The rap on Morgan Brownlow is that he's brutal on pastry chefs. During his tenure at Clarklewis, Brownlow even fired one just as dinner service was starting.
The Portland-raised Brownlow could afford the fallout during that two-year run, which started in 2003. Clarklewis—run by Naomi Pomeroy and Michael Hebb—rode a wave of local and national acclaim, with Brownlow getting plaudits for being the brilliant cook and butcher. When the business suddenly tanked, Brownlow headed to Seattle, where he couldn't match his success here, eventually returning to town humbled.
After years without a regular kitchen job, Brownlow finally has another high-profile post: dinner chef at John Gorham's new Tasty N Alder restaurant downtown. Gorham, also an intense guy, is responsible for the birth of two of the last six Willamette Week restaurants of the year, Toro Bravo and Tasty N Sons.
We sat down with the wide-eyed, world-weary Brownlow to talk about his past mistakes and path for the future.
WW: After the gig at Clarklewis went bad, you moved to Seattle. What did you do up there?
What about Cafe 401, the Northeast Portland breakfast place that became real popular real fast in 2009 before you left after about three months?
The reason I left Cafe 401 was that I was promised an ownership interest on a handwritten contract with no signature that made it not legally binding. And I had problems with the other [owner] because I was trying to explain business scenarios to him—profit and loss, food costs—and he didn't really grasp the concept of what that was. Plus, he dragged his feet on getting a liquor license, which we really needed to make a profit. So that's why I left. But we were doing $23,000 to $25,000 a week in sales.
The Tails & Trotters pork business didn't work out for you either.
I made about $50,000 in five years through March 2011, and was living in poverty, basically, trying to get the business going. In the end, Aaron [Silverman, Tails & Trotters' partner] was frustrated because I had put in, like, no equity and had no money in the bank. But I had no money in the bank because I wasn't making anything from the company. And he held that against me. He thought it was my job to find money for the business. And this was at the start of the recession and nobody was giving away money. I also wanted health insurance because of the risks I was taking processing 5,000 pounds of pork a week.
How do you respond to critics who say you're impossible to work with…a screamer, crazed tyrant, etc.?
I'm an intense person. When I first sat down with John Gorham, he told me that I'm a bombshell, a powder keg. I'm just a really intense individual. But that's no excuse for blowing up. And when I was younger, at Clarklewis, I did that. I know that I was out of line on multiple occasions.
What was the worst thing you did?
I had a pastry chef and I was really having a lot of pressure from Michael and Naomi and my floor managers because people weren't liking the desserts, so I was supposed to sample any new desserts first. I found out he put some new desserts on the menu without my approval. So it was 5 pm on a Friday and I confronted him about it. He said, "I can't do this anymore." So I told him to get the fuck out of my kitchen.
Do you regret that?
Um…maybe…just by being rude. Performance is performance, but I didn't handle the situation properly, obviously.
Everybody thought I had a thing about pastry chefs. The one before him...she tried to walk out and I told her, "You're not walking out with the keys." So she threw them at me, and I called her a cunt. Did I instigate that? Certainly I said the wrong response, but…she would come in late and hung over and yell at her assistant for not getting her work done, and I said, "No, you're the pastry chef and you need to do the pastries." Anyway, the next pastry chef was [Clyde Common's] Danielle Pruett, and she was awesome.
Other than that, I had few cooks who challenged me, and I pulled them off the line and sent them home. No profanity though. No physical confrontations ever.
Ever been treated for any mental health or drug and alcohol issues?
No. As far as alcohol goes, I mean, I'll have a few drinks. But when you're broke, you're not going out drinking. I've never been arrested. I'm sure there've been a few times when I've drank too much, but it's never had anything to do with my work.
You're 41 years old. How have you changed as a result of the experiences you've described?
I'm very non-materialistic now. As far as possessions, I have my clothes, my knives and my snowboard. That's about it. I feel like, with everything I've gone through, it's made me humble. I was riding quite a high with Clarklewis, with the press nationally and all, and certainly it caught up to me. The fame totally went to my head and fed my chef's ego. I feel like if I was a little more toned down and focusing on the business instead of the fame, things would have turned out differently. Now, that feeling of being high and mighty, better than everybody—the Michael and Naomi way—that's disappeared. I have my skills as a chef, but that only takes you so far. From all my past work, I have zero savings. When Clarklewis failed, I lost $150,000 worth of equity.
How did you become involved with John Gorham and the new project Tasty N Alder?
I had been friends with John for years and had known him going back to when we both worked at the same restaurant in Berkeley. When Tails & Trotters wasn't working out, I got in touch with him because I knew he was looking for someone and I was looking for work. After he signed the lease for this new place, he told me that we should see if we could work well together. So, last October, I started with a little consulting work related to the meat section of the menu, then I started working at Toro Bravo doing butchery and meat-curing downstairs. And then John gave me the option to stay at Toro Bravo or come over here. And I chose to come over here.
Put this job in perspective.
I feel like I'm turning over a new leaf in my life with this new position in terms of creating some stability, financially, and being a cook rather than a boss or owner. I'm a manager, but one among a group of managers, not a sole chef and operator. I'm not responsible for creating a menu with 35 masterpieces every day.
Gorham has a strong personality. Any concerns about you and him clashing?
Yeah, it's always in the back of my mind. But, in all honesty, this is my chance to change my persona and show that I can be a respected chef and not be an asshole at the same time. And John's not going to tolerate that. I respect that this is John's business and he makes the final call on everything. And if you look at my track record, before Clarklewis, when I've worked for great chefs, I've done really well. I may not be a subservient person, but I can be subservient. I think John respects my abilities. I'm also not going to have to deal with the stress of underfunding and understaffing. And I know this could be my last chance.
EAT: Tasty N Alder is at 580 SW 12th Ave. Brunch 9 am-2 pm. Dinner service is scheduled to start Feb. 13.