Born to a pair of haitian immigrants in Queens, Gourdet says spice and heat are his first food memories. “There was always a jar of pickled Scotch bonnet peppers on the table when I was a kid,” he says. Playful notes of hot, sweet, and sour remain a hallmark of his cooking, making for dishes that look modern and elegant on the plate but detonate like wild flavor pyrotechnics on contact with your tongue. The unassuming sweet mayo hiding under his crisp-edged scallop, pork, and shrimp pancakes is pumped up with puckery vinegar powder and pickled shallot juice. His standout pork belly is the product of a two-day kitchen affair: grilled, marinated in hot sugar ginger chile sauce, cooked sous vide for 24 hours, pressed into blocks overnight, and then flash-fried crispy. It’s paired with good olive oil and blush-colored orbs—addictive jalapeño-pickled cherries. Each meaty cube dissolves in your mouth, leaving the flavors of creamy fat, spicy-sweet crystallized ginger, and nutty pepitas behind. If you don’t like the burn, don’t bother sitting down—Gourdet even sneaks chiles into desserts. The spiced tapioca cup layers chewy pearls with shards of coconut ice, cilantro-mandarin sauce, and cubes of fiery Thai chile–laced pineapple, all sprinkled with Oregon’s own Jacobsen salt.
Gourdet honed his culinary style during six years working for Jean-Georges Vongerichten in Manhattan in the early 2000s, an era when the influential chef’s constellation of French- and Asian-tinged restaurants was setting the New York dining scene afire. But Gourdet says he gets his work ethic from his parents, who managed hospital chemistry labs while he was growing up. With the help of scholarships and financial aid, they sent their son to a Delaware boarding school. “Have you ever seen Dead Poets Society? That’s my high school,” he says. He tried on premed at NYU and wildlife biology at the University of Montana. “I realized I wasn’t that outdoorsy,” he laughs. In the Big Sky State, he caught the food bug, working at a vegetarian sandwich shop and a high-end bistro to pay rent.
After graduation (he ended up with a BA in French), he applied to the Culinary Institute of America in New York. “It just clicked,” he remembers. Two years later he was on the line at both Jean-Georges and its café Nougatine in the Trump Hotel & Tower. He steadily moved up through the ranks, station by station, until he became chef de cuisine of the restaurateur’s high-end Asian spot, Restaurant 66. He says it was 66’s staff of “real Chinese guys” who taught him how to use a wok and prepare dishes like the succulent, “extremely labor intensive” Peking duck that sells out at Departure every December.
But New York taught Gourdet much harder lessons, too.
In the mornings, before he bikes downtown to start his shift at Departure, Gourdet can be found running trails in Forest Park or heaving iron and climbing ropes at the cavernous training gym CrossFit Portland. As he strains to perform a series of complex moves with a barbell, over and over again, he still manages to look a bit the dandy, in a teal T-shirt and tall black athletic socks. “I hate lifting weights,” he admits after class, a bit preoccupied with the high number of RSVPs that are coming in for Salon (300 and counting so far). But weight lifting, along with a battery of other physical challenges, keeps him fit, lean, and, most important, centered. It wasn’t always this way. Gourdet claims Portlanders wouldn’t recognize the New York chef he once was: “They’d be, like, who is this chubby asshole smoking cigarettes and yelling at me?” he says, with a nervous titter. “I was really irresponsible and careless.”
That’s Gourdet’s shorthand for his seven-year battle with cocaine and alcohol. Born in part from late nights with his NYC kitchen crews, it’s a story that plenty of line cooks and bartenders would recognize. “I was party-party-party. Mr. Popular. I spent all my money as soon as I got my paycheck,” Gourdet says. “It led to falling-outs with friends, bad relationships.” He points to the long, faint scar between his right thumb and index finger. “I grabbed a hot pan full of hot oil,” he says. “I was half asleep.”
Gourdet went to rehab in the summer of 2007. One month later, after a move to San Diego, he started binge drinking. “I got in a car accident. I got arrested a couple of times for public drunkenness,” he lists. He moved again in 2008, this time to Portland to take a job as chef de cuisine at the then-new Nines hotel’s Urban Farmer restaurant, a few floors below Departure. He left four months later, not ready to commit to the structured lifestyle a big hotel operation demands. He ended up running the kitchen at Bruce Carey’s swanky downtown cocktail bar Saucebox instead. “I wouldn’t drink for a week, and then I’d go to my friend’s bar and we’d stay up until 8 a.m. drinking and doing coke and smoking pot,” he remembers. “I had this person in my head that I wanted to be, and this wasn’t it.” He eventually tried AA at the urging of a fellow chef. It worked. “That was four years ago in March. Done deal.”
Greg has a lot of patience. He doesn’t lose his cool. I mean, you don’t want to let the guy down. It’s an effective management strategy.
—Nick Schultz, Sous-Chef
Gourdet ran his first marathon seven months later, replacing his booze binges with workouts—and, he laughs, the occasional drag dance party in his living room. He’s still pushing his limits (still staying up all night, still overextending himself), but now it’s to train, not to attend the after-after-party. He’s competed in eight marathons since 2009 and is planning to run four more this spring, including a 50-kilometer ultramarathon in Winthrop, Washington, in May.
In 2010, Departure’s owners, Sage Restaurant Group, began scouting for a chef. The company’s corporate chef remembered Gourdet from Urban Farmer and sought him out. Offered another chance to helm his own big, New York–style hotel restaurant, this time Gourdet leapt at it. Since then, opportunities to run his own smaller operation have come up, but he’s declined. “I like excitement and things on a much grander scale,” he admits. “I want to see what Departure turns into in the years to come. I want longevity and focus. I want to be something people can count on.”
He pulls down the collar of his white chef’s jacket to reveal a wide arc of cursive letters tattooed across both of his collarbones. Borrowed from Shakespeare, it’s one of AA’s mottos: “To Thine Own Self Be True.” A big rose blooms in the middle of the inscription, right on his sternum. “I know,” he says, half embarrassed, half proud. “It’s very Portland.”