How Providore Became a Portland Food Paradise
On traffic-zooming Northeast Sandy, steps away from Korean food rave Han Oak, an ingeniously stocked market epitomizes Portland's emerging food wave: deeply local but connected to larger conversations and stories in the food world. As it turns six on February 10, Providore Fine Foods, which nearly doubled its space in late 2021, has evolved from a slick Mediterranean gourmet store into a manifestation of a food city teeming with devoted eaters, cooks, and a keen desire to know where our food is coming from.
The expanded space includes a whole animal butcher counter, an eco-minded fish case, and aisles that increasingly feel like a treasure hunt. Meanwhile, a soaring new back room (formerly home of Nomad restaurant) doubles as a new urban wine bar and well-stocked bottle shop. The mood is all dark walls, soft light, and gleam, with a U-shaped bar that sits dead-center. Once weather and civilization permits, the plan is to tap Providore's arsenal—wines, beers, vermouths, cheeses, oysters, charcuterie, and the like—for drinking and snacking, indoors and out.
My favorite new addition is the cookbook nook, a vision from manager Patrick Leonard with hundreds of rotating tomes and inclusive kids cookbooks. An avid home cookbook collector, Leonard has that internal GPS locator for what's interesting in food. The spirit is not “these are books you have to have,” but “This is good!” What he's looking for: voice, storytelling, beauty, often from newer Next Gen writers. As he tells it, “I like books that aren't just inspired by history and tradition, but update it, reflect on it, take us into the future.” He recommends I buy The Arabesque Table and Indian-ish. I trust a guy who read The French Laundry Cookbook, for kicks, in high school.
Interestingly, instead of one buyer, Providore has multiple owners, employees, and vendors tapping their own philosophies, obsessions, and networks, and all with something different to say. What unites them? All are home cooking enthusiasts and ingredient nerds, the kind of people who spend their vacation wandering around local grocery stores instead of art museums, people for whom discovering a great new condiment is akin to finding the Rosetta Stone.
Sure, you can find some of these products on Amazon or at one of Portland's great, vast Asian markets. Others are hard to find in America. But surely, no single market has this assortment. Where else can you find duck fat confit, a dozen kinds of butter, 10 types of harissa, spicy Haitian peanut butter, handmade French lollipops, cult Spanish potato chips, fresh pasta made in the back, and a shrine to the spicy, crunchy, life-changing chili crisp condiment craze—all under one roof?
Providore is an outgrowth of the legendary Pastaworks on Hawthorne, where co-founder Peter de Garmo helped bring the Slow Food movement to America in the 1980s. Now, son Kevin de Garmo, one of the country's top experts on pasta and olive oil, is helping write the next chapter with his design-savvy wife Kaie Wellman, who frets over the shop's aesthetic, not to mention the candy and chips aisles.
Providore's best-kept secret is the tinned fish section, a de Garmo specialty, with no fewer than 100 options from around the world, 25 of them sardines—with more on the way. His current fixation is “the crazy new ones out of Spain,” cooked over wood fire, then canned. He pulls out his iPhone to show me photos of the inside of the cans, with a pride usually reserved for Portland dog owners.
Behind the scenes is operations guru Bruce Silverman, who helped shape Whole Foods’s mindset in the early days as a VP. Silverman, a former Austin chef, was known around the company as a barometer of good taste. He's the one always roaming the aisles in a t-shirt, the weight of the world furrowed in his brow. It you need an inside shopping tip, he's the guy.
Providore's secret weapon is Rubinette Produce, a love letter to small Oregon growers, with the vibe and integrity of a farmer's market. Rubinette is unrivaled for quality on Portland's grocery circuit. It's also the prettiest display in the land, four hours in the making each morning. Regulars come just to see what's on the mind of owner and scruffy produce preacher Josh Alsberg, known for his veg enthusiasm and deep fruit knowledge. Right now, that would be pink Rosalba radicchio, chicory's softer, sweeter, cousin—one of seven varieties on hand. “Winter can be so bleak,” says Alsberg. “It makes the eyes happy, the mouth sing.”
With the expansion, two liked-mind vendors sit across the room. Revel Meat Co. aims to be Portland's best butcher counter with its whole animal ethos, custom cuts, mondo Tomahawk chops, and playful sausages, with flavors like banh mi, gyoza, and The Russian. Revel brings with it a reputation as Oregon's premier USDA meat processor and one of the state's last independent facilities, a blessing for small and mid-sized ranchers. Some of the city’s best food minds are clients, among them the owners of Higgins, Oma’s Hideaway, and Matta. Owner Ben Meyer (Old Salt, Ned Ludd) and James Serlin (LETumEAT) were once chefs themselves, and it shows. They think like chefs.
Steps away, Two X Sea espouses the hardcore traceable philosophy of its San Francisco mothership. Here, labeling includes the method, the diet, even the name of the boat captain. All that's missing is the fish's Social Security number. But note: Truth and accountability come with a price tag.
At its best, Providore feels like a Portland restaurant, except we're doing the cooking. The magic, says Meyer, is the number of people really engrossed in what they do. “Rubinette, Two X Sea, Revel. We're all focused on one part of food, going as deep as we possibly can.”