Portland’s Giant in His Prime
“The counter at Le Pigeon—just go with what Gabe wants.” That’s a common response from Portland’s chefs when asked where they would send an out-of-town friend who only had one meal opportunity in Portland. 32-year-old Gabriel Rucker has garnered national attention in the six years since Le Pigeon’s door flew open on East Burnside. But the respect he has earned from other chefs and food industry peers at such a young age in the nation’s buzziest food city might be the most impressive.
Rucker grew up in the Bay area, and besides his family, two of the things nearest and dearest to his heart are the San Francisco Giants and In-N-Out Burgers. Even though many speculate that he may someday be lured to a bigger city, he claims he’ll be happy in Portland with his family, his restaurants, and his Extra Innings baseball cable pack- age for as long as he cares to imagine right now.
Gabriel doesn’t use recipes. Most everything that ends up wowing you is born from a thought he may have had in the shower, while playing around in the kitchen or watch- ing a Giants game. Yet, he’s about to put his imagination to paper with the September release of his upcoming cookbook, Le Pigeon: Cooking at the Dirty Bird. Some of his French-slanted Northwest cuisine’s inspiration came from studying The French Laundry Cookbook as a teen. As much as he’d love to dine there, he’s never been (or to France, for that matter). It’s arguable, although completely plausible, that in 2013 his Le Pigeon is to Portland as the French Laundry is to the USA, and perhaps one day both will be mentioned in the same breath. Just forget the white tablecloths. Because Le Pigeon delivers the definitive Portland communal dining trip.
If you ask Gabriel about his experience, he’ll tell you most of it has been in his own restaurant. Six years. That’s MOST of his experience. In those six years, he spawned, with partner Andy Fortgang and his former sous chef Erik Van Kley, another Portland must-go-to-now spot, Little Bird. He was Food & Wine’s Best New Chef in 2007. He’s won two James Beard Awards, both the Rising Star Chef USA and most recently, the 2013 Best Chef Northwest Award. In that time, both of his restaurants were anointed Restaurant of the Year by various publications (which is no small feat in this food city). And since then, he’s gone from a partying single guy to a family man, which he will tell you is what makes him most proud. If you want to stop and imagine what he will have accomplished and how many sensory sweet spots he will have touched by the time he hits, say, 50 (the current age of one of his mentors, Vitaly Paley), just stop and think about what you’ve done and the wisdom you’ve gained since 1995.
It’s interesting to look back on Rucker’s place in Portland restaurant lore, but it’s what’s ahead for this guy that’s jaw- dropping, literally and figuratively. It’s a great time to be Gabriel Rucker.
Time off work—what does that look like?
The ultimate day off for me is just cooking something nice for the family and watching the Giants play. With a little kid, we put the game on, and I can still play with him. That’s what’s great about baseball. You can follow it. Some people get bored by it. But to me, baseball is chess, especially the National League. I’ve been a Giants fan since I was a little kid. Almost changed my name to Will because of Will Clark.
Did your father get you into baseball?
No. We had it the other way around. I got my dad into a lot of things like golf, and baseball. He got me into snowboarding and rollerblading. He’s just barely 60 now. He’s young at heart, though. He still does 100-mile bike races and stuff. I admire him. He’s got a lot of drive when it comes to getting out there and doing stuff.
Do you get to go to Giants games?
Yeah, typically I try and go down to maybe three. This year, I’m not sure what’s going to happen. We have another baby on the way. Today, right after this, we’re going to find out if it’s a boy or a girl. I’m really stoked on that. We didn’t find out with our first guy, but we’re going to find out this one, so it will be a good, happy day for us. I’m glad that we waited on the first. Gus was born at home; I delivered him. To catch him and have that experience—awesome. [Baby will be a girl, as was later shared by Mr. Rucker via text, including four exclamation marks.]
Did you see yourself as a family man?
I always knew that I wanted to have kids. I was lucky enough to get my career going really early and kind of have a solid thing going on before. As a chef, that’s one of the toughest things—to find a balance. You’re always going to miss things, but actually having a second restaurant has really opened things up. Le Pigeon is such a tight crew. I’m down to just three nights, and Little Bird being open for lunch gives me the opportunity to work two dayshifts so that I can get off of work and make dinner with the family and watch the Giants game and put my kid to sleep, take him to the daycare in the morning.
I’m a relationship guy. I had about a two- year stint of being single and really doing that and having fun, but I’m much happier with a solid rock on my side and can’t have a better one in Hana. It’s a shame because you see people that have kids to try and fix the relationship. Having kids makes your relationship HARDER, and then it gets better. You’d better have some rock solid shit going on in your life.
Do you think your parents saw an indication that you would one day be at the top of a profession?
You gotta let the kids do their thing. My parents did that with me. Luckily, I found something, because I was easily on a path not to. I got the boot when I was 18. It was either—you can pay rent and stay at home, or you can go, and we’ll help you out a little bit. My parents were always very supportive and very believing. If I was playing baseball, maybe I wasn’t the best on the team, but I got “you’re great at it. You keep it up. You can do what you want.” For me, the stars aligned. Everybody has something that they’re really, really good at, but the trick is to be able to find it. Some people spend their whole lives searching for it. I was lucky enough to find it at 18. I was really more into DJ music and smoking pot. For some reason I was able to flip a switch and realize that it takes a lot of hard work and you have to be kind of ready for something to come along in life to make a change.
It took a year or two. My first job after I dropped out of the culinary program at Santa Rosa Junior College—I was still 18 and it was 8-hour shifts, and at the end of it, I was like, “I can’t wait to go home and party.” I remember the first 12-hour shift I worked. When I got home, I was like, “Oh my god, guys… I just worked 12 hours… give me a bong rip.” Everybody was like, “12 hours? Jesus Christ. Holy shit.”
Now you’re probably happy when it’s just 12 hours.
Yeah. It gets harder when you get older, but it’s funny watching kids come into the kitchen that are kind of used to working those 8-hour shifts. “You’re going to start 2 hours after us salary guys do.” And then the end of the night comes, and they’re like, “I’m just so tired and sleepy,” and… it’s “Really? You better get used to it.”
What brought you to Portland?
Not being able to afford San Francisco. I was really lucky to get a job at Lazlow’s Northwest. I was coming off of a place working in Santa Cruz where I had a lot of freedom, and as a young kid, I was probably kind of an ass—not an asshole,but someone that if I saw someone like me then, walking into my kitchen now, I would say, “Get the F out of here.” But that’s youth and you learn. Two months later I got a job at Paley’s. That was a real eye-opener for me, and that’s where I was able to say, “Oh, you don’t know shit! You think that your shit doesn’t stink!” But it did. I got my butt kicked there and learned how to put my head down, and it was really beneficial. I was still a cocksure kid, but Vito [Vitaly Paley] and I ended up getting along well.
I knew when to shut up and when to speak my mind, and we ended up learning how to vibe off each other, and respect each other. We have a really great relation- ship to this day.
Did your ideas make it onto plates at Paley’s?
There was a lot of input at that restaurant. Looking back, they used to call me CC, California Cuisine, because I came from California and wanted to stack things and put garnishes on stuff, and it wasn’t really the style. I’d always try and emulate stuff out of The French Laundry Cookbook. I’d hear, “Nope, take that off! Take it off!” And, not to get off topic, but the most important thing in cooking, as far as I’m concerned, is what you don’t put on the plate. That’s where you really kind of graduate to the next level—when you have all these ideas bouncing around and you filter out. “Let’s leave that one on the side.” There are times when a lot of shit on a plate works. But more often than not, less is more.
What do you think your employees think of you as a boss?
If you look at Eater—there are probably plenty of people in town that think I’m an asshole. Probably some of them don’t even know me.
I think most of my employees would say that we have a good work environment and try to nurture people. A big part of my success growing up was getting the opportunity to be creative, and have my ideas go on a plate out of the restaurant, and I push my employees to do that as well. Their idea of what’s in their head might not be the exact plate that goes out to the kitchen, but their idea is what spurs something—it’s a totally collaborative. When I have an idea, we’re down in the basement in Le Pigeon, talking about it, and everyone can chime in.
So, much of your cuisine comes right out of your head. How would that translate into your upcoming cookbook?
Everything that we make is so complex, and we had to really tone things down. And then I had to stick to my guns, where I didn’t want to tone it down, and say, “No, this is how it was in the restaurant. I want it to be that way.” This is what we called “F-you recipes,” the stuff where you have to say, “All right! Well, this is my weekend.”
How important is money to you?
Being a responsible business owner is one thing, but trying to get rich and expand an empire—that’s not my game. It’s a career, and it’s what we do, and we do it because we like it. Anyone who thinks that money is the most important thing to them—the restaurant industry, unless it’s a chain or whatever, is a bad place to be. Don’t get into cooking because you want to get rich. Because you won’t.
What was junior high school like for you?
Middle class. My mom was a teacher. My dad worked as a civilian welder for the Air Force. I was a pretty big dork. Junior high is such a weird thing, going through adolescence. I was a rollerblader. Napa’s a small town, but not like the boonies. 8th grade was when I started wanting to smoke pot and stuff like that. I never got into trouble for that. I was kind of a class clown kid, for sure—getting in trouble for speaking out. There were definitely kids who were getting into a lot more trouble. Not really getting into fights, or anything like that, just stupid, knucklehead shit.
High school was when I really started getting into more trouble. More just selling pot, going to raves. I made it out, though. I made it. I still got an OK GPA. I was always that kid—I knew the line. Walk the fringe.
How about the kitchen at your home?
Not that many home-cooked meals. My parents cook a lot now, but they are inspired by me—I think. They both worked—I was a latchkey kid, so I would come home from school and make myself something. I ate a lot of TV dinners. We would have family dinner once or twice a week. My parents would make a big salad or something. It’s not like my mom had, like— “Nobody beats my mom’s chicken tetrazzini.” Spaghetti consisted of cooking the noodles and heating up the Prego sauce. When I was in 5th, 6th grade, one of my chores consisted of making dinner once a week. I can’t remember a lot of dishes, but one of them, I remember, was this tomato sauce that I would make from scratch out of a 1970s California cuisine cookbook. It used tomato paste instead of fresh tomatoes, where it was kind of thick. My parents liked that Prego-style sauce. And I liked it, because it really stuck to the noodles, but that was like my go-to to make, and I think that my parents would be, like, “Oh, shit. He’s making that again.”
What’s dinner like at the Rucker house?
Two things. One would be just a side of good salmon, usually just a coho or sockeye. I heat up the cookie tray, some oil at the bottom, skin side down, and I put a shit- load of sliced onions, chopped herbs, and whatever sort of condiments—I like green curry paste—and I rub it down and bake it that way. Serve that with some fresh vegetables—sautéed shiitake mushrooms, and zucchini with corn. We eat a lot of canned corn here.
The other thing is a really nice ribeye cooked in a cast iron pan with some creamed horseradish, and a salad of avocado, tomatoes, and radish.
Speaking of radish, let’s do some word association and start with the Iron Chef Battle Radish winner….
Vitaly Paley: A rock.
Foie Gras: Fun.
Gotham Tavern: Springboard.
James Beard: An honor.
Two weeks after he gave that response, referring to his 2011 James Beard Rising Star Chef Award, Rucker went to New York to attend the James Beard Awards again. He had been nominated for the Best Chef North- west category, and was also cooking buffalo hearts for
1000 people. He didn’t bring a tux or suit or anything that most winners sport when giving an acceptance speech because he was fully expecting one of the other respected nominees to win—a hearty list: Cathy Whims of Nostrana, Naomi Pomeroy of Beast, and two of Seattle’s biggest names, Ethan Stowell from Staple & Fancy, and Jason Franey from Canlis. In fact, since he wasn’t expecting his name to be announced, he didn’t even have a speech. Gabriel ended up dreaming up his acceptance speech as he walked down the aisle from the back of the room, not unlike his formula for preparing his famous dishes. He accepted his second James Beard Award in his chef duds and clogs.