Q&A: Natural Selection's Chef Aaron Woo
“The culinary pendulum has been swinging away from meat and toward plants,” Cooking Light writes in its Trailblazing Chef Award Winners. “Not that pork belly—or charcuterie or barbecue—is in eclipse, but the real kitchen magicians can dazzle with broccoli and farro.”
If magicians wield vegetables, Chef Aaron Woo must be a wizard. The Portland chef recently received Cooking Light’s Produce Innovation Award for his “technical acumen, attention to detail, and endless drive to amp up the flavor” of his “eye-opening delectable vegan and vegetarian food.”
Best known as the talent behind Natural Selection—the most upscale of Alberta Street’s abundant vegetarian options—Woo also owns Vita Café, the mostly vegetarian comfort food joint next door, and co-owns Rose City Futsal, a new indoor soccer facility and public house bursting with Portland pride. We sat down with Woo to discuss and photograph his veggie-based wizardry.
Eat Beat: Since your menu is based on produce, and you’re sourcing locally and seasonally, is it more of a challenge to create new menu items in the winter?
Aaron Woo: You know, people think that, but I don’t think it is. I think on the staff, it’s more difficult in the summer, because we have so much variety that we overload them. Whereas in the wintertime, we slow things down; there’s a lot more long-cooking things and warming, comforting things. We get to use a lot more dried ingredients, we get to manipulate things a little bit more. And in a sense, it’s almost easier in the winter, because with the 'comfortingness' of food, you play off people’s emotions a little more.
Speaking of variety and manipulation, you recently won the Produce Innovation Award. Is there a particular instance of produce innovation that stands out to you?
I honestly don’t necessarily think that anything we’re doing is new. What we are doing that’s different is focusing on vegetables and highlighting that. And we’re doing all of those techniques and all of those skills and applying them multiple times to the same plate. You only have eight choices here each week, so for each of those eight choices, we will put a lot of technique and a lot of creative thought into each dish. It’s not that the technique’s new, it’s not that the product is new, and not that the components are new. It’s just that we’re putting it all together on the same plate for you.
Last I heard, you were still eating meat and dairy and gluten. How does that omnivorous diet inform your Natural Selection preparation?
I don’t eat as much meat as I used to. I’m more about balance in life in general. We don’t preach to people here, we don’t advocate for people to be vegetarians, but we do feel like you should eat more veggies.
I have a profound admiration for people who can just eat vegetables because it takes a lot of thought. And we put a lot of thought into the food here. But at the same time, I’m a chef. I eat things. And I like to eat things. There’s certain things I don’t eat, for sure. But I think it makes a better end product because we look at the layers, whether it’s seasoning or fat content or acidity or texture or freshness. We think about it all. And being exposed to more types of food and food products gives us a little bit more to work with.
Now I’m curious. What don’t you eat?
There’s some odd animal parts that I’m just not into. There are things that are considered inhumane that I try to shy away from. That being said, if I’m traveling somewhere and there’s a specialty of the region, there’s a really good chance I’m going to try it. Food connects you to the culture, whether it’s in another country or a different part of the states or a different demographic base. I’ll certainly try anything once, even if my body doesn’t agree with me.
Do you want to talk a little bit about your current project, Rose City Futsal?
Sure! I have some partners, and we’re all really ingrained in the soccer world, and so we opened an indoor soccer facility. It’s a 30,000-sq-ft indoor warehouse. We have three futsal fields. Futsal is a type of South American soccer: it’s 5-on-5 and it’s designed as high school training level of soccer. In that warehouse, we built a 3600-sq-ft pub. We’ve got eight beers on draft, we’ve got imports, we’ve got locals, we’ve got gluten-free, we’ve got Oregon wines on tap, we’ve got Stumptown cold brew, and we’ve got a short menu: there’s some vegan food there, some gluten free food, there’s some meat food. And essentially, there’s a little something for everyone.
It sounds like you’re pretty busy between Rose City Futsal and Natural Selection and Vita Cafe, but when you do get a night off, where do you like to go in Portland to grab a bite or a drink?
When I’m not at work, I just really want to spend time with my family, so I always go to family friendly places. Biwa is super family friendly. We do like pho a lot. I’ve found that Hokusei is the best sushi in town, and it’s kind of warped me, because now I don’t want to eat anywhere else. There are so many places on my list right now, but it’s tough with two kids. It’s really all about trying to make the balance happen and getting them to sit through three or four courses.
What exactly does produce innovation look like? Feast your eyes on our slide show of Natural Selection’s entire menu!
3033 NE Alberta St.