Chef Ryan Ostler and baking wiz Katherine Zacher are always in the right place at the wrong time. In San Francisco, striking out on their own in the nascent DIY food scene, the couple earned a cult following among the city's food writers and adventurous diners.
But they were always 20 feet from stardom; never able to make it to the front of the stage; never able to capitalize on their food-forward ideas. Other chefs, meanwhile, cashed in on the ideas they helped pioneer, twisted comfort food to mashups of Asian cooking and Texas barbecue.
The duo hoped their luck would change in Portland, with their first restaurant, Communion Bakehouse, a homey little cafe-cum-bakery at 6116 SE Milwaukie Blvd. They opened in 2019, making do with a jerry-rigged pizza oven for baking, and conjuring every bite from scratch – not just curing house pastrami for a sandwich, but making the French bread and all the condiments. Even a grilled cheese got the works, oven-fresh pain de mie bread and four kinds of French cheese.
Still, the fates were not with them, and Communion Bakehouse struggled to find a following. But whispers persisted about an off-the-radar place making wonderful baked goods, Danish pastries to burnt Basque cheesecake, not to mention bowls of Thai spice-tingling, Texas barbecue-clad jook (Chinese porridge), once a specialty at Ostler’s short-lived but critically loved downtown food cart, Jook Joint. I had to try it.
My review of Communion Bakeshop, written in February for our April issue, has finally landed (read it here). It's a bit of a love note to two crazy-passionate chefs without social media skills struggling to make a go of it, with lovingly detailed food (even though most customers came for the “All American Breakfast.”)
But the fates have intervened again. In the six weeks since writing the review, the world turned upside down: the restaurant scene has been gut-punched and Ostler and Zacher, once again, are scrambling to survive in the only world they know: cooking.
Zacher describes it as just one more overwhelming experience in a long line of hurdles. “For us, it seems par for the course, almost laughable as it relates to our trials in the restaurant world.”
Chefs usually dread a restaurant review. But Ostler and Zacher told me this morning that it was make-or-break time for them. “To be honest, we've struggled so long in this place, we were just holding out for your review, hoping it would bring us exposure. We thought Communion Bakehouse would be the end of our struggles. It just didn't turn out that way. We're so burnt out right now. We keep going because of the love from our small group of supporters. It meant so much that you wrote about us. You made us feel like a real restaurant.”
To be honest, I’m crushed, too. With Communion Bakeshop, I felt I had discovered a real gem. I knew a full review might give the restaurant the following it deserved: “You’ll find no tortured concepts, no chef titles, no live-edge counters. Communion Bakeshop reminds me of Old Portland, pre-Bon Appétit Portland, nobody-cares-about-Portland Portland, a time when every neighborhood had a low-key gem run by cooks who lived to share their food. We knew we were in good hands. We felt like the luckiest people in the world.”
Right now, the couple has limited recourses. They financed the restaurant with help from family, doing everything themselves, down to building the tables. Their landlord has forgiven rent for the month and they're waiting to hear about disaster relief funding.
They tried pivoting to takeout pizza only, but 40 diners ordered at once. Ostler, alone in the kitchen, making scratch pizza, threw in the towel. “I wanted the money,” he says, “not a heart attack.”
Now, in a twist of irony, the couple might find their following at last. A brainstorm to sell “mystery pastry boxes,” filled with five or six surprise treats, caught fire last Sunday. “I thought a few people in the neighborhood might be interested,” says Zacher. “I got 20 orders in one hour.”
The couple plans to ramp up this Sunday, with 40 options. Diners can order online (until they run out) for pick-up on a table outside the door.
“I'm really happy,” says Zacher. “This gives me creative freedom. People get what they get in the mystery box. Last week we included our Danish with orange marmalade and thyme. And I made an olive palmier! People are much more forgiving now. They're excited to see what's in the box; it's a gift. Going into spring, I'm already thinking about a spring flowers them or maybe Mexican pastries – conchas, gingerbread pigs, and other classics, but with a Communion Bakehouse spin.”
Even in a pandemic, it seems, you can't take the dreams out of a cook.