Ken Forkish of Ken's Artisan Bakery

Ken Forkish of Ken's Artisan Bakery.

Courtesy of Alan Weiner

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Ken Forkish may be one of the best known bakers in Oregon.

He wrote a James Beard award-winning book on the fundamentals of bread. As the mastermind behind Ken’s Artisan Bakery, Trifecta, Checkerboard Pizza, and Ken’s Artisan Pizza, Forkish helped solidify Portland as an epicenter for food.

But that wasn’t always the case. In the late ‘90s, Forkish was searching for something else after leaving his first career in tech.

“I wanted something that was a 180-degree reversal from the previous career I had,” Forkish said. “I wanted a tangible craft. To make something with my hands.”

The lightbulb moment came after a few trips to France and visits to the historic Boulangerie Poilâne, an internationally renowned bakery founded in 1932.

“I would spend days just going and visiting the boulangeries that were kind of on my hit list and I would just get more and more inspired with each visit,” he said.

At that point, Forkish didn’t have any culinary training. In fact, before he opened his own bakery, he had never even worked in the food industry. Forkish took classes at the San Francisco Baking Institute and had a couple of weeks of private instruction at a school outside of Lyon, France, and then jumped in head first.

“When I opened Ken’s Artisan Bakery in 2001 it was my first food job,” he said. “I didn’t want to work at another bakery.”

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Twenty years later Forkish is hanging up his apron — at least professionally — and retiring after two decades as a restaurateur.

He sat down with OPB’s Crystal Ligori to discuss his legacy and what comes next.

Crystal Ligori: Looking back on the last two decades, how did you imagine your work fitting into the larger culinary scene in Portland when you started?

Ken Forkish: I really just wanted people to appreciate my work. At the bakery there was a point in time where I didn’t know anybody in Portland when I opened. And I had my own challenges of learning how to do it day after day after day and have it be good and consistent and figure out the challenges that you have when you’re baking hundreds of loaves of bread a day instead of one or two in your kitchen. It’s so different and so I wasn’t really thinking beyond, ‘Well it has to work because I put my life’s savings and investments in the place and I didn’t have a ton of backup.’ What any business like this needs is recognition and it needs quite a few people coming in just to break even and that didn’t happen in the first year. But we did find that people who were coming in recognized the work that we were doing, we got a lot of compliments and it just, you know, I really felt like it was just a matter of time and fortunately it was. I almost went broke … but I didn’t.

Ligori: I was really excited to hear that the restaurant and bakery were sold to employees and I want to give you an opportunity to talk about your staff because, ‘no man is an island.’

Forkish: The decision to retire was because the opportunity was there. The people that own it now are the people that have been running these two places already. But I didn’t want to leave without the places being able to continue as they were and that situation existed, especially at the bakery. (General manager) Theo Taylor and (pastry chef) Randy Dorkin have been there pretty much since the beginning. They know how things work there better than I do at this stage. And I wanted the places to continue that, wanted the legacy to continue. I wanted it so that at Ken’s Artisan Bakery and Ken’s Artisan Pizza, next year and the year after, that people don’t even notice I’m gone except for whatever improvements Peter (Kost) wants to make in the pizzeria and Theo and Randy want to make. But you know, they’re not going to change the core elements that make the food what it is or the places what they are.

Ligori: How much of an impact did the pandemic have on your decision to retire?

Forkish: I know that when we reopened the bakery and the pizzeria, it was at the same time, it was end of May in 2020. At that point I’d been off work with businesses that weren’t operating for two months and in a lot of ways I felt really great. You know, I was completely relaxed in a way that doesn’t happen when you’re running the day to day business with thoughts of employees and I liked that feeling physically and mentally, like my shoulders weren’t tight. My chest wasn’t tight. I wasn’t getting mad at anything. I don’t want to say that I can completely recollect when I made which decision, but COVID was right after I sold Trifecta and just kind of wrapped up all the business stuff you have to do after closing. I took a vacation and I came home and I had immediately jumped into the world of this new pandemic and I was like, oh man, I didn’t even get a chance to breathe And you know, in the middle of March, we, you know, the decision to shut down and deal with it and basically lay off 70 people. This just sucked. At that point, I don’t really know when I decided it was time to sell, but it did not come long after that. But again, I did it because I wouldn’t have sold Ken’s Artisan Pizza if Peter had some other thing he was going to do and I would not have sold the bakery if Theo and Randy weren’t up for it,

Ligori: Let’s talk about what the future looks like. You’re an accomplished food writer and I know you’re working on some books including one that’s a comic book?

Forkish: It’s not a complete retirement. My third cookbook will publish in September. Yes, that’s the current schedule and it’s a new bread cookbook, it picks up from “Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast” and this book will feature artisan pan breads, which is kind of wide open territory in the cookbook world. And the comic book cookbook, there’s an illustrator. Her name is Sarah Becan. And she has already published two books with 10 Speed Press. One is called “Let’s Make Ramen” and the other one is called “Let’s Make Dumplings.” And then the book she and I are going to work on is tentatively going to be titled “Let’s Make Sourdough.” And so it’s an illustrated, comic book-oriented, kind of graphic novel version of a cookbook. I’m excited about that.

Ligori: Is there anything that we missed talking about?

Forkish: You know, the one thing that is important to me is that the bakery, and the pizzeria, Trifecta, Checkerboard — they were all in some ways —I know it sounds really corny — but they were kind of a love letter to Portland. I love this city and I’ve been a part of it in a meaningful way for two decades now. That means a lot to me to have had that kind of civic engagement and it’s been a good run.

Hear the full conversation in the audio player above.

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