Best Restaurants 2017: Discover Nacho Theory

Portland Monthly’s 2017 Chefs of the Year: Tusk’s Sam Smith and Joshua McFadden

With Middle Eastern spices and farm-fresh rigor, Tusk’s co-owners make vegetables taste fresh again.

By Karen Brooks October 12, 2017 Published in the November 2017 issue of Portland Monthly

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Tusk’s Sam Smith (left) and Joshua McFadden often head down the street to Angel Face to talk shop and strategize new dishes.

Joshua McFadden and Sam Smith met in a sports bar kitchen circa 2011: two talented unknown chefs, building hoagies while plotting their entrance into Portland’s promised land.

McFadden had secret cool cred. At New York’s Franny’s—thank him or curse him—he made kale salad a national sensation. Smith, meanwhile, had mastered drop-dead hummus and modern Israeli flavors at Philly’s famed Zahav. Their visions synced a year later at Ava Gene’s, with McFadden as chef, Smith as aide-de-camp, their menus based less on specific Italian recipes than on ideas about how food should be composed—on the palate, not the plate—and a serious commitment to Portland farmers. They could vault even celery to excitement, alongside dates, chiles, and Sardinian cheese.

This year Tusk, the duo’s ode to Oregon crops, Fleetwood Mac, and Moroccan spices, challenged seasonal cooking’s status quo with a dynamic, veg-centric approach. Here, a homegrown salad of parched wheat, marigolds, and peaches works alongside cracked olives, rose-petaled feta, and some major flatbread. Smith commands Tusk’s kitchen, with McFadden as behind-the-scenes agitator and author of one of the year’s best cookbooks, Six Seasons: A New Way with Vegetables. (McFadden also bought Ava Gene’s.)

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A spread of olives, seasonal salads, and rose-petal-covered feta and flax crackers at Tusk

Last year, we anointed Tusk a rising star. Now, the McFadden-Smith approach is unmistakable: a sensibility that informs a way of cooking, eating, and running a restaurant.

In a recent conversation, Smith unlocked some key principles:

Eat the Israeli way “When I went to Israel with Zahav’s Michael Solomonov, it was eye-opening—foods I’d never seen. But what spoke to me was the overall experience, which is what we try to capture at Tusk. No traditional courses. No rules on how to eat. You just dip or bundle whatever.”

Ingredients matter “Every ingredient at Tusk is a conscious choice: where it comes from, who we support, what we believe in. We work with as many as 15 farmers; Katz vinegars, each batch handmade; whole spices from Seattle’s Villa Jerada, drawn from a family Moroccan farm. Ingredients reflect the people who grew them.”

The nacho theory “The good stuff is always stacked on top of nachos; then it’s all dry chips on the bottom. You have to build every bite, every layer. Joshua drilled this into me every day.”

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