For as long as he can remember, Will Preisch has saved every menu from every restaurant he’s visited. His Southeast Portland duplex is a fortress of cookbooks and notebooks chronicling every dish. This food fever hit in elementary school, when busing tables at his father’s famed Cleveland greasy spoon, Chuck’s Diner. By age 12, while his peers were shooting hoops, Preisch was dunking whisks in batter, polishing his cheesecake recipe for Chuck’s. Soon, he was sweating on the line, cutting home fries with a paint scraper, and making hollandaise in a milk-shake blender. He moved to Portland in 2006 and plunged himself first into Scott Dolich’s farm-to-table icon Park Kitchen, and then joined our local nerve center of risk-taking cuisine, Gabriel Rucker’s just-opened Le Pigeon.
But the artful modernism of European cooking called to him. On days off, Preisch doggedly pursued techniques from famed restaurants like Noma and Mugaritz. He’d planned to leave Portland for bigger pastures when, in 2011, Dolich offered to create a platform for Preisch’s experiments at his next project, Bent Brick tavern in Northwest. It didn’t go well. The attempt to blend all-American tavern grub with far-out food-lab mad science worked out as well as a blind date between Breaking Bad’s Walter White and Mother Teresa. Typical amateur modernist moves, starring Cheerios and Cheetos powder, sent diners running for the exits. I still have memories of whole hazelnuts transmogrified into “baked beans” beneath a hot dog, embarrassing everyone involved—the kitchen, the diners, and possibly the Heinz people.
If you would have told me the same chef would go on to create Portland’s next great underground food experience, with a fresh vision of fine dining, I would have eaten my shoe with crushed cheese curds on top. But he has. Preisch’s new Holdfast Dining bundles many different threads of Portland’s food scene—temporary restaurants that don’t look like restaurants, a freewheeling approach to influences, informality raised to a new kind of formality—into a magnetic evening.
In July, Preisch quietly started conducting pop-up dinners at Northwest Portland’s KitchenCru, a well-equipped kitchen rented by the hour to culinary dreamers. Diners sign up via e-mail and snuggle in at the 10-seat chef’s counter. Standing on the other side, in bistro apron and a black Chuck’s Diner T-shirt, the lanky, bearded 29-year-old belts out his declaration of independence: “I want to cook my own food without boundaries, limitations, or labels.” With this, diners dig into 6 to 11 courses conceived, cooked, composed, and hand-delivered by Preisch (who also serves as the evening’s host and dishwasher).
No middlemen, no waiters, no predictability—that’s the rule. Instead of the standard progression from amuse-bouche to appetizer to entrée to dessert, Holdfast shakes up portion sizes, techniques, and expectations. Dinners careen from edgy to modern, one-bite snacks to multifaceted entrées, foraged sea plants and farmers market finds to a great hunk of steer from New Seasons. Dishes are complex without being complicated, thought-provoking but not pretentious, creative yet not gimmicky, and most of all, delicious.
An evening can swing from an otherworldly wasabi pea soup (resembling a grass-green pond growing edible bushes, vines, and boulders) to the crackle of one sublime chip holding a whiskeyed cherry—a pig’s ear meets the manhattan. Later, Spain might show up in artful dabs of inky vinaigrette and green-grape gazpacho, dancing alongside thin crackles of torched bread, charred avocado chunks, and pristine squid with more bounce than Kanye West. The next segue could lead to a Neanderthal dream of rib eye—juicy, rare, and big as a brick, slow-cooked with butter and pine tips, then glazed in forest perfumes.
On a recent night, eight courses in, Preisch repackaged the American South into one bite: corn, fat, and honey born again. A savory corn-bread madeleine hunkered beneath a teeny stripe of lardo (the pure, take-no-prisoners pork fat), a cloud of Parmesan shreds, and a cube of bittersweet honeycomb tasting of toast and earth. Every once in a while, you taste a dish that says, “Die now ... with a smile.” This was one of them. I hope it becomes a Holdfast staple.
Some dishes land on the wrong side of the border between subtle and bland, but missteps are rare, and every dinner seems to unleash terrific new ideas.
So how did Preisch pull this off? In February, he left the Bent Brick—as his skills and ideas evolved, he says, he felt stuck. “Modern cooks often throw out techniques because they can,” Preisch says. “I’ll never fall victim to this again.” So while Dolich took over that kitchen and returned to the basics, Preisch headed for Europe to find a new direction. For eight weeks he scrubbed vegetables, watched cooks interact with customers, and rediscovered the craft of cooking in some of the world’s top kitchens: Copenhagen’s Relæ, Paris’s Septime, and Reykjavík’s Dill Restaurant. When he returned, his confidence and restraint matched his talent, intellect, and technical chops—and he’d learned that flavor, not cleverness or technical ambition, is the ingredient that matters.
As Portland searches for its next definition of fine dining, Holdfast puts a contender on the table. KitchenCru’s ambience is more Chuck’s Diner than French Laundry. Food is the focus here: high-quality, highly personal, and casually ceremonial. Can it work in a pop-up format with Internet sign-ups and irregular hours? Will it be influential? Local pop-ups have changed food culture (Ripe’s communal Family Supper, circa 2002); they’ve evolved into beloved brick-and-mortars (Boke Bowl); and they’ve also disappeared faster than the cronut trend (anybody remember the East Side Supper Club and its wood-fired matzo?). Holdfast could go in any direction. But right now, Preisch is producing some of the best food to be found in Portland. Eat it while you can.