Q&A: Clyde Common’s New Chef Johnny Leach

Fresh from David Chang’s Momofuku empire, a Beaverton native gives a taste of things to come from Portland’s most anticipated menu makeover.

By Karen Brooks February 4, 2014

Chef Johnny Leach

Portland’s next food chapter arrived in 2013, as modern cuisine made friends with Portland’s DIY credo (Holdfast Dining), Spain got several makeovers (Ataula, Ración), the bar got personal (Expatriate), and everyone, it seemed, had a turntable.

It’s only a beginning. A fresh wave of cooks, armed with technical skills and fresh thinking, has decamped in Portland’s promised land to join veterans pushing and expanding their own visions. As Eat Beat recently reported, 2014 could be a feeding frenzy, with at least 10 restaurants ready to jump into the fray.

A new face high on my list of intrigues: Chef Johnny Leach, 32, tapped to reboot Clyde Common’s menu on February 7. I think of the Clyde (1014 SW Stark St) as anything but common. It’s Portland’s unofficial living room, hosting one of the America’s leading craft bars. But the food has never quite matched the promise.

I hope Leach can change that. In 2006, after a first-timer's stint at Pazzo and culinary schooling in Eugene, the Beaverton native headed for New York “with a bag of clothes” and cracked some of New York’s most competitive kitchens, training at Geoffrey Zakarian’s Town and Mario Batali’s swanky Italian Del Posto (under noted chef Mark Ladner). For the past five years, Leach has sweat the trenches of David Chang’s Momofuku empire, line-cooking at the two-Michelin-starred Momofuku Ko and, most recently, logging chef de cuisine duty at the casually tony Ma Peche, where playful Asian fusion meet haute ingredients. 

While all is fair is love and war and résumés, what does the experience mean and will it matter? Most important, how will it taste? I floated these questions to Leach, who referred to me as “dude” throughout our first conversation. I’m guessing he’ll fit into Portland just fine.  

Give us a taste of Clyde Common: the Johnny Leach Edition. What can we expect—and what dishes are you excited about?  
Something along the lines of refined, rustic food. More delicious seafood, cooked and raw, and more variety with meats and vegetables. REALLY am excited about doing more large plates: Baked cod and chorizo pies. Baked fideos with pig ears and manila clams. Sturgeon ham and pickles. Whole braised oxtails with “everything rolls”—essentially, a Parker roll crushed with everything garnish, like an everything bagel.

What ingredients or dishes are you obsessing over?
Oh man. That changes constantly. Right now I am obsessing over all the Dungeness crab that I have such easy access to out here. Also Oregon uni—fucking unreal!! A lot of local cultured dairy has been amazing. I also have been on a macaroon kick for sure, while croissants are also high on the list. 

What did you learn from David Chang and Mario Batali? What influences from Ma Peche and Del Posto will we find in your food?
From Chang, the ability to disregard any pretenses with food or techniques and put an intense focus on deliciousness. From Del Posto, the amazing variety and depth of Italian culture translated onto the plate. How that all translates here will revolve around specific Oregon and Pacific Northwest ingredients presented with whimsy and respect for the product. I want people to feel comfortable but also to eat food they can’t have anywhere else in the city.

Biggest difference between a New York kitchen and a Portland kitchen?
Manhattan kitchens are a bit more intense. There are a lot of eyes on the restaurants on a global scale, which adds to the stress. Portland kitchens have more of a team goal orientation.

When people look back in five years, in a word or a sentence, what will they remember about Johnny Leach? 
Someone who had a very high respect for his craft.

Clyde Common helped pioneer Portland’s modern bar scene. Jeffrey Morgenthaler’s The Bar Book hits shelves this spring. Is the bar a separate groove … or possibly a beat in your kitchen?
Jeff and I have worked together in the past, and I am very proud to work alongside his bar. That said, there will be future projects for sure.

What’s the biggest misconception about Portland’s food scene? 
That it is too vanilla.

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