Kitchen Existential

In honor of Robert Reynolds, the story of an itinerant chef's quest to elevate the culinary consciousness of Portland.

By Camas Davis August 29, 2012

Image: John Valls

This article was originally published in the January 2007 issue of Portland Monthly. It has been reprinted here in honor of Robert Reynolds, who passed away in August, 2012 at age 70.  

THE BEST CHEFS fall in love with the mere idea of a stove. They say things like: “She’s going to be powder blue. It’ll have a fancy French top, four burners, one gas oven, one electric oven, two enormous warming drawers and a shiny enamel finish. It’ll be beautiful—a gastronomic grand piano.”

Robert Reynolds is that kind of chef. The best chefs also allow their journey through the world of food to be guided by a delight in haphazard curiosity and accidental discovery. And they are unabashed teachers, the kind who say things like: “Take what the pot gives you from this point on. You’ll know what to expect from these ingredients now, because you’ll remember what they did for you the last time.”

Reynolds is that kind of chef too, having honed his talents under the tutelage of similarly eloquent mentors, the estimable doyennes of French cuisine Josephine Araldo and Madeline Kamman. And yet, in the 10 years since he closed the doors of his lauded restaurant Le Trou in San Francisco and moved to Portland, the 64-year-old Francophile has had no restaurant to call his own, nor has he had a long-term, permanent professional kitchen from which to pass on his knowledge to eager disciples. Instead, he imparts French culinary technique and history to students whenever and wherever he can—mostly in borrowed spaces around town, and every spring in a rented farmhouse kitchen in France—while proselytizing our city with his culinary philosophy: “I try to find Provence in Portland and Portland in Provence,” he often says.

Indeed, despite his wanderlust, Reynolds has managed to inspire career cooks from local standouts like Wildwood, Genoa and Navarre, among others, while also stoking the kitchen fires under many an ambitious home cook. Currently, he’s helping Vitaly Paley, chef and owner of Paley’s Place, write his first cookbook. And it’s even possible that several years ago he unwittingly inspired what’s been called the “underground dining movement” in Portland.

This month, however, Reynolds finally opens the doors to a kitchen of his own—a modest cooking school with a bright skylight and, yes, a massive, powder blue, shiny, enamel LaCanche stove—behind Ken’s Artisan Pizza at SE 28th & Pine. And while his students are cooking, Reynolds will do what he’s always done best: He’ll tell them stories. And as he does, his students will cook them into existence.

Standing on a stage, leaning over a portable gas burner at the farmers market in the South Park Blocks, Reynolds is schooling a diverse audience in the art of preparing a good béchamel. “Making béchamel is like playing god,” he says. “It’s an unnatural act.” Reynolds has offered to give me a day’s lesson, during which we’ll prepare a four-course dinner for three of his former students: John Taboada, owner of Navarre restaurant; Tara Weffers, vice president of marketing for Burgerville; and Levi Cole, an emergency room nurse. In preparation, Reynolds has suggested we buy what ingredients we can at the market, and I’m eagerly waiting to embark on our shopping spree.

After he’s answered audience questions like, “Can I use store-bought chicken broth instead of homemade stock?” (to which Reynolds replied, “You can, but I won’t be there for dinner”), we snake through stalls of hulking kohlrabi and delicate butter lettuce. As he picks up ingredients in his thick, well-worn hands to smell them, Reynolds, a stout, merry man with owlish glasses, waves to seemingly every other person he passes. “That’s Cathy Whims’s husband. Cathy Whims studied with me.” Pascal Sauton, chef and owner of Carafe, stops to joke with him about the combined body weight of Portland’s chefs.

“There’s Jason Owens from Simpatica.” After Reynolds stopped offering classes and dinners at the historic Shogren House, Owens began hosting his already popular underground Axis Supper Club there. Before that, Reynolds taught classes and prepared invitation-only dinners at a now-defunct catering kitchen in Northeast Portland, where a not-yet-famous couple named Michael and Naomi Hebberoy were also scraping by with their own catering operation. Is that where they got the idea for Family Supper? I ask him. Reynolds answers in a hushed tone: “The role of anything that I’ve done in the past was always, in my mind, educative. My dinners were never meant to be an alternative restaurant.”

Despite Reynolds’s understated, often private, demeanor, he thrives on this sort of marketplace banter. In fact, it’s an essential ingredient of the eight-week-long course he’s taught each spring in western France for two decades—part of the reason he’s been hesitant to open up a school of his own here in Portland, engrossed as he is with French culture. Each day during the course, he leads students through open-air market halls to meet butchers, cheesemakers and farmers. Afterward he schools his students in the tenets of fish fumet and pot-au-feu. And while his charges fervently, sometimes nervously at first, chop and boil and bake, Reynolds guides them with gentle directives like those he’s offering me now.

“Today you’re going to make tomato sauce the French way. You’ll need shallots,” he says as he grabs several, “and tomatoes and beef stock. You’ll sauté the shallots and then add the tomatoes and reduce those. Then add the stock and reduce it some more.”

Reynolds folds his hands over his belly and peers at me uncertainly over the rim of his glasses, then continues. “You’re going to ask the tomatoes to do something,” he instructs. I realize I’m expected to remember this and fervently begin taking notes: ASK-TOMATO ... DO-SOMETHING.

“I used to order this dish in the restaurants of Lyon,” Reynolds resumes. He hasn’t yet revealed to me what dish he’s talking about—indeed, he possesses the communicative quality of a Jedi master, revealing only the information he thinks his acolytes need at any given moment.

“Chicken liver flan with tomato sauce,” he says, looking up and to the left as though relishing some far-off memory. “The dish will shape your palate. That’s the surprise ... if you get it right.”

In Reynolds’s world, there’s a very specific way to “get it right.” While mistakes are allowed, deviation from his method—which is strictly French—isn’t encouraged during class time. Once you’ve mastered his way, however, he encourages improvisation: “This recipe is yours now,” he’ll say.

And that’s exactly the way Josephine Araldo, Reynolds’s beloved mentor from 1978 to 1989, taught him. Before Julia Child became the voice of French cooking in the United States, there was Araldo, an enthusiastic, wise ambassador of French culture and cuisine who believed Americans were “the legitimate inheritors” of her native country’s legacy. Born in 1897 in Brittany and trained in the 1920s at the Paris Cordon Bleu, she moved to San Francisco at age 25 and soon became what New York Times food writer Craig Claiborne once called, cliché notwithstanding, “a living legend.”

From the depths of her home kitchen, Araldo mentored the likes of Alice Waters and Marion Cunningham until her death at age 92. After her passing, Reynolds continued to run his prestigious French restaurant Le Trou, but his calling as a teacher, a calling he says Araldo revealed to him, oraclelike, was strong. In 1996 he closed up his restaurant, jump-started two cooking schools in Colorado and then moved to Portland.

In Reynolds’s surprisingly modest kitchen, a picture of an elfin 88-year-old Araldo in white chef jacket and toque presides above the stove. As we begin making cauliflower soup, he gestures toward the photo. “She had fabulous hands,” he says wistfully as he breaks apart a head of cauliflower with his own.

“Josephine had 5,000 students, and she never left her name. That’s how the French teach. In America it’s all about ego. She changed people’s lives. I want to figure out how to do that until I’m 90.” He grabs European butter out of the fridge as he speaks. “She touched a lot of people who touched a lot of people. The wave has gone out really far.”

It’s clear that there is no way to understand Reynolds without first getting to know Araldo. He co-authored a cookbook with her titled From a Breton Garden, published in 1990, and continually summons her spirit, often emulating her tiny, French-accented voice: “Sing! It will improve zee cooking.”

Reynolds snaps to the present and begins showing me the right way to salt the soup. “It’s OK to stick your finger in the pot as long as you use a different finger each time, so you have 10 chances to get it right.” We each take a taste. “Its flavor is horizontal,” Reynolds says. “It’s flat. Now add a pinch of salt, and the flavor is going to move visibly.” I add a pinch, but I must admit I can’t see anything happening. “Now taste it again. Then add more salt. Its flavor is getting rounder. It fills your mouth. It’s pure. It’s very appreciative.” I see. I add another pinch. I watch. I taste it 10 times with 10 different fingers, and slowly the flavor and texture of the soup waltz into unison.

Not only does Reynolds see flavor visibly, but he also hears it talking to him. After he tastes the soup for the 10th time, he says, “There’s almost a little puff of air that denotes fennel. And if it says fennel, I can put it in because it told me to.”

To “modernize” the soup, we blend some of it with watercress—we’ll fill each bowl with green and white soup. I ask Reynolds what Araldo, a stickler for French tradition, might think of such a concoction. “She’d say, ‘Zat was unsurpassed.’”

Reynolds’s personal narrative seems to start and end with Araldo, as though everything that came before was inconsequential—a gastronomic version of Plato’s cave allegory. If pressed for personal details of his distant past, he steers the conversation toward lyrical meditations on honeysuckle eau-de-vie or cheesemakers from Gascony. He wants his students to live and breathe food as he does—to see that in a mere tablespoon of sweet cream or a wedge of camembert lies a rich world of culture, memory and sensuality—and he seems uncomfortable inserting his own biographical variables into that formula.

Which is why in the same instant when I uncover a glimmer of his life aside from Araldo—for instance, that he was born in Boston, the youngest of two brothers and a sister, or that he has a bachelor’s degree in French literature from Suffolk University and a master’s in education from the University of Illinois, or that he studied in France with Madeline Kamman before opening his restaurant, Le Trou, or even that when he’s not driving around in his blue minivan with his French poodle, Thomas, riding in the back, he’s riding solo on his 1977 BMW motorcycle—he’s already walking me through the history of tonight’s main entrée.

The recipe for Suprême de Volaille—chicken breast stuffed with fromage blanc, camembert, chestnuts and fresh herbs—comes from Araldo’s time at the Cordon Bleu. “This is meant to reflect the glory of the Napoleonic empire,” Reynolds explains, “but Josephine always said her grandmother thought Napoleon was too violent.”

After he’s spun his tale, I make the mistake of telling him my dream of becoming a butcher someday. Reynolds seizes the opportunity to delve into my personal narrative, handing me the butcher’s knife and a whole chicken to cut up. I’d neglected to tell him, however, that I’m not actually all that confident when it comes to butchering chickens; without judgment, he walks me through the process wing by wing, leg by leg, nudging me along with his hands, and stopping me just before I slice through the middle of the tender breast meat—“we want a clean sweep, not a hack.” His movements are swift and decisive.

“Have you read the story in my book about the time my students made dinner for the butcher?” Reynolds asks. He’s recently self-published his own book—a small, palm-sized collection of recipes and stories from France that he’s elegantly titled An Excuse to Be Together.

Reynolds and I finish stuffing the chickens and open an apéritif—“something with bubbles,” he says, “from Apremont.” John Taboada, who studied with Reynolds in 1995, arrives and begins leafing through his cookbooks. Weffers and Cole, who both attended Reynolds’s course in France last spring, walk through the front door greeting each other jovially.

During our meal—always the final flourish of Reynolds’s lessons—we eat our chicken liver flans in contented silence. We overcooked them, distracted as we were with Napoleon and Josephine (Araldo, not the empress), but the meaty tomato sauce has gracefully hidden that fact, yielding a strangely delightful combination of creaminess and acidity.

Not wanting to bother heating up the soup we made earlier, Reynolds decides to serve it at room temperature, “like the Italians do.” Meanwhile, Taboada, Cole and Weffers reminisce about France. It’s clear that Reynolds has changed their lives, in no small part by continuing to mentor them free-of-charge long after they attended his cooking classes. Such ongoing advice certainly makes his courses, which cost $1,000 per week in both Portland and France, seem all the more worth it.

But even if students choose not to remain friends with Reynolds afterward, several chefs in town —including Whims, who sponsored employees at Genoa to study with him when she was co-owner—say that compared to the $40,000 it can cost to attend a two-year accredited culinary school, students are likely to get the framework they need from just eight weeks with Reynolds. “They’ll get a more cultured approach, a more gastronomic approach, as opposed to just the nuts and bolts of cooking,” says Whims.

Indeed, Reynolds’s avowed goal is to help aspiring line cooks and home cooks take their skills to the next level, without incurring massive debt. Which is why Nate Fridena, a line cook at the Detour Café, a quaint little bistro on SE Division St, took classes from him this summer. Since he finished the course, Fridena’s employers have been so impressed that they sent out a mass e-mail urging other restaurateurs to allow their employees to take time off to learn from Reynolds. “We watched Nate metamorphose from a journeyman line cook into the makings of a fine chef,” the message attests.

For Taboada’s part, in the decade since he took courses from Reynolds in France, he’s continued to swap professional advice with him, and he’s coaxed a few of his employees into taking classes from Reynolds as well. “Robert became a friend after being a teacher. He makes himself available to everyone.”

Even to those who express no desire to pursue a future in the restaurant world, such as Cole, a 29-year-old emergency room nurse by profession, who met Reynolds through Taboada. (Indeed, most of Reynolds’s students find him this way, through random degrees of separation.) In exchange for impromptu lessons over the past four years, Cole—who says he’s merely interested in cooking as a hobby—did construction on Reynolds’s house. But last spring, he refinanced his own house so he could go to France with Reynolds. “You don’t meet Robert and forget who he is,” Cole says. “He’s built a life around something he loves.”

After we finish off several bottles of wine and the remarkably rich and refined caul-wrapped chicken breasts, Reynolds serves us delicate little crêpes filled with orange custard. “In politer times, people would see Josephine eating dinner in a restaurant and ask the maître d’ if they’d allow her to prepare something special for them. Crêpes were one of her signature dishes,” Reynolds recounts of his mentor Araldo as he takes a bite. “When Josephine was in the hospital, I fed her her last meal before she died. I put coffee in a jam jar and a little half & half and sugar, and I brought her crêpes.”

Hopefully, with the opening of his new school, which he’s named, simply, Robert Reynolds Chef Studio, we’ll no longer have to wait for him to show up unexpectedly at other people’s restaurants. He says the doors will always be open.

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