Althea Potter’s cooking space at Southeast Wine Collective is no more than a few induction burners and an oven, yet the complexity of her plates—like roasted squash with layers of chickpeas, harissa, feta, and squash hummus—make it a rare wine bar with food to match.
One of the most memorable meals I’ve ever had was five years ago at Tanuki, where three friends and I sat for hours drinking shochu and eating a ceaseless parade of kimchi bacon blue cheese buns, exquisite Hamachi, and roasted bone marrow—all conjured from two induction burners by legendary chef/owner Janis Martin.
Hidden in spaces smaller than most apartment kitchens, there’s a league of female chefs in Portland who are making improbable magic with just a few burners, quality ingredients, and a whole lot of ingenuity.
Most are constrained by small spaces and the lack of a hood, meaning tricked-out gas grills or even, for some, a walk-in refrigerator, are out the question. Many are adjacent to robust beverage programs. All are putting out great food.
“I’ve done a lot of cooking out of really weird spaces, like a hallway in an office building downtown, or a field without running water,” says Potter, who worked at Jenn Louis’ Lincoln in catering and at Ned Ludd. “For me, I was used to looking at a space and saying, ‘All right, you’re going to be a kitchen now.’”
Potter, 34, took over her broom closet-sized space in 2014, and late last year her kitchen—and menu—expanded under the new Oui! Wine Bar + Restaurant, which now boasts the most solid $35 prix fixe feast in town (see our review below). Her space is still super small, though; three induction burners and an electric oven are all that stand between Potter and a 38-seat restaurant with a summertime patio crowd.
“We’re crazy people; we also have a catering company,” she says, adding that braises and items that can be cooked in one pan, like a succulent half-roast chicken with roasted potatoes, manzanilla olives, and a judicious application of smoked chile aioli, are necessary innovations.
No matter the time of year, if you order barbeque or a burger at Backyard Social on North Killingsworth, it’s made by someone standing outside. The kitchen inside, says chef and co-owner Emory Brun, involves a “walk-in closet” with a six-burner electric stove, a dish pit, and a few lowboys. That setup supports a back patio that can hold 80, an indoor space of 30, and an event space of about 50 people.
Brun says that having a strict prep list of dishes is critical to getting everything ready to assemble during the busy evening hours. The result? Better-than-most bar food, like cornmeal crusted tomatillos, smoked beef short ribs over creamy polenta, and a tart radicchio salad with citrus and a burnt honey vinaigrette.
“Our kitchen is probably a quarter of my home kitchen, with no walk in,” Brun says. “It really ensures things are fresh, and there’s not a lot of waste here, which is really nice, really keeping up on rotating and everything is pristinely labeled, rotated, and put away correctly.”
At Water Avenue Coffee, Chef TaMara Edens and her small team are among the new school of cafes with brunch that matches the care that goes into the beans. I was taken by a duck hash that’s since been scaled back to more typical café fare. Still, the fluffy eggs, creamy polenta, and fat avocado toast with pomegranate seeds and zaatar are amazing, considering they’re being produced from little more than a glorified shelf with four induction burners and a convection oven.
Edens, who worked under Ben Meyer (Old Salt, Grain & Gristle) and Aaron Barnett (St. Jack, La Moule), says she also has a catering background that helps inspire flexibility, joking, “At least I’m not getting attacked by bees while cutting a melting wedding cake while our food truck catches on fire.”