a cocktail lounge. âFoodâs the easy part,â he says.
By 7 pm, Norris is looking less self-possessed. Until Riffle (rifflenw.com) can sign on a property, it has been running a series of test dinners at KitchenCru to build buzz and refine the menu. Lighting, wine, place settings and the rich, buttery scent of Norris' "dockside chowder" simmering on the stove transform the chef's bar into a miniature restaurant. Ten diners have paid $20 to taste through a multicourse dinner, prepared directly in front of them. Each is given a Riffle-branded notebook for their critiques. Quist, also a chef but tonight on front-of-the-house duties, takes center stage as the host, while Norris cooks, plates and braces himself for the feedback.
Taste tester Mike Stricker assesses a pair of panko fried oysters: "I thought maybe the fig sauce might have been a bit too vinegary; it needed more fig flavor," he says earnestly. "But I really got the pistachio out of it." Norris and Quist receive the diners' verdicts graciously.
"Here's my philosophy," Norris had told me earlier that day. "In New York, the vast majority of people are about going to the restaurant, whereas people here are about the food. I don't care if it's a food cart or Le Bernardin, as long as there's passion put into it. That's what makes good food—good ingredients and passion, and I think Portland's population really appreciates that.
"I'm kind of kicking myself in the ass that we didn't move out here earlier," he says.
If there were ever a couple that could make rubbing salt into pig fat adorable, it would be Jeff and Milla Woller. They gaze into each other's eyes when they talk, finish each other's sentences and get up at 5:30 am to make bacon together before work.
She's from Tennessee, he's from Alaska. They met in Memphis but found themselves in Portland five years ago and never left. Neither has a background in cooking, although Milla has been working front of the house in the restaurant industry for 15 years.
Earlier this year, the Wollers decided to take their bacon-making hobby semi-pro. They named their business Maialino Bacon (tellurianepicurean.com), scored a place at the Lake Oswego farmers market and moved production from their home in Southwest Portland to KitchenCru, where they now cure, smoke, slice and package 20 pounds of bacon each week.
"We'd been making bacon for a while, giving it to family and friends," says Jeff. "A couple chefs in town really liked what we were putting out, and we thought, âWhy not?ââ
Jeff works full time as a patent lawyer, while Milla is a manager and server at Serrato restaurant. But at 8 am on a Thursday morning, Milla is in chef's whites, frying up a pan of bacon, while Jeff does the dishes. Aren't they sick of eating bacon by now? "No!" they cry in unison, grinning at each other.
The Wollers are hoping to turn Tellurian into a full-time business, but there's a catch: When the farmers markets finish up in winter, there are few places they can sell their bacon. Their Oregon Department of Agriculture license doesn't allow them to sell their product wholesale. But to get the necessary USDA license, they need their own production facility.
"You've gotta grow and expand your market to justify getting into a bigger facility, and at the same time, you need a bigger facility and the USDA license to grow and expand your market," explains Jeff.
âItâs tricky,â they say in chorus.
THE SPICE MERCHANTS
On an early Friday evening, the kitchen is thick with clove, cumin, saffron and about a dozen other spices and scents weaving through each other.
Uma Dama has just taken the lids off several large pots of biryani rice she has been cooking for several hours, and the exotic aroma spills out into the warm summer air.
Her husband, Dipu Kakumani, watches as she spoons the mixture into aluminum trays. Uma is the talent, he tells me, but his passion for the dish is the reason they're here.
"The place where we come from in India, Hyderabad, it's really famous for this dish. And I grew up eating good biryani over there, it's like a comfort food," he says. "We came here, and in all the years we've been here, I could never find good biryani anywhere…. So in my quest for good biryani, my wife started to experiment with the recipes, and we hit upon one that is close to the original. That's when we got this idea of, 'OK, we can share this, thereâs real potential for this.ââ
After several years of serving nothing but biryani to dinner guests, the couple decided to step production up a notch and moved to KitchenCru in April. Both work day jobs, and they have two small children, but when they find the time, they announce a Biryani cook-up on their Facebook page and website (search "PDX Biryani" on Facebook or pdxbiryani.com), and friends, colleagues and fans place orders for trays of the aromatic goat, chicken, shrimp or vegetable rice dish.
Making authentic biryani is a complex, time-consuming endeavour that involves a 12-hour marinade and a multistep, 2 1/2-hour cooking process.
Kakumani says their business is still in its infancy, and they need to spend more time converting Portland to their recipes before they expand any further.
"This is not a mainstream dish," he says. "Places like California, where there's a large Southeast Asian population, there's a lot of demand for it, but not so much in Portland. So for now, we'll probably just stick to doing it on weekends.â
GO: KitchenCru Culinary Prepspace is located at 337 NW Broadway, 226-1400, kitchencru.biz.