CHEF OF THE YEAR

AFTER SELLING HIS SHARES in both Simpatica, the incredibly popular catering company and supper club in Southeast Portland, and Viande Meats & Sausage in Nob Hill’s City Market, seasoned chef JOHN GORHAM set out to invigorate the Spanish food scene in Portland. After a trip to Catalonia early this year, Gorham opened Toro Bravo (see p. 96) in a dramatic red-walled dining room just off NE MLK Jr Blvd, and since Toro Bravo’s debut, he’s managed to redefine tapas in our city. Using the freshest ingredients that the Pacific Northwest has to offer, Gorham reinterprets such Spanish classics as paella, tortilla Española and papas bravas, and throws in more eclectic dishes like smoked pork shoulder with heirloom tomatoes or a sherried chicken-liver mousse. In doing so, he simultaneously draws upon the signature down-home, urban-rustic flair that he’s cultivated by cooking in restaurants as far away as Ghana and North Carolina and as close by as San Francisco and Eugene. We’re just lucky he finally ended up here.

You’ve described your restaurant as serving “Spanish-inspired” tapas. Why not just call it a Spanish
restaurant?

Because I’m not Spanish, and I don’t want anyone to think that I’m trying to replicate an experience they had in Spain. One thing I learned in Berkeley, when I helped Jean-Pierre Moulle [former executive chef of Chez Panisse] open Caffe Centro, was to take your local ingredients and try to cook the way a person from another region would cook if they were transplanted to your region.

But you did go to Spain to do research before opening Toro Bravo, right? How long were you there?

Just a week.

Was it your first time?

Yes. My wife and I just stayed in Barcelona. We ate 10 meals a day for seven days straight.

Were there any restaurants there that blew you away?

Cal Pep was phenomenal—it was tapas, but it wasn’t everyone else’s tapas. There was a frito mixto with sardines, langoustines, anchovies and calamari that was just so simple. There was also a place in the Boqueria market where we got the inspiration for our eggplant with sweet pepper lamb ragout. We went to Con Costa, right on the water, which is famous for its paella and fideo [paella made with noodles].

How long did it take you to perfect your paella and fideo?

I’ve been passionate about paella for a long time, so the one I do now, I’ve done for many years. But I think I made the fideo 50 times at home before it worked.

If you’d never been to Spain before last year, how did you get the idea to open a Spanish restaurant?

I started thinking about it when I was working in the Bay Area in 1999. I was friends with Chris Rossi, who opened À Côté, a French tapas-style restaurant, and saw how much fun it was. Last year, for Simpatica’s supper club, I started playing around with tapas dinners—and they were a hit.

That might explain why you’ve had such a loyal following since opening Toro Bravo.

Something we did on purpose was keep our reasonable price point. We wanted to give people really good food for way less than you can get at other restaurants and to give them a new experience.

What ingredients have you been working with these days that you’re excited about?

I’m getting ready to case a bunch of boudins blancs [white sausages], and we’ll serve those with braised cabbage and chanterelles. As we get more comfortable, we’re pushing the charcuterie further.

What was your first restaurant job?

When I was 14, I worked as a dishwasher at a Mexican restaurant in Savannah, Ga. During the interview, I told the owner that I wanted to be a chef. Then I got a job putting pigs on a barbecue pit in Greenville, NC. When we moved to Virginia, I enrolled in a culinary program in high school.

So, your family moved a lot?

My dad was a corporate manager for the Kroger grocery chain in the Southeast. He’d move us around and open and close and remodel stores from Virginia to the Florida border.

Did you eat out a lot as a family?

A lot. Family-style restaurants, mostly. When we lived in Savannah and Myrtle Beach, SC, there was a lot of good seafood, and my parents loved that, so we went to fish houses.

Which Portland chefs have influenced you over the years?

Definitely Vitaly Paley. We’re really good friends. My wife was the floor manager there for four years. When I first came here in 2000 and started working for Fratelli, and then Tuscany Grill, Vitaly set me up with a lot of the farmers he used.

Paley’s Place was recently featured in yet another article about Portland’s food scene in the New York Times. Why do you think that newspaper loves Portland so much?

It’s funny. A lot of New York chefs I’ve cooked with miss that heart-and-soul of cooking that Portland has. We’re not trying to make it something that it’s not. It’s rustic.

Your restaurant is definitely rustic. Are you interested at all in doing anything fancier down the road?

No. I am who I am. I like working with farmers. I’ve always been a purist. I don’t like tweaking things out. Combinations go together for a reason. I’m at a point in my life where I’m kind of done playing with food.