Chef Interview: Chris Israel, Behind The Apron
Back in the late 1980s (verily the horse and buggy days of Portland fine dining), a high-end meal often meant trudging through menus that read like tired greatest hits albums of FILL IN THE BLANK cuisine served up in stodgy...
Back in the late 1980s (verily the horse and buggy days of Portland fine dining), a high-end meal often meant trudging through menus that read like tired greatest hits albums of FILL IN THE BLANK cuisine served up in stodgy environs, as fancy food was expected to be executed at the time.
The dawning of the 1990s: cut to our sophisticated-yet-unassuming, highly-photogenic hero in a chef’s jacket at the helm of the kitchen of Zefiro, the big-bang restaurant that marked a profound change in the way Portlanders perceived fine dining with a ground-breaking blend of classic and modern components in menu, service and environment.
A culinary star was born.
Since then, Israel went on to launch the asian-fusion Saucebox and most recently Gruner, which made it onto GQ’s top 10 restaurants of 2011 list; Israel himself has recently garnered a James Beard nomination for Best Chef from the Northwest Region. These days he’s in the thick of masterminding the launch of Kask, a history-rich modern saloon.
The industrious, creative Israel kindly fielded a few Poached-centric inquiries.
Between Saucebox and Gruner you took a break to art direct at Vanity Fair for 6 years. What made you leave Portland and the restaurant scene altogether, only to return to both years later?
The opportunity (at Vanity Fair) presented itself and I was ready to make a change. I had a friend living in New York and I was ready to get out of Zefiro and Saucebox – I felt like it was a good time to leave.
Years later I came back for an event here. I had been contemplating (making a next move to) Amsterdam, but when I got here, it felt like it had changed enough that it would be okay to come back. I never want to feel like I am moving backwards. It had changed enough while I was gone that it felt different. It was pre- and post-internet Portland, the birth of the Food Network and the concept of restaurants and chefs had changed a lot. The city didn’t feel bigger but there now were more options, there was actually a “scene”. That and one of my best friends was moving to Portland. I couldn’t imagine her moving here without me here.
With each new place a big change – you made major departures from Zefiro to Saucebox and now Gruner… what drew you toward Bavarian cuisine?
I was looking for something that was an area that hadn’t been well served in the US. People here just didn’t think about that region for food very much. (German food) certainly doesn’t have the culinary traditions or appeal of Mediterranean countries but it still has a very rich culture and history and it also was an opportunity to use really amazing wines.
I had been to Vienna before, but the main eating trip was to Munich. I ate as many different regional specialties as I could. It was definitely an overview – I didn’t pursue anything in-depth but I wanted to get a sense of what it was like there. Portland is very beer-centric and that food is too, so it made sense to go in that direction. I don’t think any brew pub here is doing that type of food justice.
Since you’ve been an art director it’s safe to say you’re a highly visual person. Do you think you take plating more seriously than your colleagues?
I guess I think about the plate visually, but I think every chef does that. For me it’s always about harmony – finding harmony in whatever it is you’re creating.
My food’s not about being plated so much as natural, simply composed but something that still grabs the eye. Not all food is able to do that (laughs), like sausage + sauerkraut.
I don’t want to feel like my food has been touched too much or fussed over. It’s composition and thinking about scale, large and small, whether it’s layout or photography, I’m into the essence of opposition, balance, composition, color and light that create a whole picture.
You’re about to open Kask next door – what’s the inspiration?
We wanted to expand to a small bar. The space will be a little rougher, less polished than Gruner. We are calling it a modern saloon… I was thinking about the book Handcrafted Modern – it’s got woodworkers, designers… the hand-made work that takes into the account of the shape of the tree that it came from. Like the food (we make): it wasn’t made by a machine, it’s not perfect. We are looking to something that evokes the past – looking into history, bars, the private little enclave with a cabin, outdoors and the west, the high desert a bit. Also there’s going to be something a little vintage about it. I like old liquor bottles, ephemera. I hope to have a place that has old cool things on display that are not necessarily bar-related.
The menu will be a more curated selection of both food and alcohol. Handmade is the inspiration, so it’s about who’s making the stuff. Cured meats, cheeses, cocktails and beer featuring artisans and their products. We won’t be curing our own meats, but we will be making our own pates. I don’t want to burden the Gruner kitchen, so I want to make it as independent as possible, so that means no hot food.
I want people to come over to explore something different than Gruner, a North American focus that complements the traditions that are happening now – artisenal cheese, breads, meats, all of it. The reason that they are traditions is that, for a long time, it was a matter of survival, extending the usability of foodstuffs. If you didn’t cure meats, they’d rot and you’d have nothing to eat.
Look for work from John Paul from Cameron, Ancient Heritage Cheeses and Barnaby Tuttle from Teutonic Wines. I am looking to focus on people who are really into what they do and are making good product.
Do you like your new manager Yasu? Yes! Oh my God, amazing. Yes, I don’t want to get too excited about it, but yes, I think he’s uniquely good at what he does, the calm counterpart to me.
Back of the house — most important attributes
I want people who are clean, alert and curious. I look for people who want to learn and gather knowledge.
I think obviously if you are a line cook, the expectation is that you’re really good at what you do. You need to be energetic – you can take the heat and keep your cool, find your groove and work it hard. With line cooks, I expect 5 years or less experience. You are either working your way up to a sous or you go into a different line of work. If you’ve been doing it longer, you’ve quit growing – I want people who are growing.
Front of house - most important attributes
I am looking for someone who shines, someone who takes their job seriously. I can’t take that (greenhorn), “I can be a waiter” line. No, it takes a lot of skill. It’s a highly skilled job in a lot of ways.
I look for people who walk in the door with a smile on their face and take it on. Up beat. Positive. Smart and intuitive. I need people who can read a scene.
It’s finding that balance between corporate and just good business.
At the end of the day, the waiter is a sales person and the more they can sell, the more money we all make.
If a waiter’s that way with me when I go out, I will totally go on the ride.
I want the experience, give it to me! Of course, if you think its the best thing in the house, I’ll get it!
Of course if it isn’t amazing, I will give you a hard time about selling me short, but if you can make it happen? I am completely on board, and I’ll come back.
I think the same thing for our waitstaff. You have this opportunity, sell it! We are giving them the back up to do that. They need to let our customers know, “You’ll be glad I made you buy it”.
Favorite BAD answer to a restaurant interview question
I always ask them, “what’s your strongest skill and what do you still have to learn”.
If they say nothing to the second — death nell. No faults? I don’t need you. Show some awareness, everyone has something they can be better at.
We’re doing an industry foot care article – do you have magic shoes or socks that make your feet happy?
Most of the kitchen wears the Birkes (points to his feet), the plastic kitchen clogs. For me, I have discovered padded wool socks, they’ve changed my life.
I thought they’d make my feet too hot, but the wool gives you a cushion and cools. It breathes really well and wicks moisture. They’re more expensive but so worth the investment.
Guilty pleasures food/music/drink
Oreos. Coca-Cola. Music? (laughs) There are so many. I feel like I have a constantly changing pop music jukebox in my head. I have no idea where it comes from. I don’t know if it’s normal or not…. I know 3 lines and I’ll sing them over and over again. Jason (my partner) looks at me and says, “Don’t you know any other lines to that song?”
Most often missed or overlooked kitchen design component that makes your crew’s life easier
I haven’t worked in any other kitchens but my own. For me, it’s all about utilizing all the space that you can. We’ve switched out some of our equipment since we started. I try maximizing space since kitchens are typically all too small. I’ve never had the luxury of working in big kitchens.
Congrats — heard you bought a new house. Is the kitchen perfect as-is or is it getting an overhaul? What’s going in or coming out?
Thank you. I don’t feel like I have to do anything right away. I can be sensitive – in the kitchen we have now, I don’t even like cooking in it – it’s poorly ventilated, it bums me out. In the new place, the electric range will be changing to gas, but for now, it’s habitable – it just needs a coat of paint to start.