For Robert Reynolds, the basis of a good culinary education starts and ends where people eat together. So it's no surprise that the focal point of the PDX-based food educator and former restaurateur's cooking school—tucked behind Ken's Artisan Pizza in Southeast Portland—is a big table. The entire "Robert Reynolds Chef Studio" is the size of a small apartment, and the table, a no-nonsense wood monster, accounts for one-fifth of the space. That's where he and his six students begin each day, talking about what they'll prepare. After hours of chopping, cooking and plating, they return to the table to critique their dishes. It sounds simple, but his students—well-off home cooks and working chefs alike—pay up to $1,000 a week to sit at that table (and those courses can last five days a week for eight weeks).
So, what's the big deal about this guy? "For chefs in Portland, Reynolds is who people go to when they want to get back in touch with basic [cooking]," explains Fratelli co-owner Tim Cuscaden. He's hosting a chat with Reynolds and other chefs about culinary training this Saturday.
After 20 years of carting U.S. students (including Navarre's John Taboada and Alex Westphal) overseas to cook in France, Reynolds finally opened his own Portland school in February. Eat Me sat down at the chef's table (for free) to talk about what it really means to respect your food.
Eat Me: Why do people come to you?
Robert Reynolds: Because they have an ambition to do something better. Food is...engaging. It's physics and chemistry and technique and history and culture. But if somebody has no greater ambition than to make food so that their kids go "mmmm," there isn't a better reason than that.
What's the essence of food?
Respect for ingredients, being together and respect for labor. When the woman at the market in France gives me the foie gras, she says, "Do a good job," and my students smirk. What she's really saying is: "I'm giving you something extraordinary, and it's really too bad we have to eat it. It came from a beautiful animal, but since that's how it is, do a good job with it."
How does your class differ from other culinary programs?
I was trained by the French.... They pass on their culture; their accumulated knowledge about food.... I see it as my mission to pass on what I received. I had a student who was vice-president of Burgerville.... I took her to the table in the house of the goat farmer, and he gave us lunch and then he talked about his dirt and his grass and his animals and his skill, which was the sum of what she was eating. She got it. If I can succeed in giving somebody a picture like that, then it will always serve them.