Restaurant experiences, as we've known them, are a memory for now. Take-out has become a keepsake box, a reminder of personalities, tenacity, life.
But one three-month experiment stands as testament to the past, the present, and the future: chef Gregory Gourdet's Kann Winter Village in SE Portland. In December, the Top Chef star mounted an epic adventure—six-course meals in 10 outdoor yurts. In the mix: not just highly personal, labor-intensive Haitian-American cooking, but menus tailored to the meat people, the fish people, and the veg people, along with elaborate off-menu specials and zero-proof craft cocktails. It's crazy labor intensive and screams pre-pandemic Portland past.
The now? Kann Winter Village is also the only big-night social distanced experience available. Reserve-your-own tents, furnished with white linen, heaters, and warm light, are spread eight feet apart, with no more than 30 diners allowed on the premises per evening.
The future? Gourdet is digging into Kann, his forthcoming brick-and-mortar wood-fired Haitian restaurant, an idea now a few years in the making, but on hold until it's safe to open. The dishes might be similar to an early blueprint, but the contours have changed for Gourdet, who is Haitian-American and gay—and running his own place for the first time. At Kann Winter Village, the staff is 90 percent people of color; his kitchen is led by women. While Haiti is a driving force, inspiration also comes from global BIPOC flavors. “For me, these things are part of the concept,” he says. “Representation matters. This became abundantly clear with Black Lives Matter and the industry reckoning we went through last year.”
A new menu will arrive with Black History Month in February. The various menus will meld African flavors with Haitian cooking, honoring the African slaves brought overseas to Haiti by European colonizers after the country's native population dwindled due to their abuse and disease. Dinners are $200 a person, plus 20% service charge; zero-proof cocktail pairing included. The yurt project will conclude its run early this spring.
Some February dishes that caught my eye: a salad sporting roasted beets, pineapple, and spicy Haitian cashew brittle; African short-rib beef stew; Haitian-style chicken soup and dumplings bobbing with plantains; and collard greens cooked down in peanut buttered coconut cream. For February, you can choose an omnivore or pescatarian menu; no vegetarian option on this round. Gourdet will also offer nightly specials, not to be missed. On my December outing, the off-menu duck in Creole sauce vaulted into my mouth's hall of fame—piled into earthy plantain flour crepes and sided by extraordinary Mayi Moulen (Haitian cornmeal porridge).
Beginning February 3, Kann will launch “20 Days of Giving” to support small Black and Brown-owned businesses and organizations. “We wanted to give back to the community,” Gourdet emphasizes. Each day, to help raise awareness, a different group will be spotlighted on Kann's social media platforms; $25 of each night's ticket sold will go directly to them as well. Adds Gourdet: “The partner organizations can use our space as fit to share their message, be it via a silent auction or an iPad presentation at the dinner table.” Recipients include Equitable Giving Circle, Love Is King, and Assembly Brewing, Portland's only Black-owned brewery.
Time spent reflecting during the pandemic has greatly impacted Gourdet's thinking—see our interview with Gourdet over the summer. It's critical, he says, for restaurants to tackle some of the issues plaguing the industry head-on, including leadership. “To have an all-womxn team is amazing,” he says. “I love it. It's really changed the dynamic in the kitchen. So much tension gone away. My sous chef Varanya Geyoonsawat is a total badass. She is Thai and has a fantastic palate and work ethic. We work together extremely well.” But what really gets to Gourdet is seeing how other cooks look up to her.
"I want to carry these ideas forward,” he says. “This is my model. POC and womxn leadership is very important. I want to use Kann as a platform for change. To have a great American restaurant, we must speak to the times.”