Where do great chefs come from? Hyperactive press and TV competitions present a fetishized vision of mystical culinary gods and goddesses who spring, fully formed, from the ether. But the reality, especially in Portland, is a bit more familial. Most of the time, talented chefs emerge from years of sweating it out on the line in busy kitchens, cultivating their gastronomic leanings (and mopping floors, and managing food costs) with nary a tweet or TV spot to their name. “It’s time people found out that there are troops of able and talented cooks that make us chefs look good,” says James Beard Award–winning chef Vitaly Paley.
Curious to discover under-the-radar wunderkinds searing and chopping their way to standout status, we asked a few local luminaries to turn the spotlight on the hardworking line cooks and pastry chefs who are still honing their skills but already shimmer with unique talent and drive. Answers were uniformly zealous, and ran the gamut from an iconoclastic pop-up dinner duo and a budget-minded preservationist to a local master of Cuban cuisine. One thing is clear: Portland’s future is shaping up to be a deliciously eclectic feast.
Read on to whet your appetite.
Pablo Portilla | Age: 40 | Hometown: Houston, Texas
“When I moved to Portland I decided I’d go to beauty school, be a cop, or go to Oregon Culinary Institute,” says Pablo Portilla. “I think I made the right choice.” Over the past 10 years, the baby-faced Texan has boiled crawfish on SE 82nd Avenue and sliced onions at the world-renowned Bouchon for Thomas Keller (a Napa Valley externship he describes as “the most intense three months of my life”). But it was the short stint in 2010 running his yellow food cart, Havana Café, that garnered him the most fans.
At that little Richmond neighborhood kitchen, the always-smiling chef stewed up the authentic fare he ate at his Cuban grandmother’s dinner table, from oxtails and pressed sandwiches to vinegary, pressure-cooked ropa vieja. He shuttered the cart less than a year later to tend to family issues in Houston, but admirers of his meaty eats continued to lobby for Portilla’s return to the kitchen.
“He’s a renaissance man of the restaurant world,” says Mi Mero Mole owner Nick Zukin, who hired Portilla two years ago to run his own überauthentic Mexican joint, where Portilla’s two sons now work as well. Zukin trusts him so much, he made him a part owner of MMM’s second location, which will debut in Old Town in late 2013. We’re first in line for whatever these two cook up next.
• Pablo's Résumé: Manager at Mi Mero Mole; chef-owner of Havana Café food cart; prep cook at Toro Bravo; chef/server/bartender at My Brother’s Crawfish
• Biggest Fan: “He’s a fantastic Cuban cook,” says Janis Martin, owner of Montavilla’s cult Japanese bar Tanuki, where Portilla is a regular. “Everything he makes is done with skill and with soul and, on top of that, he’s got an even temper, a charming demeanor, and great level-headed management skills. This is the guy who’s going to make Portlanders aware that Cuban food is more than a sandwich.”
• Signature Dish: Speaking of that sandwich, though, it’s exactly what a Cuban ought to be: juicy garlic, lime and olive oil–dressed roasted pork, Virginia smoked ham, swiss cheese, and bread-and-butter pickles slicked with yellow mustard, all layered inside An Xuyen bread, pressed until crispy and hot. Served with steaming, golden tostones and Portilla’s fruity, deeply warming guava-pineapple ghost chile pepper sauce, it creates the perfect marriage of crunch and chew in every sweet, meaty, briny bite.
• Source Material: Portilla remembers watching Julia Child cook on PBS. “I made her coq au vin to impress my [girlfriend] when I was 15 years old,” he says. “I didn’t even know how to pronounce it, but it was good.”
Nora Antene | Age: 28 | Hometown: Chicago
Andrew Mace | Age: 29 | Hometown: Laurell, Montana
Most people relax on their days off. Le Pigeon line cook Andrew Mace and Little Bird dessert doyenne Nora Antene used theirs to plan and throw a free, 10-course pop-up dinner for a table full of Portland chefs and food insiders, featuring everything from razor clam sashimi paired with trout roe and silky passion fruit custard to coriander-crusted foie gras adorned with grapefruit and caramelized white chocolate.
“Honestly, it was just a chance for us to play,” Mace says of the dinner he and Antene (who have since become a couple outside of the kitchen) threw at Southeast Portland wine bar Sauvage last March. “We didn’t realize how intimidating it would be. We were either really ballsy or really stupid.” Or, really delicious. Within days, word spread of the pair’s innovative, free-spirited dishes. (At one point, they ignited dried bundles of herbs as an olfactory counterpoint to a charred fruit dish.) “I was blown away with their creativity and thought process,” remembers Ox’s Greg Denton. He liked the dinner so much, he asked Mace and Antene to sign his menu for posterity.
They’re not too bad at their day jobs, either. “Andrew is amazing,” says Le Pigeon’s Gabriel Rucker, who hired Mace in 2010—in part because the focused cook had “a sharp knife” and mopped the floor without being asked. “We have a piece of craft paper up in the kitchen where we all spitball ideas,” says Rucker. “There was a flavor combination written down there: ‘black olive, peaches, and eucalyptus.’ My sous-chef and I just looked at each other and said: ‘That’s an Andrew Mace combination.’” The oddball flavor master, who ended up staying in Portland after his Subaru Outback broke down here en route from Montana to San Francisco, has met his match in bubbly, Chicago-born Antene. When she isn’t whipping up riffs on French classics like blackberry crêpes Suzette at Rucker’s downtown bistro, the dessert trickster is filling her own chocolate beignets with Chartreuse-chocolate mousse or hiding quail egg yolks inside lemon verbena panna cotta. “Nora is the complete package,” Rucker says. “She’s got the passion and skill, but she’s humble enough to listen to others.”
For this couple, food is one part serious art and one part playful expedition: sit with them for an hour and the conversation ping-pongs from the influence of abstract painter Josef Albers and French food icon Michel Bras to how crazy-good the taco toppings they made from Le Pigeon meat scraps taste. Just don’t expect their “flavor-focused, minimal” food experiments to appear at a big, bustling restaurant of their own anytime soon. For their most recent pop-up in early October, they whittled the concept down to a series of meals for only four people at a time over the course of two nights in order to create an “ultra-intimate” dining experience. “This is gonna sound weird, but I don’t really like cooking in a restaurant,” Mace admits as Antene laughs quietly. “I don’t like to be...rushed. Ideally, I’d like a really, really small place—even one table would be fine with me.” He smiles, and looks over at his partner in crime: “Me and Nora could just hang out and cook whatever we want.”
• Nora’s Résumé: Pastry chef at Little Bird; pastry assistant at Chicago’s MK; savory intern at Madison, Wisconsin’s L’Etoile
• Andrew's Résumé: Line cook at Le Pigeon; line cook at Lincoln; line cook at the Woodsman Tavern; line cook at Bozeman wine bar Plonk; “cooked and washed dishes at a shitty bar and grill” in Missoula
• Biggest Fan: “I love collaborating with Andrew,” says Rucker. “He and Nora are going to go places...I just hope they don’t go too soon.”
• Signature Dish: A landscape of crisp, salty trout skin topped with luscious trout tartare, compressed shallots, and clouds of briny, smoked-oyster whipped cream with baby mustard greens is Mace’s perfectly balanced showstopper. Antene excels at deliciously weird fever dreams like brown-rice frozen mousse with green apple.
• Current Obsession: Mace harvests the pollen and young, green shoots from neighborhood fennel plants to garnish dishes like a goat baklava with white pepper frozen yogurt. “He roams the town collecting fennel pollen in little bags,” Antene says. “People think he’s weird.”
Josh Scofield | Age: 35 | Hometown: Portland
Six years ago, with a toddler at home and nearly a decade of late nights spent grinding away on the line at some of Portland’s top kitchens, Josh Scofield was ready for a change. “What is my niche? What can I add to this field?” the frank, budget-minded chef asked himself. “I was searching for a second act, a new identity,” he says. He happened to find it in his own basement, where he “MacGyver’d” a curing facility and, with the blessing of his Toro Bravo boss John Gorham, began experimenting with salami and sausage recipes. Today, Scofield is a hub of Gorham’s ever-expanding restaurant operation: his cured and fermented goods grace nearly half the plates at Toro Bravo, Tasty n Sons, and Tasty n Alder.
With a focus on lesser-known Spanish-style sausages and the techniques of curing whole muscles, Scofield is helping boost Portland’s charcuterie game. But just as important, he’s also steadily pushing Portland’s favorite Spanish-leaning restaurant group toward total pantry self-sufficiency. He’s curing everything from whole pork loin lomo smeared with Viridian Farms piment d’Espelette to fennel pollen–laced pepperoni sticks, preserving local tuna, brining pickles, and fermenting kimchi in the creepy subterranean warren of rooms beneath Toro Bravo with the zeal of a true believer stockpiling ammo for a zombie invasion. “If we can make a product in house cheaper and better ourselves, let’s do it,” he says, proudly pointing out the curing and fermentation rooms he and Gorham built last year. Next up? He’s thinking of tackling cheese.
• Josh’s Résumé: “Meat maestro,” chef, and commissary kitchen manager at Toro Bravo/Tasty n Sons/Tasty n Alder; grill/sauté cook at Wildwood; sous-chef at Taqueria Nueve; line cook at D.F.; oyster shucker at Jake’s Famous Crawfish
• Biggest Fan: “[His whole muscles] are just phenomenal. He’s on the lookout to be that guy in town for all of those things—speck, jamón, bresaola, lomo ...” says Gorham. “Our relationship is harmonious and symbiotic.”
• Signature Dish: A plate of soft, hot paprika–spiked Majorcan pork belly sobrasada drizzled with honey, or a few rounds of fabulous Spanish chorizo, bright with fermented tang.
• Food Fantasy: “We’ve talked about taking [Toro Bravo] retail,” Scofield says, cautiously. He imagines a mash-up of a European charcuterie counter and Gartner’s Country Meats, the beloved white-tiled butchery in Northeast Portland, featuring everything from affordable sausages to prepared foods, fresh stocks, and lunch meats for the kids. “A busy, no-nonsense place. Take a paper number and have your order ready,” he says.
Toni Guyer | Age: 29 | Hometown: Elko, Nevada
Toni Guyer’s secret weapon: butter. “The boys in the kitchen all tease me about it,” she says, with a nod to the quart tubs lined up at her fish station in the Paley Place’s kitchen. “I go through about three of these a night.” She laughs and then quickly returns her attention to the stove, where she’s pan-searing the world’s most perfect scallop. Guyer’s love for straightforward yet luxurious ingredients isn’t groundbreaking—but her preternatural focus and appetite for technical excellence help the Nevada-born chef shine with deceptively simple bistro fare that hits every pleasure center.
After a decade of cooking in some of the most strictly regimented French kitchens in Las Vegas (“we kept rulers in our knife kits,” she remembers), transitioning to Vitaly Paley’s more collaborative environment in 2012 was a culture shock akin to an army private getting air-dropped into a hippie commune. “It took me a few weeks to stop asking permission to do everything in the kitchen,” she says. “Now, I love the creativity—being able to walk into the kitchen and not know what I’m going to cook today.” Guyer’s seasonally based food freedom has inspired her to move in a more rustic direction; her creamy yet delicate plates of irresistible seafood have already started showing up on the Paley’s Place menu. “She is one of our very best line cooks—probably one of the very best ever,” Paley says, vaulting her into some truly exceptional company. “[She’s] so well trained, professional, knowledgeable, and consistent, but so calm under pressure, he says. “When you put all those attributes together, it’s amazing.”
• Toni's Résumé: Line cook at Paley’s Place; sous-chef at Las Vegas MGM Grand’s private dining room Joël Robuchon at the Mansion; line cook at Michelin-starred L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon
• Food Fantasy: True to her training, she envisions a small, seafood-focused French bistro. “She’s steady. And she’s meticulous. Honestly? I see Toni taking my job,” says Paley’s Place executive chef Patrick McKee. “Not that I’m going anywhere right now.”
• Signature Dish: Guyer’s perfect scallop ends up alongside a few spears of emerald asparagus atop a bed of orzo with a surprisingly delicate camembert sauce, studded with thick nubs of bacon and bright, acidic slips of ruby-red tomato she dried in the oven for six hours. With dishes like these, she’s a master at balancing clean, harmonious flavors and over-the-top comfort.
• Why She’ll Rule: “As a woman, to thrive in a staunch, French traditionalist kitchen [like Robuchon] you have to have balls. Or you grow some quickly,” Paley says with admiration. That character assessment just makes Guyer giggle: “You have to strike first,” she says of her strategy of razzing her way to her male coworkers’ hearts. “It’s like what they say about when you go to prison: you get in a fight with the biggest guy there first.”
Mindy Keith | Age: 28 | Hometown: Portland
Mindy Keith owes her chile-spiced pastry gig at Xico to a surprise birthday cake. In 2010, the relentless baker was juggling jobs at two local cafés, private catering work, and shifts as a food runner and host as Nostrana. “I was making my own tortes, cheesecakes, and different little creations and surprising people at parties,” she says. “I’d bring in cookies for the Nostrana staff, too.” One of her tasters was Nostrana general manager Elizabeth Davis, who, continually impressed by the former artist’s “creative” desserts, snatched her up when she opened her own restaurant, Xico, in 2012. Since then, it’s been a match made in cross-cultural dessert heaven.
Instead of sticking to her tested roster of treats, Keith married her whimsical aesthetic to Xico’s authentic Mexican flavors. “I like things that are really...involved,” she says, gesturing to a white plate holding a puckery Mexican lime paleta, a shot of Sombra mezcal, and two tiny mounds of dried chile and sal de gusano (worm salt), served in a rocks glass. (To consume this little ode to Mexico, you upend the popsicle in the booze and sprinkle, nibble, and sip as it melts into a wonderfully sweet, salty, smoky liqueur.) Other creations feature Woodblock cocoa nibs in a lacy chocolate brittle so intense it’s reminiscent of fried cheese, or the humble Chick-O-Stick transmuted into a peanut-buttery coconut truffle.
Keith’s willingness to tinker with new ingredients without sacrificing an ounce of a dessert’s essential luxurious nature is her strength—you get the feeling this research-obsessed pastry chameleon would be equally at home creating African- or Chinese-influenced desserts with access to a cabinet of spices and an Internet connection. “Some of her visions are incredibly complex,” Xico chef Kelly Myers says. “It’s the stuff of magazine pictorials and really serious dining establishments.” Keith shrugs off thoughts of her future career in favor of plans to travel to Oaxaca in January for inspiration. “I rarely get dessert when I go out to eat at restaurants, because it’s really boring, and usually too sweet” she admits. “It’s about getting people out of their comfort zone.”
• Mindy’s Résumé: Pastry chef at Xico; manager and baker at Dragonfly Café; host/runner at Nostrana; baker at St. Honoré; photographer; herbalist at Dragon Herbarium
• Biggest fan: “She took her French background and was able to create this amazing Mexican dessert cuisine through research and intuition,” says Nostrana co-owner and local food grande dame Cathy Whims. “I’m not even a big dessert fan, but I can’t stop eating her cocada. She’s just a little powerhouse and has a beautiful aesthetic.”
• Signature Dish: Xico’s candy plate, which looks like a line of weathered miniature Aztec ruins. It consists of five elements: a pyramid of dense Colombian chocolate laced with rum and smoked chile salt; sour, chewy tamarind–chile de arbol fruit leather; hibiscus and guava pâtes de fruits; spiced candied nuts; and sesame brittle. (Off the job, Keith is still known to show up at friends’ parties with creamy goat cheese cheesecakes with candied kumquats, kumquat compote, and dark chocolate chunks.)
• Biggest Obstacle: “Mindy is such a perfectionist that it’s hard for her to accept the reality that you can’t constantly monitor every single dessert that goes out because you’ll exhaust yourself completely,” says Davis. “You have to let it go a little bit.”