Chef Interview: Lydia Bugatti, Behind the Apron
Oh Portland, we gaze unblinking at thy food scene, only occasionally looking up to acknowledge that outside your fair quadrants lies a vast metropolitan area whose populace also consider the “Portland Area” their home as well. Just like we inner...
Oh Portland, we gaze unblinking at thy food scene, only occasionally looking up to acknowledge that outside your fair quadrants lies a vast metropolitan area whose populace also consider the “Portland Area” their home as well. Just like we inner city folk, they don’t eat at home every night and prefer their dining out not entail a significant commute.
Before you scheme your expansion into the empty Blockbuster space in Hillsboro, take note of locavore and Slow Food advocate Lydia Bugatti who has long ruled the territory with her quintuplets: flagship Bugatti’s Ristorante in West Linn and casual dining restaurants in Tanasbourne, Beaverton and Oregon City.
Besides her crux of contributions in bringing great food to the ‘burbs, Lydia believes in providing exhaustive training and advancement opportunities to her staff. She has many 10+ year Bugatti’s-grown veterans still on her team and her businesses have spawned the careers of countless professionals who now support restaurants in Portland and beyond.
There are a fair number of Portlanders who may not know your longstanding commitment to sourcing locally – can you talk about your participation in programs like Chef’s Collaborative?
Sure. Chef’s Collaborative was spawned by groups of local chefs committed to sustainable food. It was the mid-90s and we saw that small farmers needed help. They were struggling, needed our support, and we could see that people were increasingly relying on corporate agribusiness for sourcing produce for all sorts of restaurants and it was pushing these small, high quality local producers to the brink of extinction.
About 15 years ago, Greg Higgins contacted Marc and Deb Accuardi (of Gino’s), Cory Schrieber from Wildwood and a few others from the restaurant side, but in total there were about 20 of us in the bar area at Higgins – farmers, bakers, students, legislators and just interested citizens. We all recognized that we were polluting our streams with fertilizer, and it wasn’t sustainable…things should be farmed so that they don’t hurt the earth. We collectively invested in and promoted farmers who chose to not kill their soil, so things could be grown in the same spot forever.
But I was all about flavor (laughs). With food that’s grown locally, you don’t have to struggle for flavors. The closer to here I can stay the better it tastes. It’s a struggle at times – one of the hallmarks of Italian food is good tomatoes, yet people want large scale farming price points on those products. Fresh local tomatoes come at a cost, so I have to work hard to make affordable food that people like with the ingredients I trust and believe in.
As far as our adherence to Slow Food, it is essentially a philosophy, a belief in the importance of taking time to appreciate healthy food by supporting the traditions of raising, harvesting, preparing and sharing food. It also speaks to taking time with family and friends at mealtime, recognizing the role that food plays in our lives.
Your path to becoming a chef was non-traditional.
(Laughs) Yes. I was originally going to be an orthodontist. In college I took pre-med, microbiology, English and art classes until I found out that my parents were mortgaging their house for my education. I dropped out and concluded that I’d go back when I figured out what I wanted to do.
I started getting into cooking and discovered that food pulls from science, art and English – all the same subjects I was enjoying at school, so I just dug in.
I’m self-taught. Early on, whenever I’d tried to make or bake something, I’d try to find out why it didn’t turn out the way I wanted (these were the days before Cooks Illustrated and Epicurious). I read everything I could get my hands on – Madeleine Kammen and everything by Jacques Pepin. I loved On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee – he wrote about the science, history and technique in cooking. I eventually turned his work into a cooking course for my team at Ristorante – it lays out all the techniques. I’m a cook who likes to teach.
You have a clear path of employee advancement within your restaurants.
Absolutely. A person should be able to start as a dishwasher, go to prep, pantry, pizza, grill, sauté and then into management. They are all very definite steps and each person grows into the next level. It takes different lengths of time for each individual. Some people keep moving forward; others get to a place where they’re comfortable and that’s fine too.
It’s like the “Peter Principle” that came out of the 80s. The theory is that (within any job), a person rises to their level of competence, and then is pushed to their next level of incompetence by the business, which is where they fail. My job is to find the niche where they are successful and still have opportunity to learn, move forward, but not get pushed into something where they fail. That’s when they leave because they aren’t successful. If they aren’t successful, they’re not happy, I’m not happy and the customer’s not happy, and that is my focus of business.
You hire a lot of staff who have had limited restaurant experience– how do you get them to know their way around your busy kitchens?
Even with experienced staff, no one jumps in immediately up to speed. It’s a very athletic job. It takes 2 weeks before anyone gets the moves down and speeds up. I’ve watched it for years – getting the dance steps, learning how each other move and keep up the pace. I also have some basic speeches for my new people that are all are based on how to respect food.
When I do the more intensive course, I meet with my staff every week and go through a chapter (of Harold McGee’s On Food and Cooking) over 24 weeks. After completing 8 to 12 weeks of the course, they get a paring knife. Around week 18 they get an 8” boning knife and then, when they’ve attended every lesson I give them a 10” chef’s knife of good, German steel and a framed certificate as a point of pride.
Your commitment to the education and advancement of your staff has created an environment where people want to stick around.
I have some amazing people. Ricky Tapia started as a dishwasher at the café/ pizzeria, who then went into making pizzas immediately. He showed good instincts and we rewarded him: he went onto the grill station and then to Hilltop (Oregon City) on sauté. He’s a quick learner, moves fast, and has a strong palate. 11 years later, he’s now the Chef de Cuisine at Ristorante.
I also have Maria Koenig. She was a CIA grad, probably 20 when she started. She was shy, quiet and nice – she was with me for her internship.
At first, her shy, quiet demeanor wasn’t working out.
After a month I pulled her outside. I said, “You have to be more aggressive with your learning – PUSH your way to the front sauté line. The guys aren’t just going to give it to you. Be vocal, stand up for yourself, otherwise you’re not going to make it and you’re going to need to find a different kind of job.”
I made her cry. She heard what I said though, and she pushed for grill, became more vocal. She’s been with us 9 years and runs the day kitchen now. She’s got a firm hand with directing the team back there, but she also does the pastry, writes the checks and every vendor loves her; delivery guys will do anything for her. (It turns out that) she is very strong. I think (she’s been successful) because we gave her the chance and a gentle nudge.
Best attributes for the front of the house?
My focus this year is the point of “yes” – to say “yes” (within reason) and make our guests happy. (Our customers) should be able to trust us to take care of them and when I hear a “no”, we have failed them.
Service is tough now. It seems I am running into employees who want to have power struggles with the guests: “No, we can’t, that table’s taken.” I can’t understand that. We are problem-solvers. We are here to make it better for our guests.
That is my biggest challenge in training the front of the house. I am thinking this is because they don’t realize the impact of tone and body language. I spend a lot of time teaching tone.
I need people who are observant of micro-expressions – someone who can scan a room and fix a service issue before it happens, someone who will see someone squirming in their seat and ask them if their table is okay or if they’d rather move. (People who are) finely tuned to another persons’ comfort or discomfort, and they want to please. I can’t teach this, I know it when I see it but it’s hard to teach someone else to see.
Best attributes for the back of the house?
Kitchens are (where you find) the last of the cowboys. It’s tough, hot work. Lots of testosterone and you can sweat off 5 pounds in a night, but then you can enjoy the pride of battle, making it through a rough night… the visceral joy of knowing that we battled and we won.
I look for someone quiet who looks me in the eye, has a fidgeting tensile strength.
I’m suspect of applicants who present a list of demands right off the bat and want big salary up front because they are so confident in their ability. A good person will take a low position because they know you will see their talent, promote them quickly and give them a raise.
I don’t look to make one person the most important hire. I put together a kitchen team and it’s like a good basketball team – the personalities and skills have to support each other: a good technician who sees pull dates, or someone who makes sure we have great stock; a verbally light person who keeps folks happy, and a quiet workhorse who pitches in who gets huge amounts done without saying anything.
Guilty pleasures food/drink/music?
Really? I have so many for food. I love popcorn with Callebaut dark chocolate and a good German Riesling. That’s my at-home movie splurge, that salty–sweet combination with the high acidity of the Riesling.
Music? Abba. It’s fantastic clean-the-house music.
You’ve talked about the word origin of “restaurant” as if it was a mission statement.
The word showed up just after the French Revolution when a lot of chefs were out of jobs (the Revolution inconveniently killing, profoundly demoting or expelling from the country the people who could afford to employ chefs). The guilds controlled food production at the time and a chef wanted to create a soup stand for hungry travelers. He had to get a variation from the guilds to do it, and he called it “la restauration” which translates to “restoration”. Isn’t that cool, and so true?
I believe if you’ve had a stressful day and you get a good meal in you it hits your comfort button. You can relax, recharge and head back out to do it again. And it’s right here (uses both hands to frame her belly). It relaxes you and it makes you happy. If we do our job right, I think we really can restore the souls of the weary, which is pretty important work, I think.
Postscript, regarding the final gallery image above:
After talking with Lydia, we walked back to her car. She flung open the trunk and produced mini cannoli shells and a pastry bag. There, in the parking lot, she piped the shells with orange zest and dark chocolate -flecked mascarpone, grinning as she thrust them at me, imploring, “Take these – they’re delicious”.