Portland has become one of the top food destinations in the country in recent years. Bold experiments in hybrid cuisines, food carts and two-hour waits have become staples of the local food scene, which continues to draw national media attention.
Karen Brooks has been following the Portland food scene since the 1980s — first in the pages of Willamette Week and The Oregonian and now at Portland Monthly. Her new book, The Mighty Gastropolis, investigates how a small city like Portland became one of the major national food hubs. Through conversations with Portland's famed chefs (many of whom provided recipes for their most popular menu items), Brooks examines the personalities and dishes that made the city's gastronomic scene what it is today.
Brooks spoke recently with Think Out Loud's Dave Miller about the roots of Portland's food scene and what sets it apart from other cities. She describes the "Mighty Gastropolis" profiled in her book as "this world of food-truck living, high-low eating, ethical dreaming and nights of animal fever, starring this world-class produce, these zany chefs and the diners willing to follow them anywhere."
Although Portland had long been known for its high-quality ingredients and farm-to-plate movement, Brooks says she first noticed a distinctive change in 2003. In an article titled "The Next Wave," Brooks profiled a group of talented young chefs who had walked away from the traditional white tablecloth world to create their own restaurants with a more independent, "punk rock" approach. "They started getting storefronts over on the East side ... and investing in ingredients and these very personal places."
Brooks says she realized then that this new breed of restaurateur was adding a different element to the Portland food scene. "We did have a very lovely farm to table movement — Higgins and Wildwood — people who came in and created an upper class that Portland didn't have. But what we didn't have is a wide, mid-band of affordable, fun places to go."
The efforts of those early pioneers to create great food in simple spaces, according to Brooks, helped to make the food scene accessible to a wider audience. It also inspired a food culture based on experimentation and collaboration that has spread throughout the city and become the core of Portland's national reputation as a new food mecca.
"There have always been interesting people doing interesting things [in Portland]. Now there is just this sense that the whole city is in on it. It's chefs, but it's not just restaurants — it's the farmers market and it's the chocolate makers and it's the food cart people — everybody's kind of in the same conversation. Everyone from your manicurist to the mayor, they are all saying, 'Have you been to Blue Star Donuts yet?' And to me that's what makes Portland such an unusual place."
Listen to Think Out Loud's full conversation with Karen Brooks.
Karen Brooks is appearing at the FoodWorx conference on Tuesday, January 15, 2013.