Food After Covid

Farm Spirit's Aaron Adams on Why Takeout Might Still Save Us

“I remember Portland 15 years ago. Looking back and evaluating, we lost our way. This is a big fucking wake-up call for us. No one needs 10 courses after this.”

By Karen Brooks March 28, 2020

To take out or not to take out, that is the question. Portland chefs, used to divining pig parts and vegetable cycles, are suddenly on their own to grapple with new ethical dilemmas in the age of COVID-19, as mandates call for takeout/delivery methods only. Save jobs, cook, feed, and nurture? Or … safety first, for all, at any cost? 

There's no road map or consensus in a state known for rugged individualism. 

But one chef made no bones about his decision to fold up shop: Pok Pok's Andy Ricker, who shuttered his takeout operation yesterday, declaring no risk was worth a chicken wing. Railed Ricker, in a raw, emotional interview with PoMo, “I believe all fucking restaurants should close, unless they can operate like a medical facility.”

I called some chefs in the take-out lane to gauge their reactions and approaches. One this is clear: whether they continue on tomorrow, next week, or beyond, new ways of thinking are emerging, new templates are being born. Ultimately, Portland may look to the past for its future. That might not be a bad thing. 

So far, the most usual—and extreme—take-out model comes from the colorful, rough-cut, forward-thinking chef Aaron Adams, owner of the four-seat, spores-rumpling, plant-based Fermenter as well as Farm Spirit, around the corner—one of the country’s only upscale vegan tasting-menu restaurants. 

Since I reviewed both spots in February, Adams and chef-partner Scott Winegard have morphed Farm Spirit into Farm Spirits Provisions (1403 SE Belmont St)—a pick-up, $25 gluten-free vegan meal, with the likes of creamy celeriac-kale soup, homemade smoky tempeh, and “sunshine cookies” placed curbside in your car trunk. In a scene that would feel at home in I Am Legend, bike riders, a core Fermenter following, are instructed to wait around the corner until a signal is given: the box awaits on an outside table. 

Meanwhile, a small crew of cooks must report daily temperatures and answer symptom questions before being allowing to report for duty. And Adams, who likes to lay out all his thinking in manifestos, posted his 17-point kitchen sanitation flow chart on Instagram … for transparency.  

In a free-ranging conversation with Adams, he shared his thoughts with me on why he’s embraced takeout and why you’ll never call Farm Spirit fancy again. Here, in his own words, raw and uncut:

“I’m a hypochondriac. My knuckles started bleeding while I was working our take-out window. That was our first pivot, a window. We didn’t finish that day. This is very important for me to communicate. I was one of the first to close [my restaurants] saying this is not safe. I was like, fucking pull the plug a week and a half ago. I thought we can do a take-out window at Farm Spirit. People called, we had delivery by bike. We started around 11 a.m. Busy? We did $1,000 in sales. Right?

Then I left to go to post office. Scott went in to mail a package. By time he came back to car, I read a news story and said, ‘Shut it down.’ It looked unsafe. Guys next to each other, customers walking up. I posted ‘sold out’ on our Instagram. We weren’t. We had a ton left. I just thought, ‘I can’t do this. I don’t know how to say it.’

For a few days, I was really depressed. I saw a Facebook video by Nong (of Nong’s Khao Mon Gai). She said we can figure out something. It was inspiring. I thought, ‘We can put out minds to this. Fucking sanitize everything. No contact with anyone.’ 

I don’t want to downplay anything. I’m afraid to say anything, that people will say, You’re not a doctor, you fucking idiot.‘ But I talked to doctors before doing anything. The (pre-work screenings) are the same procedure my wife, who is a nurse, uses at Legacy Emanuel.

I totally respect everyone’s opinion. I have total respect for Andy. But he’s working on a different scale. We have a unique physical set-up. I have two kitchens 400 feet away; cooks can be isolated. I have one cook in one kitchen during the day, the other in the other kitchen. They leave, clean, and sanitize as they go. 

I’m not making money on this. Why am I doing it? For one, I’m worried about crops rotting in the field. Farmers are freaking out; some only have distribution in restaurants. I’m trying to keep staff from going crazy. We going slowly. We’re only doing 40 tickets this week, and only four meals in each time slot. We don’t want to overwhelm everyone. We want to test the system before doing more.

We feel our job is to continue serving people in the community. It’s safer by far than going to a grocery store, in my humble opinion. I hope that more grocery stores move to loading your trunks rather than people walking around the fucking aisles. It terrifies me. And it needs to be said, I have nothing but respect for Andy, I don’t discount those opinions at all, zero discounting. 

Going forward, I know this: Farm Spirit will never be the same. Because what Farm Spirit was will not be needed. No one needs 10 courses after this. Maybe we’ll have some kind of tasting menu. But it will be way more accessible to serve the community. This pick-up model is something we may continue with in the future. I think we’re really good at it.

I’ve only been here 15 years. But I remember what Portland was like 15 years ago. Looking back and evaluating, we lost our way. This is a big fucking wake-up call for us. We need to go back to exhibiting the values that made me fall in love with Portland in the first place. It was not Armani suits or exclusivity. We need to get our flannels back on and get back to the business of being a Portland restaurant.”

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