Q&A: Bon Appetit's Andrew Knowlton
Feast Portland, the sequel, lands September 19 through 22, 2013. It's an opportunity to celebrate the food town that defied the gods of gastronomy, sit in on conversations with leading foodists, and inhale everything that makes Portland's food scene awesome. Some of the most interesting chefs in the country will be here this week. Feast is like having great out of town guests who happen to cook like mad demons. Check out the remaining tickets here.
To count down to the event, we've been interviewing visiting chefs known for shaking up the status quo. Recently, we chatted with Israeli-born iconoclast Michael Solomonov, who changed the Mid-East conversation at Philly's Zahav, and cult Thai cook Kris Yenbamroong of LA's intriguing Night + Market.
This week belongs to Andrew Knowlton, Bon Appetit's restaurant and drinks editor. Knowlton has his finger on seemingly every trend in the country, and Portland is one of his regular haunts—no other national critic spends more time prowling the city, ferretting out gems, or celebrating its spirit. Knowlton gets what makes Portland tick, and it's refreshing.
Karen Brooks: You use a lot of frequent flyer miles on Portland. You're pretty much considered a local at this point. What are some of your go-to PDX spots?
Andrew Knowlton: I always end up having drinks at Clyde Common because I usually stay at the Ace. I try to hit up Evoe; Kevin (Gibson) makes me feel like I’m in some weird village in Southern France, like I’m at the whim of a mad genius. I go to Broder for trout hash, and Tasty 'n Sons for Burmese red pork stew. I crave those. Andy Ricker took me to a place that everyone goes to now, HA & VL; that's usually a Saturday morning during Feast Portland, when you’re hungover from three days of hangovers. The soups seem restorative and you see the same people you saw basically two hours ago that morning. Late night, I like Biwa's fried kimchi and kara-age (fried chicken). If it's 95 degrees out, I sit outside out at Uno Mas with tacos and a 40 oz Pacifico. I have soft spot for Ned Ludd. It doesn’t get the press that other places do. But I think Jason French is a talented chef. It feels kind of funky and like somebody really cares about what they doing. And that wood-fired oven—it just seems like, how is this place here?
Portland’s Ava Gene’s landed the No. 5 spot on your Best New Restaurants in America list. From your perspective, is it a big step for Portland, a direction for vegetable-driven cuisine nationally, or simply a great restaurant?
All of the above. Vegetables are a now thing. I’m making gross generalizations about Portland but I’m an outsider so I can do that. Portland has a lot of great restaurants. But it seemed like no one was breaking away and doing something a little bit different, though there are certainly ones that do that. But everyone became very charcuterie dependent, very pork dependent. Now, I think that a lot of places, including Ava Gene’s, are making vegetables the star of the plate. That’s not new to people who eat out, but they brought it to a level that anyone can go in and be like ‘oh my God, I love kale now, or I love carrots,’ all those things that most people of my generation grew up despising. Brussels sprouts, beets, all that stuff is what most of us crave now.
I love Portland because it’s that stereotype, kind of stuck in its adolescence. I like going there because it doesn’t feel grown up, it’s never never land. But I think some of the restaurants needed to grow up a little bit. That doesn’t mean that it has to be white tablecloths or that everything needs to be structured. But Ava Gene’s was that next step in the fine dining industry redefining Portland. And then, yeah, I think it’s a fantastic restaurant.
I was not able to make it to Roman Candle. It wasn't open, but I can’t wait to try it when I’m there next week. I think Joshua McFadden is a pretty talented chef. Portland should feel pretty grateful to have somebody like him in town.
Among the prominent national restaurant writers, you are usually ahead of the curve on trend spotting. What’s the hidden gem, the next great food city we’ve never heard of?
In terms of trends, Filipino food is starting to finally pick up. Taking us back to pork, which Filipino food is dependent on. But there are a bunch of places in New York 10 years ago that were doing it, but now some of these hipper, Asian-esque spots are doing it, and that’s your next evolution of Filipino food. It’s pretty rustic in the flavors. Seems like everyone is doing cured egg yolks and bronzed fennel and popped sorghum. Kohlrabi is the next vegetable. Not only did I not like it when I was growing up, I didn’t even know what it was. Now we’re eating kohlrabi left and right. Those are just a few off the top of my head.
City-wise in the US, I think it’s going to be places like St. Louis and Pittsburgh, these old "working man" towns with amazing spaces. Cities are revitalizing them, and chefs find it harder to make it in bigger cities because of the prices. It’s hard to do business so they go back home and go to these smaller cities. So I would say Pittsburgh, St. Louis, even a town like Milwaukee or Madison. Just kind of Midwest places.
After eating your way around the country recently, what surprised you most?
Ten years ago, the gap between New York and San Francisco and then other cities, smaller cities, secondary cities like a Houston or a St. Louis, was huge. It was night and day. But now, if you blindfolded me and plopped me in a restaurant, it would be a lot harder to tell what city I'm in. The consumer is more savvy and the restaurants are trying to be more and more creative. There's more chefs moving from the bigger cities who are going into smaller markets. That’s the biggest, not surprise, but a refreshing thing that’s happening. You truly can be in any American city and get a meal that would stand up to any major city.
Your list of the “20 Most Important Restaurants in America” went beyond the usual suspects, featuring the high-end Restaurant at Meadowood to Pok Pok’s street food and the low-down pits of Franklin’s BBQ. Is influential the same as best?
We didn’t want to say ‘best’ because that would start getting into the granddads of fine dining—the Daniel’s, the French Laundry’s. Some of those places that are still wonderful restaurants, but we didn’t feel that they were as timely as some of these restaurants. We wanted to say important. Influential is the big thing. Like where do chefs go, where do people in the food business go when they go to Portland. Where do they go when they’re in Austin, Texas. The idea was an alien just landed in America and said "right now, where is America dining and what twenty places should I go to?” These were the places we would have sent them. It's a pretty good swath of dining. Little bit of barbeque, little bit of Thai, and fine dining. Just a snapshot in 2013 of what was going on.
Catch Andrew Knowlton at the Beer Breakdown Tasting Panel (12:45 pm, Saturday, Sept 21, Portland Art Museum: Evan H. Roberts Sculpture Hall). At the "Aged and Infused Tasting Panel," Knowlton will share his expertise on how barrel-aging and infusion are two sides of the same delicious coin (4:15 pm, Friday, Sept 20, Portland Art Museum). Portland Monthly is a sponsor of Feast Portland.