I have yet to have a conversation with Johanna Ware where I don’t see her chef wheels turning as we speak. It’s as though she is permanently wired to her love of creating amazing dishes in her kitchen.
Two years ago, Ware opened Smallwares and for all intents and purposes, to this day she hasn’t taken a day off from her restaurant that is open seven days a week.
Smallwares is on the ground floor of a building on Fremont that still has a “For Lease” sign on the second floor. Before she opened Smallwares, a former Fremont street chef stopped by to warn her that her Beaumont neighborhood wouldn’t support her. Not fazed a bit, Ware opened her modern, mostly white and red restaurant and a bar with a laid back, cool vibe. Within weeks of opening, I noticed emphatic tweets and posts from some of Portland’s most respected chefs touting the virtues of Ware’s “inauthentic Asian” cuisine. They just kept coming so I decided to go see for myself.
The experience at Smallwares is unlike anything else in a city surely not devoid of unique food adventures. Read the menu. Yes, there are the ingredients, but it’s almost impossible to imagine what some of the dishes are like by just reading them. Tasting Ware’s creations are full of realizations that there’s a true flavor artist at work in the kitchen. And she’s been lauded for that skill. When a young chef with her name on the front door garners both Chef of the Year and Runner up for Restaurant of the Year in a city like Portland in her first two years, watch out. We’ve just begun to hear about Chef Ware.
(Without compromising content, this interview has been edited for clarity and brevity. Hear more—audio version—Episode 11 at rightatthefork.com)
You’re in year two at Smallwares. Things have gone really well. You’ve gotten a lot of accolades. What have you learned in two years?
Everything. My whole life has changed. I’m trying to learn to give up a little control. It’s really hard. I feel like I do everything, and it’s hard to give it up.
Why is that? Are you a control freak?
No, I think it’s because I had to do it by myself. Writing the checks, doing the money. I had to learn all that. I’ve just been in the kitchen my whole life. So I hadn’t really seen that other side of it. It’s hard to find management in Portland.
You’ve garnered a lot of positive feedback. Did you anticipate going in that you were as good as you are, going into Smallwares?
No. Not at all. I had no idea. I had never done my own food. I had always been a sous chef. I had never been the head chef of a restaurant. I had never totally done my own cuisine. I thought it was something a little different that I hadn’t seen in Portland, but I had no clue.
Did you think there was a possibility that people wouldn’t accept “inauthentic Asian” cuisine, and do you think it helped to label your food that? Did you do that so people wouldn’t hold you to a certain Asian standard?
Everyone kept saying you need two words to describe your cuisine. That took a long time actually to just get that… I don’t want to say Asian Fusion. People seem to hate that word now. But that’s really what it is. I don’t want someone to think that my kimchi is some Korean mother’s recipe. It’s different. It’s sweeter. It’s a different kind of kimchi.
I read the other day that Carrie Brownstein is a big fan of yours.
She is. She’s in a lot when she’s in town.
How does that make you feel that she embodies Portland for the rest of the country, and she’s a regular?
I like any regular. It’s kind of very New York, to eat out every night. Our regulars at Momofuku would be there five nights a week, and I was like, “Do you ever eat at home?”
What percentage of your business is regulars?
Not a huge percentage actually. Especially because it’s kind of hard to get to. I look at our reservation system and there are a lot of first-time diners still. I know that in year one when we were really struggling, I thought everyone would have had to have eaten here, but you forget that you’ve only reached like only one percent of Portland.
You spent some time with Cathy Whims at Nostrana. What did you learn most with her?
She helped introduce me to farmers. It was my introduction back into Portland. I hadn’t been here in eight years so I wanted to connect with someone who had a connection to Portland, and Cathy was definitely on my radar.
When you started working for Cathy did you have in mind that wanted to open Smallwares?
Yeah, when I moved back here I knew I wanted to open a restaurant. That was my main goal.
You were pretty young.
I always think I could have kept cooking for a while. Maybe staged at some cool restaurants around the world. In my family, we like to run our own businesses and like to work for ourselves. I could have probably cooked for 10 years in other restaurants and learned something new in every one of them.
What was the coolest thing that happened to you in New York?
Everything that happened was important. I ate so much food I had never had. I was introduced to Korean food and different types of Chinese food and Indian. Things I had never experienced living in a white suburban Midwestern town where I grew up. I knew a lot about food, but it opened my eyes to everything. Every ingredient I used, every restaurant that I ate at, every cook that I met… I wouldn’t be where I am here without that experience. We ate Chinese food and went out for sushi and stuff as kids. My mom was really into food.
They did. And we would go downtown. And we would eat at a lot of the restaurants in Chicago. My first restaurant, Public, I really learned about Middle Eastern and Indian and obviously Australian food. At Momo I learned about Korean and a whole other world beyond sushi and tempura. Japanese culture is a lot more than that obviously, so I really kind of delved deep into that kind of food.
Let’s talk about your mother. She was an important part of your food upbringing. What are your vivid memories as a child?
She would make incredible steak. With creamed spinach and mashed potatoes. I remember telling her to cook mine longer cause she made them medium rare, but now obviously I’ve changed my ways. She cooked a lot. I love her fajitas. Amazing cookies. She cooked dinner every night. She cooked breakfast every morning. We sat around the table and ate and had family dinners. It was just really important.
Did you go out a lot as a kid?
We definitely had some really awesome food experiences. We went to Charlie Trotters when I was like 16. Her friend knew Charlie Trotter, so they did a tasting menu for us. My mom and I still talk about it. It was like 20 courses. And then they took us back to the kitchen. It was crazy.
Is that the moment that you thought “I really like this?”
It was around my junior year in high school when I was going to go to college that I got my first guide to culinary schools. I was going to go to culinary school out of high school, but just decided to go to college first, which I’m glad I did.
What did you major in?
What does that have to do with food? Did you have other thoughts in your mind?
I did as many creative writing classes as I could. I was in this creative writing program there at of U of O. Writing would be something I could do if I wasn’t in cooking. At some point I’d like to do some food writing. It’s not like I wasted my college career.
What does your mom particularly love about Smallwares when she comes to visit?
I usually try to feed her everything that’s on the menu because she’ll stay for about a week and come in every night. She usually loves the fish dishes like the halibut. She loves the raw. All the sashimi that I do. She likes it all. She’s a good critic. Sometimes she’ll critique a dish and I’ll get angry about it. She’s probably right.
Are you open? You get angry about it, but everyone doesn’t like the same thing…
I overdressed the salad once. And she made really fancy salads every night and taught me not to overdress the salad. And I served her a salad that was overdressed, and she definitely told me that it wilts the greens. It’s a rookie mistake especially to do to your mother in your own restaurant.
We change the menu a lot. I get more bored of a dish and then want to change it before I think about a new dish. It depends, I just had to go back to Chicago and I had eight hours total of plane ride and finally got to sit and read some food magazines and take notes, and when I eat out to dinner at a new restaurant that’s similar to my cuisine, I take notes and it kind of develops through there. Or if a certain fish is available, it all depends.
If you were cooking for the president tomorrow, what would you make him?
Oh my God. I really like hanger steak. We almost always have it on the menu. We have a really awesome Korean BBQ marinade and it’s fool-proof. It’s delicious. I can put it with anything and it sells.
You have some great cocktails over there. What drink would you serve him?
Probably some great wine. I am really going through a wine renaissance right now. Our front of the house manager (Sarah Egeland) has an amazing palate. And being a cook, I never really got involved in the beverage side of the restaurant. Maybe at lineup I’d run out and show them the special and I’d get a taste of the wine they were putting on the menu. It’s been a really big part of the experience for me—to be part of the beer and the wine list and help develop the cocktails. She’s teaching me a lot about wine and I’m feeling like I’m learning more than I ever have, and enjoying these funky oxidized unfiltered barnyardy wines that are a great discovery for me.
What kind of boss are you?
I’m strict. But I’m also really generous and we have a really good time. I am a very sarcastic, humorous person and we spend a lot of our day laughing. You have to have a thick skin.
As a single parent, I learned that sarcasm was a good way to go, because you don’t feel you’re nagging as much.
If you’re sensitive you shouldn’t work for me. I’m pretty harsh and I like to joke around and we make fun of each other all the time. It’s like we’re older brothers. It’s like a middle school boys’ locker room if you work in a kitchen.
It took you a while to do events, but I see you’re doing more and more.
I’m trying to do it. It’s hard. Truthfully I don’t love events. I don’t feel like I put out my best food. I’ve never really done catering, so to do a thousand bites of something is overwhelming to me. For the first few events, I did room temp octopus salad. I am not really an ego-driven chef. I still really have a lot of doubts. I feel like I just have to find a few staple good event dishes.
It’s hard. It’s a really great opportunity. The first few events we did, it was like “Smallwares, what is this? What is this food? Octopus?” It hurt almost. But now I feel when I go to events people are like “Oh, I know Smallwares! I eat there! Thank God. It’s hard, but you still are reaching a ton of people so they’re important events.
What are you digging in Portland?
I still go back to Nostrana. The last few places I went where like Ava Gene’s, St. Jack, Little Bird, because I want something totally different like chicken liver mousse. I love Korean BBQ. I took my entire staff to Toji for Christmas lunch. They have an amazing seafood pancake and they crack a raw egg into the boiling kimchi stew at the table. I recommend everyone go there.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
My lease is up in November, and I am trying to figure out what the next move is.
So, it’s possible that Smallwares could be moving?
Possibly. I am definitely considering it. Maybe opening two different places, Smallwares and Barwares. I feel like I could finally create two different vibes. We’ll see. It was so hard to do it the first time I think doing it another time is overwhelming. I only have a couple of months to decide, so we’ll see.