WW presents "Distant Voices," a daily video interview for the era of social distancing. Our reporters are asking Portlanders what they're doing during quarantine.
When the coronavirus forced Gabriel Rucker to close his two Portland restaurants March 16, he responded by inviting diners into his home.
The James Beard Award-winning chef wasn't flouting statewide health orders by operating an underground supper club. While the burners remained off at Le Pigeon and Canard on East Burnside Street, Rucker decided to fire up the kitchen stove in his Milwaukie home and start hosting live cooking demonstrations to stay connected with would-be diners.
"Everybody was in the same boat," Rucker says. "All of a sudden it was like, bam! A grenade went off. All of a sudden, we're stuck at home. So, I was just like, 'Hey, you know, maybe I'll make one of our recipes from our cookbook so people can watch me do some cooking and remember that I'm a cook.'"
There was no Food Network budget or professional production equipment behind the pop-up show—just some creativity with stuff around the house. Rucker's wife took on the role of camera operator and shot sessions on an iPhone, which played out live on Instagram, while Gabriel prepared everything from deep-fried French toast to Canard's popular nod to White Castle sliders, the steam burger.
As rudimentary as Cooking With the Ruckers may have been, viewership grew every week. The breakout star wasn't the renowned head chef or even the dishes, though. The couple's 3-year-old son, Freddy, stole the show.
"He didn't ever really help too much with the specific recipes," Rucker says. "We would just give him some bananas or some strawberries, a jar of sprinkles, some water and, you know, maybe some mud. And he would prepare his own dishes."
The sous chef-in-training even inspired his very own piece of merch: a T-shirt emblazoned with the title "Freddy's House of Soup and Sprinkles," with proceeds benefiting the James Beard Emergency Relief Fund and recovery support organization, Portland Alano Club.
While the show is now on hiatus since Rucker has returned to his restaurants to prepare takeout meals, the project proved to be a valuable resource during a time when making connections—even virtually—was perhaps more critical than ever before.
"Not only did it keep me in contact with the community, which is what I loved cooking at Le Pigeon—I'm in contact with people, we're sharing stories. We're sharing energy. But it also brought my family close together in a time of stress and uncertainty. It was a bright spot three times a week."
As parts of the state slowly reopen, we caught up with Rucker to ask him what he thinks the city's restaurant scene will look like this summer, what he missed most during lockdown and, as a business owner, how he's supporting both the Black Lives Matter movement and restaurant employees who've lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19.
See more Distant Voices interviews here.