Portland Monthly's 2018 Chef of the Year: Karl Holl
Farm to table is so yesterday. How about a farmer-chef who raises pigs, forages, and transforms sunchokes and potato skins into magic edible powders ... and then brings it all to the table? Now that’s interesting. Not many chefs, in Portland or beyond, can redefine the semimystical notion of “local cooking.” But supreme culinary multitasker Karl Holl, 33, does just that, with a hard-core, raise-your-own-meal mentality delivered in an unlikely setting: a cluster of tables inside downtown’s Park Avenue Fine Wines, an open-minded shop with a global reach. It’s not the place you expect to find our Chef of the Year. But hands down, this is the freshest menu in town, literally and figuratively.
His ideas start in the field, fed by whatever his brother Alex yanked that morning from their Sauvie Island farm plot. (The goods also feed the duo’s in-demand catering biz, Spätzle and Speck.) Holl’s menu plays it tight and completely unpretentious, spinning a small collection of intensely seasonal salads, one-off snacks, and daily pastas (including the signature 100-layer mushroom lasagna—the most sinful meatless pasta I’ve ever met). Meat is spare here, often rendered as lard, simmered in ragouts, or cured as terrific charcuterie.
Holl could have stopped with great raw materials. But each ingredient gets a little tweak: the onions charred, the Parmesan smoked. He just can’t help himself. The ingenuity lurks in the kitchen’s survivalist-worthy “no scrap left behind” philosophy. In Holl’s world, every forgotten inch of food is a potential edible, smoked potato skin powder to candied hazelnut debris (i.e., that stuff left in the bowl after the last shells are cracked). Even overripe porcini gills—gills!—are salvaged, transformed into an earthy paste. That, in turn, becomes the base for an elaborate butter to glaze house pastas and risotto.
Tempura recently popped with pickled green beans and nasturtium flowers, its crackling batter dusted with smoked parmigiano and a kicky powder derived from the fermented mash leftover from yet another Holl project: red padron hot sauce. (If Doritos grew in a farm field, they’d taste like this dish.)
Holl closes his argument for adventurous sustainable dining, conclusively, and with a moan: a made-to-order, lava-cake-like chocolate cookie, rifled with Woodblock Chocolate and emboldened by his own sweet, vanilla-perfumed pig lard. Trust me: order two.