Where do great chefs come from? Hyperactive press and TV competitions present a fetishized vision of mystical culinary gods and goddesses who spring, fully formed, from the ether. But the reality, especially in Portland, is a bit more familial. Most of the time, talented chefs emerge from years of sweating it out on the line in busy kitchens, cultivating their gastronomic leanings (and mopping floors, and managing food costs) with nary a tweet or TV spot to their name. “It’s time people found out that there are troops of able and talented cooks that make us chefs look good,” says James Beard Award–winning chef Vitaly Paley.
Curious to discover under-the-radar wunderkinds searing and chopping their way to standout
status, we asked a few local luminaries to turn the spotlight on the hardworking line cooks and pastry chefs who are still honing their skills but already shimmer with unique talent and drive. Answers were uniformly zealous, and ran the gamut from an iconoclastic pop-up dinner duo and a budget-minded preservationist to a local master of Cuban cuisine. One thing is clear: Portland’s future is shaping up to be a deliciously eclectic feast.
Read on to whet your appetite.
Pablo Portilla | Age: 40 | Hometown: Houston, Texas
“When I moved to Portland I decided I’d go to beauty school, be a cop, or go to Oregon Culinary Institute,” says Pablo Portilla. “I think I made the right choice.” Over the past 10 years, the baby-faced Texan has boiled crawfish on SE 82nd Avenue and sliced onions at the world-renowned Bouchon for Thomas Keller (a Napa Valley externship he describes as “the most intense three months of my life”). But it was the short stint in 2010 running his yellow food cart, Havana Café, that garnered him the most fans.
At that little Richmond neighborhood kitchen, the always-smiling chef stewed up the authentic fare he ate at his Cuban grandmother’s dinner table, from oxtails and pressed sandwiches to vinegary, pressure-cooked ropa vieja. He shuttered the cart less than a year later to tend to family issues in Houston, but admirers of his meaty eats continued to lobby for Portilla’s return to the kitchen.
“He’s a renaissance man of the restaurant world,” says Mi Mero Mole owner Nick Zukin, who hired Portilla two years ago to run his own überauthentic Mexican joint, where Portilla’s two sons now work as well. Zukin trusts him so much, he made him a part owner of MMM’s second location, which will debut in Old Town in late 2013. We’re first in line for whatever these two cook up next.
• PABLO’S Résumé: Manager at Mi Mero Mole; chef-owner of Havana Café food cart; prep cook at Toro Bravo; chef/server/bartender at My Brother’s Crawfish
• Biggest Fan: “He’s a fantastic Cuban cook,” says Janis Martin, owner of Montavilla’s cult Japanese bar Tanuki, where Portilla is a regular. “Everything he makes is done with skill and with soul and, on top of that, he’s got an even temper, a charming demeanor, and great level-headed management skills. This is the guy who’s going to make Portlanders aware that Cuban food is more than a sandwich.”
• Signature Dish: Speaking of that sandwich, though, it’s exactly what a Cuban ought to be: juicy garlic, lime and olive oil–dressed roasted pork, Virginia smoked ham, swiss cheese, and bread-and-butter pickles slicked with yellow mustard, all layered inside An Xuyen bread, pressed until crispy and hot. Served with steaming, golden tostones and Portilla’s fruity, deeply warming guava-pineapple ghost chile pepper sauce, it creates the perfect marriage of crunch and chew in every sweet, meaty, briny bite.
• Source Material: Portilla remembers watching Julia Child cook on PBS. “I made her coq au vin to impress my [girlfriend] when I was 15 years old,” he says. “I didn’t even know how to pronounce it, but it was good.”