Chef Diane Lam is the co-owner of Sunshine Noodles, a funky, contemporary Cambodian pop-up that opened this summer on the patio of Psychic Bar on N Mississippi that was named a PoMo pick for Best Restaurants 2020. Sunshine Noodles was designed to be a haven for safer outdoor dining, with Dance Dance Revolution-style arrows marking one-way foot traffic and guests standing on noodle bowl markers six feet apart. But with the statewide freeze on both indoor and outdoor dining, Lam estimates business is down 40 percent. So she decided to do a TV dinner-style takeout Thanksgiving meal, which sold out and is serving over 100 guests. Here are three things she’s thankful for.
1) The growing community of chefs and business owners that I call now on a daily basis [including Matta, Han Oak, Fish & Rice, and Kim Jong Grillin]. Last year, everyone was kind of doing their own thing, and it was hush-hush how things were operated.... Everyone was so wrapped in their own ecosystem for their restaurant, and it worked for them. Now, we’re all going through the same thing.
2) [For my Thanksgiving takeout dinner] I get to finally make my mac and cheese! It’s the most ridiculous mac and cheese. I use three different types of cheese: Emmental, Gruyere, and aged Gouda [with cauliflower-thickened bechamel.] Because I make Asian food...mac and cheese is something that I never get to make [at the restaurant]. It’s ungodly how much mac and cheese sauce is on my stove right now. I think I could bathe in it. ... Having an excuse to make mac and cheese and have everyone try it, I’m so, so happy.
3) The people that you kind of fall into being around, whether it’s your roommates or whether it’s your coworkers—it feels nice to feel [their] support during this time. The people that I’m going to be spending Thanksgiving with [my coworkers] are the people who day in, day out make a difference in my life.
Pastry chef Katherine Benvenuti is a co-owner of Bar King, a restaurant-bakery hybrid and PoMo Best Restaurants 2020 pick that was famously only open for six days in March prior to the stay-at-home order. The opening of the bakery wing, which she heads, was delayed until summer. And while the restaurant portion of Bar King is now closed for the winter in an attempt to survive until the spring, Benvenuti continues to churn out matcha gateau Basques, brown butter rice cakes, miso walnut sticky buns, kimchi egg muffins, and Berliner donuts at the bakery.
I am honestly the most thankful for my staff. Unbelievably grateful and thankful for them. One, the bakery would be nothing without them. But two, they’re absolutely committed to making sure that the bakery survives this. It’s taken such an emotional toll on me, going through this so many times, and they really make it easy for me to keep coming into work every day.
Richard Le is the owner of Matta, a food cart on NE Alberta that remixes Vietnamese influences with his fast food-fueled childhood. The cart is also another member of the PoMo Best Restaurants crew. As a food cart owner, he says business thankfully hasn’t been affected by the four-week freeze, though like any other year at the food cart, business goes down when the temperatures do, too. This year, he’s offering free Thanksgiving family meals to 10 families in need.
We’re really thankful for the community we have here, whether it’s the food community or just the folks that support us. For one, when all the COVID stuff kicked off, we were all a little nervous about what was gonna happen, especially with our business. I was thinking, do I need to file for bankruptcy? But the community’s really pulled through for us, and supported us through all of it. Because of that, we’re able to not only take care of ourselves, and continue to create the things that we’ve been able to create, but also give back. A lot of folks are really sweet and have reached out to me like, “If you happen to [give away all ten meals for Thanksgiving], we’ll spot you for 10 more meals.” It’s just really beautiful to see how down we are for each other.
Anthony Brown is the co-owner of Nacheaux, a teal food cart at the Cartlandia pod that’s emblazoned with a dabbing unicorn. There, he and his wife Stephanie make Cajun-Mexican fusion, inspired by Stephanie’s upbringing in Louisiana and his childhood in Los Angeles with his Georgia-born mother and his Mexican-American stepfather. The couple opened the truck in March shortly after the stay-at-home orders came down. This year for Thanksgiving, they're cooking carnitas, rice, and beans to give away to the local unhoused community. When asked what he’s thankful for this year, he responds:
You always say [you're thankful for] your wife, but more so this year because of the tremendous role she took on, the sacrifice she gave. This year, she took a leap of faith [to join me at Nacheaux]. She’s like, “I think we’re gonna do good this year, I’m gonna quit my [corporate] job.”
And then COVID hit; the kids are home. She’s a stay-at-home teacher, mom, wife, business partner. Her week consists of Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday school; Thursday, Friday, half day at school, half day busy at the truck. Sunday, she’s at the truck all day and we have a full-time nanny. We’re expecting a little baby boy [next spring]. Without her, I have no idea what it’d be like.
Sommelier Dana Frank is the owner of Bar Norman, a natural wine bar on SE Clinton. During the pandemic, Bar Norman has pivoted into a bottle shop, and she’s also opened a second bottle shop, Petit Norman, at the walk-up window at brunch and lunch spot Vivienne in Hollywood. The pandemic has helped the nationally-recognized wine star take a step back from the normally buzzing business to pause, reflect, and spend time with family.
The first thing that came to me of course was my family, my husband and daughter. I’m just thankful for them being my people, and being there through all the ups and downs. The other thing I’m really thankful for is the time this year has given me to slow down. It’s been so stressful and so painful in a lot of ways, but the biggest gift that I’ve gotten is the necessity to slow down and to be home a lot more than I’ve ever been in my career, and to just be away from work so much. That’s been really hard, but it’s also been a tremendous gift, because I’ve gone twenty years working in the industry and not taking my foot off the gas. This has been pretty amazing, having this time to do things I never have time to do, think about my business and where I want to see it going in the future. To spend time with my daughter, be home every night, and put her to bed, realizing I’m not going to get those years back.
With everything Portland restaurants have gone through this year, including limits on capacity, multiple shutdowns, wildfire smoke, and now a four-week freeze, the resilience, steadfastness, and optimism displayed by industry owners and workers in order to survive is remarkable. Thankfully, it looks like there’s a light at the end of the tunnel with a couple promising vaccines on the horizon. Maybe (knocking on every piece of wood in sight) we’ll see a return to restaurant dining as we once knew it at some point next year. For Diane Lam, a taste of that pre-COVID world filled her with gratitude:
I was watching Curb Your Enthusiasm, and Larry David talks to a receptionist who sits at a desk with a really nice view, and he’s like, “How long did it take for you to take this for granted?” When the pandemic hit and we were ... starting to let dine-in happen again, every single moment counted so much. We got to re-experience eating out again. I remember having my first dinner—it was in Seattle at The Butcher’s Table, and having my first dining experience, it almost brought me to tears.