Q&A: Coquine Chef Katy Millard
Coquine's chef Katy Millard has guts. Cases in point: she asked for a kitchen job after a killer meal at Paris's Restaurant Guy Savoy in broken French while backpacking (and got it), she toughed it out in the fiery kitchens of five Michelin starred Parisian restaurants over five years, she stood toe-to-toe with chef Daniel Patterson of San Francisco's lauded Coi and Plum, and she's not going to compromise on finding the perfect space for her own Portland restaurant.
While the search for Coquine's forever home continues, Millard and partner Ksandek Podbielski host one-of-a-kind dinner parties at urban wineries, organic farms, and local restaurants—complete with a perfectly curated vintage plates, flatware, wines, and soundtracks—not to mention elegant, comforting food with a lot of heart. We sat down with Millard to chat about her move to Portland, her dream brick-and-mortar, and her tips for putting together a perfect dinner party playlist.
Tell us a little about your culinary path, from Paris to Patterson to Portland.
I've been cooking since high school. I studied Hospitality Business at Michigan State University, and cooked here and there until I graduated. After graduation, I took a backpacking trip across Europe. After a couple of months on trains and in hostels, I met my dad and stepmother in Paris, and they took me to lunch at Restaurant Guy Savoy. It was a revelation to me. I had never eaten such perfect food. And I was determined to learn to cook that way, so I asked M. Savoy for a job. He laughed at me, but gave me a chance. I thought I would stay for a couple of months, but five years and five Michelin-starred restaurants later, I moved to San Francisco. I happened upon Coi quite by accident, a chef that I met during my job search insisted that I stage there. I had never heard of it. Daniel Patterson's food was another revelation—this time in the form of balance. I accepted his job offer without hesitation. Daniel and I clicked, and I became sous-chef in a couple of months, and went on to help him open Plum a couple of years later. I moved to Portland at the end of 2010, ready to forge my own path.
What, if anything, sets your personal cooking style apart from your notable mentors?
The biggest difference is that the food I cook now is not fine dining. Each of my mentors has had a major impact on my culinary voice. In France I learned classic French techniques and the value of consistency in the kitchen. Daniel really pushed me to think critically about the food I cooked, "Does this dish make sense?". All of this training informs how I approach cooking now, I still want everything to be perfect, but I want to cook the kind of food you can eat everyday.
What makes Portland the place to settle and open your own restaurant?
I moved to Portland very specifically to be closer to my family. I spent a lot of time being far away...but I have fallen in love with Portland. I wanted to settle in a place where the community is very connected to its food. A proximity to farmland, organic farmers with integrity, a population that fishes and forages, and people who value a good meal—these things are all very important to me. There's a community of chef-driven restaurants that shares these values in Portland.
You're known for bringing a lot of special touches to dinners. Is each site different or do you have a signature style you apply wherever you go?
We certainly have an aesthetic that we aim to create. When we started Coquine, we had a long conversation about the feeling we wanted to evoke with our dinners. We wanted natural colors, wild-gathered flowers and green things, and a table that was refined without being stuffy. Each site brings different possibilities and challenges, because we try to bring our atmosphere to any space we take over. For example, it's not everywhere that you can hang a chandelier from a chain suspended between two buildings. But we put a lot of thought into building a very warm, inviting, comfortable situation that fosters good conversation and a special experience.
How do you pick the playlist for a dinner?
We try to play music that fits the experience. A backyard BBQ is a more high energy gathering than a dinner party for 20, or a restaurant setting. Making dinner party playlists is one of my partner Ksandek's favorite things to do. Music is a bit like food, in that variety is important to keep it satisfying. Right now, our dinner party playlist includes stuff from Phosphorescent, Frank Ocean, Johnny Cash, Peggy Lee, David Bowie, and Otis Redding. Pro tips: pick music you like, but that isn't necessarily too personal—the last thing you want during a dinner party is to be reminded of an ex. Then make a list that will play for at least 3/4 the length of your party and loop it on shuffle.
In an ideal world, where would your brick-and-mortar restaurant be located? What will the vibe be like?
We want to open a neighborhood restaurant, most likely on the east side, but finding the right space for Coquine is more important than making Coquine fit into a specific neighborhood. The pop-up dinners we're continuing to stage are a way for us to offer a glimpse at the kind of food and vibe we'd like to create. Friendly and attentive service is as important to us as the quality of the food. The sort of place you feel equally comfortable having a quick snack and a beer after work, as spending the better part of your evening over a full meal and really fantastic bottle of wine, or just a cocktail to cap the night off. Somewhere that is altogether welcoming, unpretentiously elegant, warm, and delicious.
When that place becomes a reality, you'll read about it on Eat Beat first! Want to get a feel for Millard's culinary style? She'll be hosting the Coi Cookbook release party on Saturday, November 2nd at the SE Wine Collective with Coi chef Daniel Patterson and wine pairings from Anam Cara Cellars, Bethel Heights Vineyard, Crowley Wines, and Division Winemaking Company. More details for this and other upcoming Coquine events can be found here.