ANTHONY CAFIERO is one of a handful of Portland chefs who are attempting to advance avant-garde cooking in a sophisticated market that has, curiously, been less than receptive. Why, in this culinary mecca, have the techniques of "new Spanish," or molecular gastronomy, yet to take hold?
Cafiero, 31, is a respected veteran of Paley's Place, Veritable Quandary, Nostrana, Ten 01, and Tabla, some of our city's most noteworthy institutions. More recently he's become a skilled and charming evangelist for this misunderstood and decidedly un-motherly cooking, but despite his immersion circulators and easy way with agar-agar (an inexpensive, fat free, and stable alternative to butter), the fundamental concerns of hospitality, flavor, and pacing are central to his menus. He uses techniques to keep himself intellectually stimulated as much as dazzle the customer, in whom he places faith that a good, challenging product will be appreciated.
I sat down with this whippet-thin d'Artagnan recently to discuss the slow uptake of this style of cuisine in an otherwise ambitious city, his hotly anticipated restaurant Ración, and how he conceptualizes the perfect dish.
MERCURY: Why has Portland, a city of particularly educated and curious diners, not embraced the sort of modernist food you specialize in?
ANTHONY CAFIERO: I think the reason we don't have super bad-ass restaurants here is because we don't have tons of international diners frequenting our city every year. Locals also happen to be very good home cooks, resulting in a push for restaurants to raise the bar for good food—only, it happens to be very normal and safe good food. A diner will not go out to a restaurant if (a) they can cook better than the chef at the restaurant, or (b) they don't understand the techniques or cuisine of the particular chef or restaurant.
You've said small plates are a trend we will see more of this year (Aviary, Smallwares, Biwa). Why is that dining format popular right now?
Small plates are cool in town, I think, because people are over the big entrée, and they want more of a variety of flavors, smaller portions of each so that they can order three $10 items instead of one $30 item. Also, I think people are looking after their overall consumption these days, and they want the most value for their dollar. I know that one-third of my $30 entrée is cheap starch. That is why small plates are so interesting: less filler, more imagination, higher-quality ingredient.
What is the idea behind your upcoming restaurant, Ración? What will a meal there entail?
My idea for Ración changes every day. Right now, it's going to be the best 20 seats in Portland. The pop-up dinners [Cafiero has run a half-dozen pop-up dinners to help dial in his offerings] are a direct reflection of my ideal restaurant. Set menu, eager diners, interaction with the cooks, that kind of thing. It will be fun, but also high end at the same time. I'm thinking dishes being ordered à la carte will range from $10 to $20, and the tasting menu may be available in a five- or seven-course. There will also be small, free extras between some courses, amuses and palate cleansers. I want strong, modern-leaning cocktails that people will want to drink throughout their meal, but also offer a smart wine list, sherry, and dessert wine. I also want to keep the corkage fee at $5, which is unheard of in Portland.
What are your key elements in composing a dish?
Food has to be built like a perfect dessert. Crunchy, smooth, fatty, clean, saucy, built interestingly, easy to eat. That's how I work modern techniques into dishes. I'm not thinking, "Damn, I really want to stick a foam on this... what should it be?" I'm thinking, "I want horseradish on this pork cheek dish, but I want it to be in the background. I also want some dynamic color and texture in this dish, since a pork cheek is brown and dense. Oh, I know, I'll make a horseradish tea and turn it into a foam, something white and spoonable and light." That's how things evolve. I ask myself where is the crunch, the craveability, the must-have-ness of the dish. Then as I build it, it's very dependent on the plates that I have. How the food looks on a particular plate is super important to me. It's the painter's palette—the delivery vehicle. That's when certain ingredients get chosen for a dish simply because of their color or how they look cut or what happens to them when you purée or dry them.
At the base of all this, though, is an understanding of classic flavor combinations and traditional ingredients.
How important is the "local, sustainable" mantra to your approach? It's not uncommon for a fine-dining chef to disregard this popular sentiment in the pursuit of interesting and high-quality ingredients.
I believe there is a fine line between being too local and being creative. Yes, Oregon bounty is awesome and abundant, but our seasons suck compared to California. Just a fact. We are super happy when asparagus is in season, but at the same time down in San Francisco, chefs have been rocking asparagus dishes for two months, and are now getting a jump on peas and fava beans. Basically if we cook super local, we don't have much of a window for experimentation and development of new dishes with ingredients. If you don't have the ingredient, how are you going to come up with a creative dish? We need the item in our hands, smelling it, cutting it, cooking it with all types of techniques, in different styles, before we land on a great dish. And with more practice comes better plates. All that said, my cooking style is very seasonal and local. Those happen to be some of my favorite flavor combinations. Like how corn and tomatoes are awesome together, partly because they are available in the same season.
Why do we not have Michelin dining [the well-established European hotel and restaurant guide] in Portland? Will we? Does it matter?
The Michelin system is out of date for Portland. Even if we had it, people would still refer to their beloved food blogs and forums for the "real Thai place," or where the "beer flows and the burgers fly out the door." Those kind of reviews are a bit more useful than what some dude who gets paid to eat and write about it says about a place after a few visits, all in the same season. That always got me about reviews, how even if the reviewer goes to a place four times, it is only in one season of food. I would be blown away to read a review that talked about the difference between a place's menu from summer to spring. That would be cool.