Feast 2018

Why a Booze-Free Dinner Was the Most Important Meal at Feast Portland 2018

Five of the nation’s best-known chefs, Gabriel Rucker to Andrew Zimmern, are the new face of food culture sobriety.

By Karen Brooks September 19, 2018

Left to right: Evan Zimmerman, Sean Brock, Gregory Gourdet, Gabriel Rucker, Michael Solomonov, and Andrew Zimmern

Image: Karen Brooks

When five trailblazing chefs throw down a dinner, we expect some very good food. What no one imagined was the emotion—the sheer raw power of iconic cooks (some with more medals than a four-star general) all baring their souls with tales of sobriety to a small group of eaters gathered at a Feast dinner last Friday at Northwest Portland’s Blockhouse PDX.

Already, it was an eclectic, talent-stacked lineup: Portland’s rule-breaking Gabriel Rucker (Le Pigeon/Canard), Top Chef star Gregory Gourdet (Departure), Bizarre Foods TV host Andrew Zimmern, Southern food heritage guru Sean Brock (Husk Nashville), and the Philly’s modern Israeli food thinker Michael Solomonov (Zahav). But the chefs who strode out to introduce their meal left no doubt: this was the first collaboration of its kind. No booze, no drugs, no macho swaggering—all the things that define (and destroy) the food industry. They were simply feeling joy for another day of sobriety. Their lives have changed and so have their kitchens. Now, together, they might inspire others. As Zimmern put it: “We need to get past toxic masculinity.” The zero-proof idea is already being duplicated in other cities. Adds Zimmern: “That’s impressive.”

Andrew Zimmern prepares caviar brioche toast with seaweed butter and lemon

Image: Karen Brooks

As their stories unfolded, they turned funny to serious to choked-up. Rucker, who brought the idea to Feast’s Mike Thelin, got the ball rolling: “Nothing preachy. We all struggle. We want to lead by example. I was nine when my dad told me he was an addict. We don’t have to be hard-partying guys.” Added Solomonov: “Together, we have a combined 57 years of sobriety. This is historic. The days of whispering, excuses, and sweeping things under the rug are over.”

With that, they disappeared, and the courses started to flow. Maybe it was the magic of the moment, but somehow the food tasted like something more—not just invention, but the incalculable taste of hearts on plates.

Greg Gourdet's Haitian chocolate ganache dome with vanilla-peanut brittle ice cream and cacao ice

Image: Karen Brooks

A booze-free dinner needs exciting non-alcoholic drinks, and former Portland bartender Evan Zimmerman (remember smoked ice? That was him) showed where this thing can go. Bartenders always talk about bringing the kitchen to the bar, but Zimmerman actually pulled it off. The juice of apples smoked with pine needles and grape vines paired with Zimmern’s Sichuan shrimp and leeks, and a delicate caramelized onion juice vibed with Solomonov’s lobster-wrapped ribeye and porcini. Nitro-charged Coke, dusted with salted peanut butter, rolled out with the last course: Gourdet’s complex Haitian chocolate dome sided by cacao pulp ice, a riff on the Haitian hot chocolate of his youth. It’s one of the best desserts I’ve ever eaten. And FYI, it’s coming to Departure this fall.

To close out the night, the chefs returned to our tables. “Did you like the meal?” asked Rucker. “It was so quiet out here. We’re used to rowdy drinking crowds. We were worried.” Not to worry—this was one for the record books.

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