PORTLAND, Ore. – If you’ve been following the rise of the Portland food scene in recent years it’s not hard to be a fan of Gabriel Rucker, the acclaimed chef from Little Bird Bistro and Le Pigeon.
Born in 1981, in Napa California, Rucker got into cooking because according to him he wasn’t “good at anything else” and after moving to Portland in the early 2000’s he would open his first restaurant in 2006 at the age of 25 and his hard work would also be responsible for putting Portland on the global map as a top food destination.
Transforming Portland into “The” Food City
If you ask anyone where their top destinations in the United States are for food, Portland Oregon is typically at the top of their list but it wasn’t always that way. In the late 90’s and early 2000’s Portland only had a few great restaurants including Wildwood and Paley’s Place but thankfully that changed when Gabriel Rucker came to town and started Little Bird Bistro, followed by his work at Le Pigeon.
As with growth in any other niche or industry, the Portland food scene began to grow in waves following Little Bird Bistro and we soon had Pok Pok, Toro Bravo and many other excellent restaurants who were soon calling Portland Oregon home.
What was Portland like then, food-wise?
When it came to food, no one was talking about it much. For me, though, it was a bigger game than I was used to in Santa Cruz. I was really lucky to get a job with Vitaly Paley. I looked at his menu, and the fact that he had bone marrow and snails in one dish was like, “Bull’s-eye! That’s where I want to work.” A kid who worked there told me he could get me a stage at Paley’s, and I totally lied to him and told him that I knew how to brush gas on the hotline. I really didn’t, and Paley’s kicked ass. I depended on faking it to make it, and that was it.
What started Portland’s transformation into a “food city”?
Well, Wildwood was a restaurant. Paley’s Place was a restaurant. Higgins was a restaurant. Those were probably the three that opened around the late ’90s, before me. Those were the ones that started to get Portland on the map.
I think that everything happens in waves. Then there was Gotham, Ripe and Clarklewis with Naomi [Pomeroy], and that’s when I got involved. So that was a quick wave, and then you had Andy [Ricker] with Pok Pok, you had Le Pigeon and Beast opened up a little bit after. You could also say Toro Bravo with John Gorham was in there. That was when Portland started to get a lot more national recognition. I give [Portland Monthly food critic] Karen Brooks a lot of credit for getting Portland on the map.
Were there any influential people outside Portland who helped?
Rucker was recently named to the 2017 Forty Under 40 class and he’s certainly earned the recognition because since opening his first restaurant in 2006 at the age of 25 he’s been a leader in the Portland Oregon food scene, consistently challenging the establishment and taste buds of the city while bringing dishes to his menu that any food lover would find familiar if they were to dine in one of the fine restaurants of France.
Besides being an innovator in the Portland Oregon food scene and gaining recognition for his James Beard award wins, Rucker has also been working hard on a cook book for the last two years while starting a family and consistently coming up with fresh ideas to keep both Le Pigeon and Little Bird Bistro on the top of the minds of most Portland foodies.
“At Le Pigeon, the food is on a pedestal,” Rucker says. “There’s James Beard Awards hanging on the wall. People fly from New York and it’s their destination restaurant. They are expecting to be blown away.”
At Little Bird, “not every dish has to push a boundary. Take the new steak: it’s just hanger steak, French fries, some melted cheese over the top and a green peppercorn cream sauce. But I’m so excited by it. There’s no dots of sauce, no garnishes. It’s just good because it’s good.”
Little Bird, which opened in 2010, was designed as a perch for longtime Le Pigeon sous chef Erik Van Kley. At the end of April, after a four-year run that included The Oregonian’s 2012 Restaurant of the Yearhonors, Van Kley left to open a restaurant of his own. On May 1, Rucker walked into the kitchen with a mission: Steer the ship back toward the kind of French-influenced cooking he’d always envisioned for the restaurant.
Today, the two-time James Beard Award winner is free-associating with the kind of twisted French dishes that first put Le Pigeon on the map. Rucker knew he wanted to add fried chicken to the menu. Why not make a fried chicken coq au vin? Roasted marrow bones and “Jambon de Paris” sandwiches are both Little Bird staples. Why not top that quivering marrow with scraps of ham and melted cheese? Rucker seems particularly pleased with his new, “dirty and nasty” double cheeseburger, which comes with brie but can be ordered “a l’Americaine” — i.e. with slices of American cheese.
More Than 10 Years in the Restaurant Business
After more than 10 years in the restaurant business and countless awards the good news is that Rucker isn’t content to slow down and settle for anything less than excellence in his restaurants.
Besides continuing to win awards and gain recognition, Rucker has worked hard to keep Portland on top of the global food scene with his work on social media and he’s gone from being the fresh faced 25-year-old with something to prove to one of the most respected chef’s in the world.
In a recent interview with Marthstewart.com he sat down to discuss some of the most important lessons that he’s learned during his career.
What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned after more than a decade in the restaurant business?
Always treat people with respect. Let your employees, especially the cooks, be themselves and participate in the creative process. Balance is also key. I have two kids with another one on the way, and I’m now able to be home with them four nights a week, which is super important to me. You always hear about chefs burning out, and I’m really trying not to do that. Right now, if you come to Le Pigeon, three nights a week, I’m there making your dinner and searing your foie gras, which I love and want to keep doing for the next 20 years. And I’m lucky enough to have such a solid team that I know the food will be great even when I’m not there.
What’s your best advice for home cooks?
Rules are meant to be broken. Recipes are just a guideline. Don’t get so wrapped up in ‘did I do exactly that or exactly this.’ If it feels right, go with it. If it feels wrong, stop and read the recipe again. I like to have fun with food — take it seriously but also don’t. There’s a time and place for a directly sourced, beautiful organic piece of chard, and there’s a time and place for an awesome piece of melted American cheese. A practical tip: don’t add all your salt at the end when you’re cooking because you’ll have to put in so much more. It’s important to build blocks of flavor along the way.
Did you cook a lot when you were a kid?
One of my chores was making dinner once a week. My favorite dishes to cook were spaghetti — I would make the sauce from scratch — and anything Mexican. I also remember being very young and making my first tuna salad, but I put a bunch of weird stuff in it. A lot of the food I’m familiar with is simple Americana stuff, not necessarily stuff made from scratch, but medium-level junk food, which I still pull from sometimes. We make a pigeon churro at the restaurant, where the pigeon is confited, tossed in cumin-scented maple syrup, deep fried, and tossed with Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal.
Have you taught your kids to cook yet?
Yes, my three-year-old daughter wanted a real knife for Christmas this year. I got her a lettuce knife. It’s plastic but serrated so she can cut stuff. My son is five and he just goes and gets a knife out and cuts up apples now. They hang out with me in the kitchen, and I’m very aware of their respective cutlery but also making sure they’re not fearful. My wife will also bring the kids by during the middle of service at Le Pigeon, and they have no fear — they’ll just walk right along the line.
Delicious food from Little Bird Bistro
What’s Next for Gabriel Rucker?
After seemingly dominating the restaurant scene in Portland Oregon for 10 years now and winning prestigious awards many people want to know what’s next for Gabriel Rucker.
Like Andy Ricker and other great chefs in Portland, Rucker isn’t content to live off his success for the rest of his life, he’s continued innovating because he knows that what happen last year doesn’t matter in the food world since people are only interested in what’s happening now.
Rucker has stayed busy in 2017 working in his restaurants but he’s also managed to continue giving back to other chefs and restaurants in the community to endorse their food and his favorite eats in Portland Oregon.
If you had to name one personal favorite dish from your restaurants, which would it be and why?
The butter lettuce with lamb neck and lentils at Little Bird. It’s the perfect lunch, not too filling, but it packs in flavor. At Le Pigeon, it’s the savory pie if we have savory pie. Right now, we have a chicken and escargot pie on the menu. (Editor’s note: At the date of publishing, the savory pie on offer is a buffalo sweetbread pie.)
Name the top restaurants and dishes that you think every visitor in Portland should try.
Any of the vegetable plates at Ava Gene’s. Burgers at Tilt(with jalapenos). The peanut butter cup sundae atImperial. Steak and Caesar salad at Gino’s. The clam chowder at Ox.
Describe your perfect “dining out day” in Portland.
Sellwood. It’s super chill, people are walking around with families, and it feels like a small town. I used to live over there. The restaurant scene in downtown Portland has also gotten so much better over the past few years.
What other cuisines do you enjoy eating or cooking, and where do you go for these foods?
Mexican (Angel Food & Fun), Lebanese (Ya Hala), Vietnamese. I like cooking Mexican food at home, and sometimes incorporate those flavors into the cooking at Le Pigeon (as in the mushroom “al pastor” we made recently).
Any great watering holes you like to visit often?
The B-Side Tavern down the street has been a longtime favorite.
Since it’s Portland, we have to ask: what’s your favorite food truck?
So, you’re one of the most well-known chefs in Portland Oregon and it’s likely that foodies and TV fans will recognize you wherever you go so the big question is where do you eat in Portland if you’re Gabriel Rucker?
Chef Rucker’s Shortlist:
Le Pigeon, 738 E Burnside Street (Buckman); French, dinner only daily.
Ox, 2225 NE Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard (Eliot); Argentine/Pacific Northwest, dinner only Tuesday-Sunday, closed Monday.
Elmer’s, 9660 SE Stark Street (Hazelwood); American, breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Second location: 10001 NE Sandy Boulevard (Parkrose); breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Third location: 9848 N. Whitaker Road (Delta Park); breakfast, lunch and dinner daily.
Little Big Burger, 122 NW 10th Avenue (Pearl District); American, lunch and dinner daily.
Multiple locations around Portland
Salt & Straw, 3345 SE Division Street (Richmond); ice cream, open daily.
Second location: 2035 NE Alberta Street (Alberta Arts); open daily.
Third location: 838 NW 23rd Avenue (Nob Hill); open daily.
Angel Food & Fun, 5135 NE 60th Avenue (Cully); Mexican, lunch and dinner daily.
Ya Hala, 8005 SE Stark Street (Montavilla); Lebanese, lunch and dinner Monday-Saturday, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
B-Side Tavern, 632 E Burnside Street (Buckman); bar, open daily.
Kim Jong Grillin’, SE 46th Avenue and SE Division Street (Richmond); Korean, lunch and dinner daily.
Clyde Common, 1014 SW Stark Street (Downtown); European, lunch Monday-Friday, dinner daily, late night Monday-Saturday, brunch Saturday-Sunday.
Over the last few years the restaurant industry has been hit especially in Portland where the cost of living is much higher than other states.
With talk of raising the minimum wage in California and other states Gabriel Rucker is leading the way at doing more to help his staff by eliminating tipping because, the goal with eliminating tipping is to raise prices of menu items so that they reflect what a diner would be paying anyway when they leave a tip.
Since last fall they have been looking at the best way to do this and have decided the simplest way is the best way. No tips will be accepted and credit card slips will have no tip line. Guests will sign, and be on their way without needing a calculator. Prices will increase, but only to compensate for the absence of gratuity. The final cost of eating at Le Pigeon will remain the same.
The benefits are threefold. First, cooks and dishwashers will be paid a higher wage. Second, servers will receive a more consistent income with their hourly wage increasing significantly. Furthermore, management will be able to reward servers who perform well as compensation will be managed by their supervisors who know them well and can evaluate their daily performance. Thirdly, guests will know what they are paying up front, and have no need to compute a gratuity later.
This past week a meeting was held with service staff to announce the new plan, and it was welcomed warmly. Le Pigeon is a tight team and a pathway for more wage equity amongst the staff was cheered, as was more consistency in week to week pay for service staff.
“While this will represent a change for Le Pigeon’s guests, we are confident that our guests will likewise find this arrangement beneficial,”says co-owner Andy Fortgang.“We are confident as well in the service team, made up of experienced professionals that love what they do and take service very, very seriously.”
Le Pigeon knows guests want to give feedback on their experience, and values the feedback they receive in order to do better. Regrettably the tip system has never provided much feedback. Where some people leave 15%, some 18%, some 20% as their standard tip, it can be difficult to derive guests’ opinion. Le Pigeon will be instituting a web or email based vehicle that guests can use to describe their dining experiences, in order to receive direct feedback and in turn improve service. This platform is in development and will be launched in June.