Chef Johanna Ware is a member of that swiftly growing contingent of Portlanders who fell in love with Oregon at an early age and couldn’t wait to get back. After growing up outside of Chicago, Ware attended University of Oregon and lived in Portland for a few years before returning to the East Coast and diving head first into her culinary career.
After years of working in top-shelf restaurants in New York City (including Brad Farmerie’s Public and David Chang’s Momofuku Ssam Bar and Momofuku Noodle Bar) Ware returned to the City of Roses to join the next generation of Portland chefs melding five-star experience with 21st century flavor combinations and a true understanding of the way today’s diners go out to eat.
Her passion for the kitchen led to her stint as sous chef at Cathy Whims’ Nostrana, and now to her solo restaurant smallwares, which opened on NE Fremont in February. Smallwares is a quirky and delicious take on the small plates scene, incorporating self-described "inauthentic" Asian dishes with artful arrangements and unexpected ingredients (like kombu-cured salmon with labne, apple, and meyer lemon).
I sat down with Ware to get a feel for how the chef/owner job description is suiting her, her mental rolodex of flavor memories, and opening details of her next project, barwares.
1. How does your restaurant concept at Smallwares differ from your previous culinary experiences?
When I was in New York I ended up working for restaurants that used a very wide range of ingredients that spanned through many cultures. My food now has a heavy Asian influence but I don’t confine myself to many boundaries. After working at Nostrana I have this love affair for using Olio Verde with soy sauce. If it tastes good, do it.
2. What inspires your dishes?
As a cook, I keep a running rolodex in my head and on paper of everything I have ever eaten or cooked. I just pull from it when I need inspiration. My mom used to serve me poached eggs in a coffee mug with butter, salt, and pepper. I wanted to play off that simplicity and somehow that spawned into my dashi poached egg with trout roe and chervil. Sometimes I have had a long night and randomly order something from my fish purveyor when I am half asleep, and the next day I have to create a dish with it. I just stare at my pantry or walk-in for while and look at everything on the shelves until I find something that might work.
3. What have been the restaurant’s most popular dishes and drinks so far?
People seem to like the seafood on the menu, which are my favorite dishes to make. The scallop sashimi with den miso, shallot and puffed rice is a hit, along wtih the squid salad with cayenne, maple, wakame, and turnips. The oxtail curry (with scotch bonnet, plantain chips, and coconut) is also ordered frequently, and our garam masala whiskey cocktail sells more then anything else in the restaurant.
4. What’s the status of Barwares, the bar in the back of smallware?
We are close to opening barwares! Unfortunately I got caught up in this Ponzi scheme chair debacle and never received my chairs from my vendor. So we had to scramble a bit with that and now are waiting for newly ordered chairs. We are hoping to open at the end of April or early May. It will be nice because we have some large communal tables that we will be able to reserve for big parties, and we will be doing food until 2am.
5. What drew you to the Beaumont neighborhood? How do you think the restaurant fits into the community?
Being a first time business owner without a lot of clout, it was hard to find a lease. The landlord of the building knew Peter Bro [the mastermind behind Broder, Savoy, Aalto Lounge, and Bar Bar, who was helping me at the time, so he gave me 48 hours to decide if I wanted the lease before he let anyone else take it. It was kind of hard to pass up and I actually live one neighborhood over from Beaumont so I was super excited. People in the neighborhood seem to be excited to have their community grow a bit.