Sober chefs from last year's Feast Zero Proof dinner.

The beast that is Feast Portland is coming. Portland’s annual culinary rampage—surely one of the country’s defining food festivals—arrives September 12–15. For four nights and three days, Portland will transform into a buzz saw of chomping teeth, led by 20,000 eaters. The blitz includes a big, diverse cast of chefs from here and beyond cooking and cajoling at 50 events held in iconic city spaces, restaurant back rooms, and makeshift corners. All in all, it’s a giant stupor of food and fun, cuisines and collaborations, blood-sugar overdrive and at least one Dante’s Inferno of meat, complete with a field of flaming pits. In the meantime, Feast also helps fight hunger; last year alone, it raised $75,000 for charitable partners Urban Gleaners and Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon.

The high point of the fest? Arguably the fast-selling Dinner Series. It invites talented chefs from all corners of the world—rising stars to influential vets—to collaborate with local chefs to create one-of-a-kind meals in their kitchens. Tickets for every 2019 Feast event—including this year’s ten dinners—will drop at 9 a.m., June 7 on the Feast Portland website. At $175-$225, dinner seats aren’t cheap, and decisions will need to be made quickly (did we mention that it’s fast selling?). 

We got a sneak peek at the lineup, did a little recon, and made some conclusions: They all look interesting, as usual, including the return of Zero Proof, last year’s historic union of sober chefs, among them Gabriel Rucker (Le Pigeon, Portland) and Michael Solomonov (Zahav, Philadelphia). The moving dinner inspired important industry conversations and my eye-opening follow-up piece Kitchen Consequential. It also spurred Feast to make non-alcoholic events integral to this year’s festival.    

This year, these three dinners look like peak Feast eating:

Thai cooking legend David Thompson

Thai food, on a fine—and very hot platter: When Thai food legends Andy Ricker (Pok Pok, Portland) and David Thompson (Aaharn, Hong Kong) get together, magic is bound to happen. Details are still being hammered out, but the word is in. “It will be what David does best, probably some curry, using the best quality products from the Northwest,” says Ricker, adding it will be Thompson’s menu, with Ricker’s assistance. One can do a lot worse than having Andy Ricker, the guy who led Anthony Bourdain around Chiang Mai, as your sous chef.

Thompson’s Nahm was long considered the touchstone for elegant Thai cooking; to even volunteer in his Bangkok kitchen was a badge of honor (after leaving the restaurant last year, the Aussie chef opened a modern Thai restaurant in Hong Kong). Eating his food is a treat and a revelation. At Feast two years ago, his wildly complex Southern Thai beef curry literally numbed my entire tongue … and I still couldn’t stop eating it. A nearby diner summed it up: “I think I’m seeing things.” (Sept. 15, two seatings, Pok Pok NW, $200)

Neolokal's Maksut Aşkar 

Turkish food gone mod: Any of our preconceived notions about Turkish food are about to be smashed. At least that’s what happened to chef and hotel restaurateur Vitaly Paley (Paley’s Place, Portland) when he tasted the food of Maksut Aşkar (Neolokal, Istanbul), a rising rock star chef creating a whole new language and visual style for his country’s cuisine. After a chance dinner at hot spot Neolokal, Paley says it touched something deep in him:  the ritual behind each dish, the history, the stories. One thing was clear: he had to bring Aşkar to Portland, and Feast made it happen.

Aşkar’s houmos, especially, grabbed him. It’s a chickpea spread reimagined as something that might hang in an art museum, every inch of it patched with a bright colored powder representing the region’s varied styles. But it was no gimmick, says Paley. “There was so much soul and deliciousness,” he says. “The food is very down-to-earth, very appealing.”

Paley may be an icon in Portland dining (Paley’s Place turns 25 this year), but he says young Aşkar will have “the upper hand” on the evening’s menu, roughly 6 or 7 courses. “This will be a highlight of my career. He is very nouveau, very much modern. These flavors and spices are very interesting to me. It’s a new vocabulary. I can’t even describe the feeling of eating his food.” Who knows, maybe Turkey-native and Portland Trailblazer Enes Kanter will show up? (Sept. 14, Rosa Rosa, $195)

Salare's Edouardo Jordan

African roots cooking: For one night, four gifted chefs, Gregory Gourdet (Departure, Portland) Edouardo Jordan (Salare, Seattle) Dolester Miles (Highlands Bar & Grill, Birmingham) and Kwame Onwuachi (Kith/Kin, Washington, D.C), are banding together to celebrate and illuminate the foods, flavors, cuisines, and foundational ideas that originated from the African diaspora. “So much about food goes far beyond pleasure,” says Gourdet, who brought the concept to Feast, then curated the group. The idea, roughly, is to honor how African ingredients and tastes have not only influenced, but shaped American food culture, with very little acknowledgement until recently.

Gourdet’s friend Jordan, who nabbed two James Beard awards in 2018, has already made an indelible mark on American cooking via his personal take on Southern food in Seattle. Onwuachi, author of Notes from a Young Black Chef and winner of the Beard Rising Star award in 2019, is the hottest young chef in the country, with food and ideas deeply connected to his roots in New York, Nigeria, and Louisiana. Meanwhile, pastry chef Miles, another Beard winner, is known for American vernacular desserts, executed at the highest level. We can only hope she will bust out her famed coconut cream cake.

As for Gourdet, he’s a Portland treasure on a mission to explore the food and culture of his family’s Haiti, a country where West African and Caribbean ingredients inform the native cuisine. “These stories need to be told,” says Gourdet.“ I saw Feast as a tremendous way to do so.”

I’m calling it here: this one will be for the history books.  (Sept. 12, The Nightwood Society, $225)

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