Chefs don’t just appear from another planet with knives and whisks in their hands. While some may argue that point, someone had to put them there. In most cases it was Mom.
I decided to check in with some of Portland’s best restaurateurs’/chefs’ moms to go a little deeper into these chefs’ histories than most bios and resumes would normally allow us to see. After reading these, your experience may be a bit richer next time you visit one of these chef’s unique restaurants. Tell them their mother sent you.
Sharon Israel-Roiz, mother of Chef Christopher Israel of Grüner and Kask
Then: We always had good meals even if they weren’t gourmet. I think he started cooking around 10. I worked and he would want to be in the kitchen making something—in the beginning, cooking eggs. We went through many food periods: Italian, French, Mexican—baking bread, desserts, etc. Our meals were uncomplicated when he was young and I was divorced and working. Then when I married my second husband, it was family style. I made a lot of stews, goulashes, spaghetti, tacos. We always had steak and eggs on Sunday morning. His first menu was stuffed hamburger patties, salad and a Jell-O parfait.
Now: I am really proud of him. He always accomplishes what he sets out to do. With his art history degree, his love for food was a natural pairing. He always worked in restaurants while he was going college. His perfectionism shows in his cooking and in the ambiance of the restaurants he has been in charge of or owned.
I love everything Christopher makes, but I think my favorite is duck. He makes amazing soups. He has an extraordinary palate.
Karen Taplin, mother of Michelle and Elias Cairo of Olympic Provisions
Then: They really didn’t have a choice to be involved with food because my husband and I had restaurants and loved to cook. We would take them to our Greek/American diner and they always wanted to work rather than hang out in a booth. Michelle would grab a book of guest checks and follow me around hoping I would let her take orders, and Elias would head in the back to help his dad punch fries.
We are Greek, so mealtime always has been a big deal in our home. My husband moved from a farm. Being a goat herder in Greece in his late 20s, he brought the old country to Utah where my kids were raised. We had a huge garden, chickens, ducks, goats, and beehives—we used it all to feed our family. My husband always loved to cook the meat and breakfast, and I always made homemade breads, stews, and Greek food. We always had fresh pastries, breads, and cheeses out for them at all times so they would never be hungry.
Now: I am so proud of all of my children. After Elias came back from his charcuterie apprenticeship in Switzerland he talked with Michelle about creating a salumeria in Portland. At that time, Michelle was just named CFO of the Year for the Portland Business Journal and she left to help create OP. They complement each other beautifully (he has the creative and she has the business).
Eli always reminds me of his father. His Sweetheart Ham is AMAZING. I could eat it every day. I love his Saucisson Sec and Sopressata. I work farmers markets, and it is so fun when people from France or Italy come and try Eli’s salami and they say it takes them back home!
Sarah Bowers, mother of Chef Johanna Ware of Smallwares & Barwares
Then: I was born and raised in southeast Iowa on the Mississippi River. Johanna was raised in the Chicago suburbs—the Midwest. Regional influences meant catfish, pork, Nauvoo and Maytag blue cheese, sweet corn, perfectly grilled steaks/meats, home-grown tomatoes, potluck dinners. My maternal grandmother was from the South—so add okra, spoonbread, grits, rice pancakes, grape jam and snow ice cream. We ate family sit-down as often as possible—placemats, flowers, salad forks—even if we were having hamburgers. I served fresh green salads and fresh vegetables and diverse main courses—everything from fajitas, goulash (my version), eggs benedict, “unburgers” with homemade potato chips, grilled butterflied leg of lamb, homemade pizza, stuffed chicken breast to grilled whole turkey (year round).
At a very early age, Johanna and her siblings knew how and what to order from a menu. Jo was 6 when she ordered escargot in a restaurant on St. Maarten. Even the waiter was impressed.
Now: I deeply respect the career she has chosen. I knew she do would something in the arts—visual, literary, performing, or culinary. It’s in her blood. Some of my favorites that she serves at Smallwares are dashi poached egg, raw kale and apple salad, porcini mushrooms with walnut puree, Dungeness crab, halibut, oxtail curry.