Week after week, Portland peeps are willing to wait an hour for a pie at Ken’s Artisan Pizza. Day after day, their Ken’s Artisan Bakery baguettes are half eaten before they make it home. It’s hard to believe that it all began over a decade ago when proprietor Ken Forkish decided to abandon his career in high tech, sell his Jaguar, and build a bakery—his very first food job. In one year his bakery saw visits from Alice Waters, Jacques Pépin, and André Soltner. And now, as of last week, the bread head (he learned his baguette methods at the San Francisco Baking Institute, he says, and the secret is using the best flour and never taking shortcuts) has a book deal with Ten Speed Press—it will be a cookbook with stories, as well as lots of great photos by Alan Weiner, and should be out in time for the holiday season, 2012.
Can’t wait? We got Ken to fork over his thoughts on his fabulous food and our culinary scenery.
1) How has the bakery scene changed since you got here?
When I opened my bakery in 2001, the two artisan bakeries in town were Pearl and Grand Central. Rosie’s small bakery on SE Division wasn’t well supported and closed, and Black Bear had just closed. Now we have Tim Healea’s excellent Little T American Baker in SE, Sweetpea vegan bakery, Greg Mistell’s Fleur de Lis bakery in NE, Julie Richardson and Matt Kappler’s Baker & Spice in SW, Two Tarts in NW, Nuvrei in the Pearl, and others. Pix was only at the Farmers Market when I opened, but now we also have excellent chocolateries with Verdun, Sahagún, Cacao, and Alma Chocolate. Where else in this country would you find this variety of quality bakeries, pâtisseries, and chocolateries in a town our size? It’s vast change since I opened 10 years ago, when the Atkins and South Beach diets were vilifying all-things starch. Now we embrace all the good stuff! I’m still working out my own plans for what’s next, but I’m thinking of opening a new restaurant in a year or two.
2) Portland seems to be having a gourmet comfort food renaissance—pizza, fried chicken, burgers, etc. What’s your two cents about what’s going on with the local culinary scene?
I’m a very big fan. I travel a few times each year and always look forward to returning home to restaurants where having quality food doesn’t require an increase in the formality of the dining room. When I opened my bakery, the kitchen talent was all in fine dining; now the talent is also in more relaxed places serving high quality food that embraces our seasonal produce, in an atmosphere appealing to a broader range of people. Look at the busiest restaurants in town: Toro Bravo, Tasty n Sons, Pok Pok, and Laurelhurst Market food and definitely not white tablecloth. What we have here is an embrace of the casual, a Portland-specific idea of what a restaurant needs to look and act like, a growing population supporting our homegrown restaurants as a principal form of entertainment, and an economy that allows younger chefs to open and run their own restaurants. I think the infusion of youth in the ownership ranks was a necessary force in our town’s dining out evolution.
3) What’s your perfect pizza experience?
Tricky question! My perfect pie changes with my mood or the season. I prefer simple toppings of the highest quality: perfect cherry tomatoes in the summer, or, right now, our Finnochiona pizza made with Olympic Provisions salami—you can taste the quality of the meat and the cure, and we counterpoint the fennel seed in the salami with shaved fennel on the pie. As for a drink-and-pizza pairing, more often than not I’ll go to a Sangiovese such as a good Chianti or a Rosso di Montalcino from Siro Pacenti, but I’m also happy with a nice Pinot from Cameron, Chehalem, Grochau Cellars, Evesham Wood, or J. Christopher, or a Barbera from Piedmont. Nothing wrong with a cold Pilsner, either, or a good rosé. Afterward, give me ice cream or my pizzeria’s lambrusco-rhubarb sorbetto and a cookie, please. If I’m feeling groovy, maybe a shot of grappa at the end.
4) How did you learn to make your ridiculously addictive canelés?
I didn’t learn canelés from anyone, but 15 years ago I had a French girlfriend and she introduced me to canelés at Poujauran’s boulangerie in Paris. They tasted of honey, almonds, and cake, with a perfectly crispy outside, and I was immediately intrigued. I searched them out at other Paris shops and became acquainted with the variety of styles, from lightly baked and custardy in the middle (not my thing) to a little more cakey in the middle and crisp on the outside. For a small fortune, I purchased a bunch of the copper molds at E. Dehillerin in Paris and went to work with a couple different recipes until I found the texture and flavor I like. Key is lining the inside of the molds with melted beeswax before pouring in the batter. Keep your eyes open for the next issue of The Art of Eating, in which Molly Wizenberg wrote a feature on canelés. She interviewed me along with Pierre Herme (!). Okay, he’s the king of pastry and I’m this little guy in PDX, but I got a kick out of being a source for the same article.
5) Where are you loving eating right now?
I have many favorite restaurants, from long-termers like Paley’s Place, Higgins, and Park Kitchen, to the usual suspects like Pok Pok, Toro Bravo, Grüner, Le Pigeon, and Little Bird. Lincoln, Ned Ludd, Nostrana, and Biwa are also high on my go-to list. Of the newer openings, I’m particularly fond of June, and Kin on NW 14th wins my “best restaurant that’s least appreciated” nod—I’m currently craving Kevin’s pork buns. Then there are two restaurants that get no press but have loyal followings and I love them: Ciao Vito and Bastas both have excellent Italian food and wine lists. When I eat out, the wine list is something I enjoy in addition to the scene, the food, and the décor. Just saying.