Portland chefs are obsessive.
If you’re looking for the thread running through our best restaurants—WW today releases its annual guide to about 100 of them—it’s the meticulous approach evidenced by the pandan-flavored free table water at Pok Pok, the menu items that disappear after a month at Le Pigeon, the encyclopedic files of everything that’s ever been served at one of John Gorham’s three stellar restaurants or the book-length collection of blog posts wherein Nick Zukin documents the consumption of every taco in Portland.
That makes for great local dining—our 2013 Restaurant of the Year, Roe, has a two-man kitchen where the chefs build every plate themselves—but fastidiousness often dooms attempts to scale up. But high-profile Portland restaurateurs like Andy Ricker, Gabe Rucker, Gorham and Zukin seem committed to filleting that idea. Soon, all four will have multiple restaurants in Portland. And they all have cookbooks out.
Cookbooks are an odd extension for chefs who built their names on flawless technique, hyperlocal ingredients and housemade everything. Earlier this month, the moderator of a Wordstock panel featuring Gorham and Rucker asked them what recipe they would offer to make for God at the Pearly Gates in order to get into heaven. “I’d make the foie gras and eel,” Rucker said. “I don’t think God would want to bother actually making the recipe, because it’s a big pain in the ass.”
These are a new breed of cookbook: part autobiography, part history lesson, part food porn and part directions. They’re intended to be read as much as used.
But we decided to do something a little crazy: ask four WW staffers to try cooking something from the cookbooks. Many of these recipes are intricate, involving ingredients that are hard to find and equipment home chefs don’t have. They take patience and technique home cooks rarely have. The overall result of our experiment: Can we make a reservation for tomorrow at 8? MARTIN CIZMAR.
Le Pigeon: Cooking at the Dirty Bird
(Gabriel Rucker with Meredith Erickson, Lauren Fortgang and Andrew Fortgang; Ten Speed Press, 352 pages, $40)
Backstory: Gabe Rucker, identified as “one of the hottest of the hot rock star chefs” in the blurbs on this book, grew up a non-foodie in Sonoma County, Calif., and opened his first French-leaning restaurant, Le Pigeon, seven years ago, before he’d ever been to the land of turtlenecks.
Recipe: Obscenely rich beef cheek Bourguignon, which was on the menu way back in 2006 with fried potatoes, and is still on the menu, but now with cocotte of gratin with black garlic and carrot salad.
Shopping experience: Completing the three pages of grocery shopping, prep work and cooking required for Le Pigeon’s classic beef cheek Bourguignon took several weekends and endless phone calls. The black fermented garlic for the vinaigrette? It exists only at a spice shop in Sellwood and at a Korean market in Tigard. And one cannot just procure beef cheeks from Safeway; they must be ordered several days in advance from a specialty butcher.
Cooking experience: While some dishes in the Le Pigeon book offer clever shortcuts—chicken-fried quail is paired with Eggo waffles—this isn’t one of them. You’ll be making beef stock from scratch. You’ll glaze the shit out of some onions. You’ll be cooking those cheeks for 12 hours.
Best thing about the book: There’s a whole chapter about Rucker’s love of Plymouth Valiants.
Worst thing about the book: These recipes are very difficult and very expensive. ANDREA DAMEWOOD.
The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home
(Nick Zukin and Michael C. Zusman; Andrews McMeel Publishing, 272 pages, $27.99)
Backstory: Nick Zukin is the Zuke on the marquee for Portland’s Kenny & Zuke’s artisan Jewish deli and now runs the Mi Mero Mole taqueria on Southeast Division Street. He and co-author Michael C. Zusman—a WW contributor—helped develop the recipes for the successful local diner but were bought out by Ken Gordon, who now runs all three Kenny & Zuke’s locations.
Recipe: Seeing that my one-bedroom apartment was not equipped to smoke my own pastrami, I decided to go for a simple Jewish staple: matzo ball soup. When I first scanned the ingredients, I thought, “Easy enough.” But as I read further, it became clear that the whole process would take at least 2½ hours.
Shopping experience: Simple—25 minutes and $26 at Whole Foods.
Cooking experience: After looking through The Artisan Jewish Deli at Home, I started to worry about how far my abilities would go. I don’t consider myself a genius chef, but not a culinary illiterate either. As my mother always says, we like to “play with food.” As I started making the dough, I thanked my immersion blender with its whisk attachment, the only thing that allowed me to beat the egg whites “until stiff peaks form(ed).” The most difficult and time-consuming part of the soup was making the dough, refrigerating it and then cooking the matzo balls. My first attempt at “Jewish penicillin,” although comforting and delicious, didn’t feel worth all the effort. If the craving strikes, I’m fine with paying $7.75 at Kenny & Zuke’s.
Best thing about the book: Once you’ve made your own home-cured pastrami, you can make a great sandwich without too much work.
Worst thing about the book: A lot of the recipes are totally out of reach, given the specialized equipment required. GINGER CRAFT.
Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull.
(John Gorham and Liz Crain; McSweeney’s, 336 pages, $35)
Backstory: John Gorham hadn’t spent much time in Spain when he opened Toro Bravo, WW’s 2007 Restaurant of the Year. He’s since made up for it, bringing managers along for Iberian jaunts and bringing back recipes from every trip. His new book, written with WW contributor Liz Crain, follows the evolution of the restaurant while mixing in his personal stories.
Recipe: Tortilla Española, the very basic, potato-heavy Spanish omelet.
Shopping experience: Most of what you need is readily available at any grocery store.
Cooking experience: This recipe operates under a few assumptions. It assumes you are hosting a brunch where 12 servings are needed and that you have more than one massive saute pan and that at least one of them is ovenproof. It assumes your home stove has enough power to develop a decent crust on the edges of the tortilla in the span of just a few minutes (I should have cranked the heat to high instead of the recipe-mandated medium high) before chucking it in the oven. Finally, it assumes you can look past your own grumbling and appreciate that you can now approximate one of Toro Bravo’s signature dishes.
Best thing about the book: Toro Bravo goes beyond the shiny exterior of Gorham’s very consistent and organized restaurants to show the personal turmoil behind the scenes. Plus, many of the 95 recipes inside are actually very doable at home—so long as you have 12 mouths to feed.
Worst thing about the book: No Tasty N Sons recipes. BRIAN PANGANIBAN.
(Andy Ricker with JJ Goode; Ten Speed Press, 287 pages, $35)
Backstory: Andy Ricker spent his young adulthood doing odd jobs in Australia and New Zealand. He traveled to Thailand a lot and developed a love for the food. Eventually, he moved to Portland, where for eight years he worked painting houses in the summer and traveling to Thailand in the winter to learn the secrets of Thai chefs. In November 2005, he opened a takeout window that grew into a bicoastal empire and a book Anthony Bourdain calls “an argument ender.”
Recipe: Neua Naam Tok, the spicy flank steak salad I always order at Pok Pok.
Shopping experience: I’m used to walking lost around Fubonn, but I’m not used to walking around lost with a big cookbook under my arm. I might as well be wearing a “Farang” T-shirt. After 45 minutes at Fubonn, five minutes at New Seasons and $16.08, I had everything but Phrik Phon Khua toasted chili powder (I used regular chili powder) and Khao Khua toasted sticky-rice powder (I used regular sweet-rice powder).
Cooking experience: Why don’t I cook with lemongrass more? It’s fun stuff to chop and smell, and it grills up really well. It took me more than two hours to make this dish, including the wait for the charcoal in my grill to turn gray. It wasn’t terribly difficult, but by the end I didn’t have the energy to make my own rice, let alone proper sticky rice, so I just called Pok Pok and ordered some from the takeout window.
Best thing about the book: It doubles as a primer on Thai cuisine. Almost everything you’ll find at Thai restaurants, down to the sauces and garnishes, is explained in great detail.
Worst thing about the book: No water recipe. At
Fubonn, I also picked up a few strips of the pandan leaf that Pok Pok
uses to make its table water so delicious—only to discover Ricker is
still keeping that secret to himself. MARTIN CIZMAR.