Since striking Portland’s food scene like a thunder bolt in 2006, Le Pigeon's Gabriel Rucker has defined the playful attitude and risk-taking cuisine that firmly planted a place called “Stumptown” on the gastronomic map.
Along the way, he’s built a cult of local eaters, food-loving tourists, “I’ve seen it all” national critics, and James Beard judges.
On Monday, Rucker won the James Beard Foundation’s award for Best Chef: Northwest 2013, besting a worthy field of competitors: Portland’s three-time nominee Naomi Pomeroy (Beast) and five-time nominee Cathy Whims (Nostrana) and Seattle’s Ethan Stowell (Staple & Fancy) and Jason Franey (Canlis).
This week's award is an impressive sequel to Rucker’s title as the James Beard Foundation Rising Star Chef 2011, one of the national competition's most coveted accolades aimed at hot-shots under 30.
When I called during last night’s gala dinner in New York City to catch him after his win, Rucker sounded typically unruffled but also a little shell-shocked. “Can I call you back? I’m cooking for 1,000 people,” Rucker shouted over a din louder than a jet plane. Hours later, the man who looked like a golfer at the podium (having left his tux and expectations at home) shared his thoughts on the evening:
What was your first thought when you heard your name announced?
I really wasn’t counting on it. To say I was blown away is an understatement. It was a ‘holy shit’ moment. I was kind of shaking on my way to the stage—I hadn’t planned anything, I had to improvise. Fortunately, I remembered to thank my wife.
How’d that dinner for 1,000 people go? Did your buffalo hearts win any hearts?
The dish went over really well. It’s on our menu at Le Pigeon right now—acorn flour crepes, buffalo hearts, and huitlacoche (corn smut) vinaigrette.
Acorn flour? Did you pry the secret source from Kingdom of Roosevelt’s Eric Berchard? He gets it from a woman in Southern Oregon and guards her name like the Da Vinci code.
Yes, Eric got it for me. It was very, very sweet of him.
Rising Star Chef. Best Chef Northwest. A major cookbook (Le Pigeon: Cooking at The Dirty Bird) dropping in September. You’re flying at the top of your game. What’s next for Gabriel Rucker? My second child is due five days after the book comes out. Nothing is more important to me. That’s what next. Having a daughter. Figuring that out. Being a dad.
You could cook anywhere. Will you stay or will you go? Does the holy grail of New York call? Absolutely not. I love Portland. My friends, my family, my place.
How are you celebrating tonight? No wild parties for me. Things really have changed! Just doing what I want to do: going out for a steak with Andy (Fortgang) and Eric (Van Kley). The only surprise is that I get to pick the Champagne. It will be a really good bottle.