Exit Interview: Portland Bread Legend Ken Forkish

Parting thoughts on the baker and pizza maker’s legacy, comic book cookbook, and why he left Portland

By Karen Brooks January 5, 2022

Forkish at his bakery in 2005

Ken Forkish, acclaimed bread baker and pizza thinker, has not only left the building—he left Portland. Without fanfare or even a post on the websites of Ken's Artisan Bakery and Ken's Artisan Pizzeria, Forkish quietly slipped away with a note to newsletter subscribers: It was time to move on and not to worry—the bakery and pizzeria would live on in the hands of longtime employees.

What happened? Where did he go? And what is the legacy and future of one of the last standing pioneers of Portland's modern food scene?

If we remember anything, it's this: Twenty years ago, in 2001, Forkish changed the game at Ken's Artisan Bakery on NW 21st. He was a tech-world refugee turned rustic bread preacher, and he pushed super-dark, crusty French breads in a town of sad, squooshy bagels. Over time, Forkish helped set the bar for the now-flourishing community of bread bakers in the Pacific Northwest. His James Beard award-winning 2012 bread manifesto, Flour Water Salt Yeast, unleashed his obsessive side, revealed a storytelling cookbook author in bloom, and beautifully detailed his initial attraction to Portland's small, anti-industrial and craft-centric milieu.

His crowning achievement is surely the 3-kilo boule bread, an Olympian round of dark umber crust and exquisite crumb. A friend of mine once faced an angry cop after leaving his car idling in a crosswalk out in front of Ken’s to snag a baguette for dinner. His passionate excuse? “Have you ever tried it?” It worked; no ticket.

Ken's Artisan Pizza, opened in 2006, helped usher in Portland's craft pizza revolution. It never lost a seat at the table, though it faced formidable competition in what has evolved into a lauded pizza city. Arguably, his most craveable pizza may have been his least known—Checkerboard Pizza, a side hustle at Pine Street Market opened under the name Trifecta Annex in 2016, with real-deal, crackling-crusted New York-ish slices. Forkish sold the brand to Sizzle Pie in late 2021.

Recently, I tracked Forkish down by phone in his new home, Hawaii, where he talked about his struggles, legacy, forthcoming bread book,  and a new contract for a comic book cookbook on sourdough. Don't write him off yet. 

Karen Brooks: What led to your decision to get out of the industry?   

Ken Forkish: The last few months wiped me out. The last two and a half years just wiped me out. I wrote a cookbook this past year. As you know, I do my own writing and recipe development. I'm just so tired. 

How much of this was pandemic struggles? How much was the fact that it came on the heels of closing of Trifecta, your restaurant baby? I was personally rocked by the loss of Trifecta's bakery annex. Those spelt croissants were a revelation.

It was Covid, yes. But it was everything. We closed the bakery and pizzeria March 16, in 2020. One day … and everybody shut down. Oh god, it was hard. I was still recovering from closing Trifecta after six years of operation. A year earlier I had come to a stark realization that I needed to do less. I was running four spots. I wasn't happy. My last baker shift was around my 60th birthday. Unless you're doing it, it's easy to underestimate the obligations of ownership and management. I loved Trifecta. I hung out at the bar more than any owner I've ever seen at a restaurant.  The lease wasn't up. I simply needed to do less.

As you moved more into the headaches and heartaches of running businesses, did you feel you lost that excitement and passion—the things that first lured you into the food world?

At this point, I just feel my work is done. Case in point: about three years ago, the pizzeria was super busy. But I wasn't happy with the pizza. I needed to make fundamental changes—how we bake, the mozzarella. I had to make a lot of staff changes to get there. It's been incremental steps. A couple months ago, we made the last little change—how to make the sauce. I felt like, ‘That's all I got.’ When I ate it, I thought, 'I fucking did it. There's nothing left.'

Some would argue that Checkerboard Pizza circa 2017-18 was your best pizza, though most people never tried it.

Oh, it was awesome. Great pizza. But it's been gone almost two years. I didn't stop there. I kept applying this improvement plan, which started when I wrote The Elements of Pizza {published in 2016}. To research the book, I visited the great pizzerias in Italy and New York, and could see the differences. I saw how to make it better at Ken's. A lot of credit goes to Vince Krone, who runs the kitchen. Peter Kost, our managing partner, is now the owner. He's very attentive to details.

Tell us about the employees who now own the bakery.   

I wanted the places to keep the name, for people to not know any difference from last year to next month. The way to do that was not with an outside buyer. Theo Tayler, the general manager, and longtime pastry Randy Dorkin know how things are done—a lot more than I do. I  wanted to reward them for their long work. They believe in the bakery, the soul of the place. I gave them a path to ownership. They earned it.

Why did you leave Portland? Did you lose faith in the city?

This whole transition is a joyous moment. I wanted to live somewhere quiet and peaceful. It's not a knock on Portland. I'm done with city life. I want to open the door and hear birds, not traffic. Looking at restaurants opening during the pandemic, I see a lot of good energy. Something still rings about Portland as a great place to be in a restaurant.

What do you want to be remembered for?

Two years ago, when I had four places, we were serving 1,000 people on busy days. I want to be remembered for doing it well.

You were always a perfectionist. What does perfection mean in a changed world?

When I was younger, I wanted to be the best. There is no such thing.  The best is subjective. It's the eye of the beholder.

What's the future look like for Ken Forkish?

I have another career as a writer. My book coming out this year is on artisan pan bread. It has no title yet. During the early days of the pandemic, I just wanted to eat sandwich bread. Then it hit me—artisan pan bread was wide-open territory for a cookbook. I just signed a contract for a comic book cookbook with Sarah Becan, the illustrator/artist behind  Let's Go Dumplings!. It's called Let's Make Sourdough!.

More pizza books?

I'm going to be the keynote speaker for the Pizza Expo in Las Vegas in June. It's quite an honor. I'm scared shitless.

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