chef gregory gourdet is stuffing his face with vegan ice cream sandwiches. Four hours ago, the mohawked beanpole was lifting weights in a chilly Northeast Portland gym; 36 hours ago he was running 12 miles up the side of Mount Tabor; 12 days ago he was trading recipes in Austin, Texas, with two dozen of the nation’s rising chefs; three weeks ago he was dancing through the Caribbean on an electronic music party cruise. “I tend to overdo things, good and bad,” he says.
But, at this moment, 48 hours before he’s slated to feed more than 300 of the city’s food world insiders at the third annual party he calls simply “Salon 3.0,” the chef de cuisine of downtown’s sky-high Asian restaurant and lounge Departure stands, however briefly, in one place. There’s the messy job at hand of cramming a melty gob of coconut–cashew brittle ice cream smooshed between two miso-butterscotch cookies into his maw. He nods thoughtfully as he chews. “Can you add more miso?” he asks one of his chefs, giving the sandwich a thumbs-up to be served at Salon before making another one disappear. “I have a huge sweet tooth,” he mumbles. “Huge. Huge.”
Gourdet, 37, wants more, constantly—blasting away his limits physically, socially, and gastronomically while freely challenging the city’s idea of what makes a Portland restaurant and chef, well, “Portland.”
When the soft-spoken New York native took over the Nines hotel’s astro-sleek 15th-floor restaurant in 2010, it was better known for its hard-partying bridge-and-tunnel singles scene than for its eats. In three years, he’s turned the dining room into a lively hub for creative, pan-Asian cuisine, a spot where Oregon’s produce, meats, and seafood are transmuted into bold yet comforting dishes that sizzle and pop with the big, bright flavors of chile, lime, and ginger. Visiting the restaurant is an expensive but giddy-making surprise: it’s as if you went into a dressing room to try on a pair of gaudy Ed Hardy jeans and came out clad in an Armani suit.
Like Roe’s micro-luxe seafood operation or Castagna’s modern experiments on the “dish” and “meal,” Gourdet’s big city–style kitchen is restlessly challenging the trope that Oregon’s bounty speaks best for itself. “I think we can do more interesting things with the amazing ingredients that we have,” he says. “I enjoy eating a roasted beet salad, but I need a little bit ... more. I want to keep pushing to make food that keeps you awake.”
Beyond the food, Gourdet himself has become a Portland restaurant community touchstone. Plenty of chefs champion local farms and food-related small businesses. Gourdet is a booster for everyone else, too, the kind of guy who also organizes fitness challenges for his fellow chefs on Facebook and throws free parties to celebrate the whole scene—chefs, servers, food vendors, and other insiders. “They’re ridiculous. Nobody does that kind of thing,” says St. Jack chef-owner Aaron Barnett, who first met Gourdet in 2008. “He works his ass off.... He goes out of his way to try actively to be Julie from The Love Boat and get everybody together to hang out. He’s becoming the cruise director of Portland food.”
“I just think it’s important to connect,” says Gourdet of all his parties, farm visits, Bikram yoga dates, tweets, and Facebook posts. One of his New Year’s resolutions was to get at least six hours of sleep a night. “I’m already fucking that up,” he says.
It’s as if he is addicted to Portland. And Gregory Gourdet knows what addiction is.
Charcoal hair standing in a tall, square-cut tuft with a blond wisp running through it, eyeglasses as big as a teacups, and—when he’s not clad in his chef whites—maybe a bow tie or a pair of studded motorcycle boots, Gourdet makes the average mustachioed Portland hipster look like a West Burnside hobo. And he cooks like he looks.
From 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. most days, he camps in the kitchen at Departure, orchestrating the movements of more than a dozen chefs, from a sextet of prep cooks snipping the tips off 500 chicken wings to six to 10 line cooks (depending on the season) and a pair of trusted sous-chefs. On this Friday afternoon, they are all busy preparing for dinner service and simultaneously prepping 21 separate dishes for Sunday’s Salon 3.0, from yuzu gel–laced kampachi nigiri to fiery chicken adobo. Still, his kitchen is calm and remarkably quiet, a symphony of rocking knives, clinking dishware, and clanking pots. Gourdet may never miss a party, but he’s all business during work hours.
When you go to Departure, it’s like, ‘Hey, am I on a spaceship?’ But when the food comes out you don’t really care. Because it’s all about the food. —Vitaly Paley, Paley’s Place
In between tasting cookies and holding powwows with his team, he’s whipping up an omelet for himself that’s bursting with smoky red chiles, spinach, red onions, and garlic. “I’m very much a line cook at heart,” he tells me, drizzling a puckery soy vinaigrette spiked with fish sauce and lemongrass on top. “I’ve had to learn to delegate. I have faith in my chefs.” He needs to: with 150 seats, Departure has one of the biggest dining rooms in Portland. The fast-paced kitchen serves up to 400 people a weekend night during the busy summer season—that number can skyrocket to 800 when you count bar patrons and revelers sipping cocktails and posing for photos on Departure’s mod, cruise ship–style patios.
With its angular architecture, glowing Tron-like entrance, and dramatic view of the city, Departure feels airlifted from Las Vegas, impossibly out of place in a town in love with wood-fired ovens, exposed beams, and casual nights out. But Gourdet grounds it firmly in Oregon ingredients, from the Carlton Farms pork belly braising in a pair of giant sous vide machines to the DeNoble’s Farm kale for the roasted squash and goji berry salad. The kitchen’s pantry shelves are packed with local nuts and seeds. Last summer, the staff juiced and froze three cases of Mountain Rose apples during the three-week window when the rare Hood River fruit was available. They used it to sweeten fall sorbets. “I have a little, secret desire to be a farmer,” Gourdet admits.
His crew revels in the kind of labor-intensive techniques and personal touches you often find at boutique, chef-driven spots around town, from making their own spicy XO sauce and Thai sausage to dehydrating Oregon shrimp for a fiery fried rice. The cooking—and, of course, his eccentric, flamboyant personal style—earned Gourdet a spot on Food Network’s loopy Extreme Chef in 2011, where he jumped hay bales and ran through a dust storm before preparing dishes for a panel of judges. He won top honors at the Great American Seafood Cook-Off in New Orleans in 2012, snatching victory from a field of 16 chefs from across the nation with a slow-cooked Oregon chinook salmon with bacon dashi and pickled porcini. This year, the Oregon Department of Agriculture named him Chef of the Year (“I was touched,” he says of the state’s somewhat nerdy honor. “I totally cried when I got the news.”). He also won Eater Portland’s “Hottest Chef 2012” award—a title that just makes him giggle.
Cooks of my generation didn’t see celebrity chefs doing crazy shit on TV and want to be cooks. We fell in love with the discipline and the art of cooking.... We learned quietly.
Thus far, the James Beard nominations and New York Times stories that have vaulted some of the city’s tiny, chef-owned eateries to American dining’s top echelons have yet to “discover” Gourdet. It may take a while. Portland is a city that loves (and is beloved for) its plucky, shoestring operations and gutsy, gluttonous dishes. A glitzy hotel restaurant bankrolled by out-of-towners doesn’t fit that mold, regardless of how many meringues its chef whips up from foraged Oregon-coast seaweed. But Gourdet’s not worried. “We’re not at the top of the list for classic Portland restaurants yet. The older foodie generation references Beast and Le Pigeon and Pok Pok. I think a younger generation will reference Departure.”
Famed Pok Pok owner and James Beard Award winner Andy Ricker agrees: “I really feel like the food at Departure is some of the most undersung in the Portland milieu,” he gushes via e-mail from Thailand. “[Gregory’s] a fiercely creative chef and is making food that is as decidedly ‘un-Portland’ as the restaurant he does it in ... which of course makes the whole thing soooo Portland.”