OKAY, PORTLAND, we get it. We make a killer burger, we're the mac mommas of mac 'n' cheese, and we have the most towering monuments to breakfast biscuits this side of the Mississippi.
It's time to move on. Our colons will thank us. Portland's pioneering chefs are changing the comfort-food conversation, moving from heart-clogging deep-fried pork belly to concoctions that embrace the crunchier side of the spectrum.
We're not talking about the smugness and pride of embracing raw foods, veganism, or (UGH) juice cleanses. There's still room for meat on this plate. Just maybe not a whole Flintstones-sized car-tilting slab of it. Now, the culinary game-changers are printing menus with ample space devoted to bounty from local farms, prepared in ever more delicious ways.
Part of this culinary shift has to do with our unique verdant location within foraging distance of the Oregon Coast Range—think chanterelles, morels, ramps, stinging nettles, fiddlehead ferns—and a stone's throw from farmlands producing some of the best-tasting veggies imaginable. With this comes a population attuned and interested in learning more about a calçot onion and green garlic. Think about it: Brussels sprouts and kale—still novelty greens in the Midwest—are almost cliché in Portland.
"You can do so many things with a carrot and you can do so few things with a steak," says Joshua McFadden, chef at SE Division's Ava Gene's, which topped many restaurant best-of lists in 2013. "They're a really fun celebration of textures and colors. I'm not, by any stretch of the imagination, vegetarian."
Ava Gene's devotion to vegetables has become legendary. McFadden has long had some serious love for rooted foods: A raw kale salad he dreamt up in 2007 for a New York restaurant appeared that year in a New York Times review—which is, legend has it, the first mention of the now-ubiquitous dish in a major publication.
McFadden's landed a vegetable cookbook deal, tentatively titled Vegetable Seasons, due out in 2016. His vegetable dishes combine acids, minerality, flavor, and crunch that actually warrant charging $12 for a bowl of simple arugula, foraged greens, herbs, olive oil, and sauvignon blanc. In fact, they're often better than the meat entrées. Since opening in late 2012, McFadden says Ava Gene's has gone through 30,000 pounds of produce.
"I'm doing this from an education standpoint," he says. "Food is a thing now, right? But there are still people who go to the farmers' market in Portland and ask, 'Do you have bananas?'"
Portland is likely at the head of a nationwide move from bacon to broccoli: According to a study released by research firm Technomic in late 2013, vegetables on menus have risen by 11 percent in the past three years. Kale alone was up 400 percent.
"Nationwide, it's definitely a trend," says Departure Executive Chef Gregory Gourdet. "It's just the time. Maybe people want to eat healthier. And there's the farm movement, and getting more toward farms."
Gourdet and McFadden are capitalizing on the movement: the two have paired up to plan two vegetable-based meals, one for July 17 at Ava Gene's, the other an all-vegan feast for the fall at Departure.
"Joshua just kind of reached out to me, and I fell in love with his vegetables," Gourdet says, adding their philosophies jibe: "I see food as nourishment."
For most chefs, greenery is not only healthier, but opens up new avenues to play with ingredients and help keep costs down as premium protein costs rise.
"I want vegetables to be in their proper place," says Jason French, owner and chef at Northeast Portland's Ned Ludd. "And their place is in every dish and on every table, in a way that is satisfying. "
Ned Ludd's wood-fired ovens evoke images of charred meats emerging hot and juicy, but a glance at the menu shows that far more offerings are vegetable forward, if not vegetarian or vegan. "There may be someone, men typically, who want a big fat piece of meat in their mouth," French explains. "But we made a very conscious effort to pull back our protein sizing."
A recent menu paired asparagus with fermented chilies, topped with a duck egg that dripped its yolky contents all up in the stalks. Braised whole rabbit was nestled amid raw and cooked spinach, carrot, leek, radish, green garlic, white wine, and rabbit stock.
French says perfection in cooking comes "when a vegetable can make you stop and take notice, when a shell bean or a potato can make you stop and say, 'Jesus, these are different from anything else I've ever had.'"
But when it comes down to it, people aren't ordering $30 cauliflower steaks to be virtuous: They still have to be damned delicious. And chefs admit that's their challenge—a spoonful of bacon fat can help the vitamin A, B, C, D, and K go down.
At the American Local, which opened this year and devotes an entire portion of its menu to vegetables, a shiitake mushroom, fregola, and nettle pesto dish has a scattering of ground prosciutto to sex it up. "There are a handful of flavor combinations that are attractive to people and certain key ingredients that can draw people in," says chef and owner Chris Whaley. "Right now, miso is popular. Anything with miso on it sells."
Seasonality also plays a big role. Vegetables change as the season goes on: A pea from early April is not the same pea that you'll find in late May. McFadden says that in his cookbook, he plans to break it down by not only vegetable, but also how to best prepare each vegetable during a six-season growing year. Whaley says that's what he does in his restaurant as well.
"As you move into spring and summer, the cooking gets pulled back further and further, and by summer, you're barely touching things," Whaley says. "When you're barely touching it, you have to give a lot of credit to the farmer."
And don't forget, because this is Portland and these are passionate gastro-artists, there is a lot of righteous fire behind those parsnip purees. There are legitimate health and ecological reasons to ditch high volumes of animal flesh; it's a refrain that's been trumpeted for years by food writers like Mark Bittman, Marion Nestle, and Michael Pollan.
Ned Ludd's French prides himself on not overstuffing his guests. Rather, diners should leave sated, he explains, unleashing his next thought (one especially searing for a professional glutton such as myself):
"A food coma is not a triumphant experience," French says. "That is your body crying for help because you just fucked it up."
And don't get McFadden going on Portlandia's famous chicken-with-a-name sketch.
"The oceans are dying and the bees are dying," McFadden says. "There's something happening that's really fucked up and people are realizing it and going back to the farm in the bigger, better way. It's really important that I support my local community with vegetables from local farms, olive oils from California, and meat from local ranchers. Why would you open a restaurant and get products from Mexico or Sysco? Portlandia can make fun of it; we're way fucking past that point."
Talk Veggie to Me
MERCURY: What vegetables can you no longer stand to look at?
GREGORY GOURDET: Kale
JOSHUA McFADDEN: None
CHRIS WHALEY: Brussels sprouts—we had them on our menu and they were really popular and we just got kind of locked into them. [He's since pulled them from the American Local's menu because of the season.]
JASON FRENCH: Seasonally, there is some fatigue with winter squash and root vegetables, but we get super excited when they pop up again each year!
What are the vegetables you get excited about?
GOURDET: I'm a huge carrot fan. There are so many vitamins. I'm experimenting with collard greens.
McFADDEN: I don't think there's a cool vegetable waiting in the wings. The future of vegetables will be isolating vegetables for their flavor—working with farmers for their seeds. You want to buy celery that tastes like the best celery you've ever had, right?
WHALEY: All this foraged stuff that's come out of the Oregon area. Wildside, a supplier I just started using, they brought me this foraged red miner's lettuce. This stuff is just incredible. It's beautiful, flavorful, and spicy.
FRENCH: I find there are few vegetables flying under the radar these days, but we are constantly surprised by the range of flavors we discover with the same produce but from different farms. Otherwise, kohlrabi has always held a special place in my heart, and I'm never quite sure what to do with it.