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Q&A with Laurie Wolf, Author of 'Portland, Oregon Chef's Table'

“I hope that everyone who owns a copy of Portland, Oregon Chef’s Table puts it to frequent use, lets it get a little food stained, and even turns back some corners. My favorite cookbooks are the ones that get the most worn, which is how it should be,” says Laurie Wolf in her recently published book Portland, Oregon Chef’s Table.

"Portland, Oregon Chef's Table," by Laurie Wolf

“Portland, Oregon Chef’s Table,” by Laurie Wolf

Bruce Wolf

Wolf’s book features more than 70 recipes for the home cook from more than 60 Portland restaurants, including Biwa, Bluehour, Fat City Café, Mother’s Bistro & Bar, Olympic Provisions, Roost and many more. The book can function both as a cookbook and a restaurant guide.

Wolf attended the Culinary Institute of America and worked as a chef and caterer in New York and Vermont. Then she moved on to become a food stylist and later served as the food editor for Mademoiselle and Child magazines for 18 years.

Both Wolf and her husband Bruce, a professional photographer who shot the pictures of the chefs and their dishes featured in the book, moved from New York to Portland in 2008. Wolf, who is captivated by Portland’s food and drink scene, credits the move as one of the best decisions she’s ever made.

Arts & Life had the opportunity to talk with Laurie Wolf about her book, her culinary experiences and more.

Laurie Wolf, author of "Portland, Oregon Chef's Table"

Laurie Wolf, author of “Portland, Oregon Chef’s Table”

Bruce Wolf

Q&A with Laurie Wolf

Q: What were the criteria for choosing restaurants and chefs to feature in your book? How did you pick them?

A: I started out with restaurants that I was familiar with, having done a pretty extensive amount of dining out in town before actually moving to Portland. Once I started doing research for the book, I found that asking the chefs where they like to eat was a terrific resource. Andy Ricker, Jenn Louis, Gabe Rosen, John Toboada and the delightful guys from Victory Bar, Eric Moore and Yoni Laos, were enormously helpful. I wanted to include a combination of restaurants that were already well known and offer their signature recipes, as well as places that didn’t have the name recognition but would or should!

Q: What do you find different about the food scene in New York and in Portland?

A: I believe that the food scene here is far less ego driven than in New York. There is a strong food community with a collective dedication to working with local farmers and other purveyors. I am impressed with the strong camaraderie among the chefs and restaurant owners. The availability of local produce of all kinds is a huge benefit for foodies here in Portland.

It is not that hard to open a restaurant here in Portland. It doesn’t take a ton of money, and although industry rules are more stringent than they were years ago, it is still relatively doable in terms of finances and bureaucracy. This allows for young chefs to open places that reflect their youth and creativity, and there is not the same urgency to be full every night. It seems that the slow months are easier to get through here on the left coast.

Q: What made you get into the food industry?

A: I was an English and sociology major at NYU. Upon graduation I spent five years living in Vermont, working by day and sometimes night at the local mental institution. And at the same time I started a catering business. I baked for local shops and catered weddings and dinner parties. My lack of any formal education in cooking left me quite limited, so I applied and attended the Culinary Institute of America, a two-year program that gave me the well-rounded base that I was missing.

After graduation, I worked as a chef for five years and then I got into the recipe writing and food styling arena. I was food editor at Mademoiselle Magazine and Child Magazine and did recipe writing and food styling for such magazines as New York Magazine, Vogue Magazine, Fitness, Shape, Parents, Self and Glamour. The magazine business was very cool and among other things, we got to go with Bryan Miller, one-time food critic for the New York Times, when he was evaluating restaurants. That was super fun.  

Q: You mention in the book that you find many creative chefs in Portland. Are you a creative chef as well? Tell me about the most creative food you cooked using local ingredients.

A: The book has definitely made me a more creative, sensitive chef. It was a wonderful bonus that I had not anticipated. I now have a much more seasonal focus, more respect for the people who grow and/or raise the food. I am ingredient driven, and I combine ingredients that I would not have considered putting together before. I am still not a big fan of sweet and salty, and I never include bacon in my desserts.

Last week, I stuffed local morels with mashed potatoes that were mixed with spring onions and crispy Nueske’s bacon, cream, and salt and pepper. I baked them and when done drizzled them with a touch of Jack Czarnecki’s extraordinary truffle oil.

My recent “very Portland” dessert was a deep-dish local berry crumble with an oatmeal crust with candied local hazelnuts and a whipped cream flavored with my own homemade version of Nutella. Very tasty.

Q: As noted in your book, many restaurants come and go. What do you think makes a restaurant successful?

A: I have asked myself that question many times over this past year. When Alder closed I was somewhat stumped. In my mind it was the best gelato and some of the most amazing pastries in Portland. It is not as simple as just having a good, or very good, product, though I would like that to be the first priority to having a successful restaurant.

I think there needs to be a dedication to being there, at least for the first year, almost all the time. Total time commitment. Being a successful chef requires drive and passion, along with a willingness to be patient and attentive to the tastes of your clientele. But without 100 percent commitment I think there is a great danger of not succeeding. I think that Portland is not as likely to support very pricey restaurants.  There is so much wonderful food to be had here for very reasonable prices.

Q: What’s next? Are you planning to publish another book like this in the future?

A: I have already comprised a list of 45 new dining places for what I hope will be volume 2 of The Portland, Oregon Chef’s Table. I love that about Portland. Wonderful restaurants are opening all the time. It’s sort of unbelievable that with this dreadful economy you still have to wait on lines at many places for both brunch and dinner.

I have proposals for several other cookbooks that I hope to write in the near future. Writing this book has been one of the most satisfying experiences in my career. I was introduced to an extraordinary group of men and women who are making all kinds of history in Portland. That was fascinating and I would like to continue to explore this much more self-reliant food mentality. I love what’s going on here between the restaurants, carts and also the wonderful markets and their connections with Portland’s farmers and ranchers.

laurie wolf portland oregon chef table books

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"Portland, Oregon Chef's Table," by Laurie Wolf

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