Portland Chef Patrick Warner Talks Restaurant Failures And Going Gluten-Free
It’s a tiny space by most restaurant standards – at least in this town. A beautiful six-top hardwood bar prominently situated along the east wall, a handful of tables and chairs along the north and west walls. At capacity, the area probably seats forty comfortably, though a standing soiree could range from 50 to 100 guests. The sociable servers double as bartenders and sommeliers, the kitchen is a mere fraction of the dining space, and the pastry chef is confined to a four foot by three foot compact area situated between the bar and the line of fire. But Scratch, in Portland’s affluent suburb of Lake Oswego, is the perfect example of great things springing from small packages.
I made my way to Scratch – aptly named for the fact that everything on the menu, from bread to desserts, is made in-house, from scratch – only a few months after the location had opened in 2009, at the insistence of the eager then-sous chef. After being a bit dismayed by less-than-stellar meals at some of Stumptown’s oft-acclaimed restaurants, I was genuinely impressed by the dishes emerging from chef/owner Patrick Warner’s kitchen. I’m a stickler for excellent execution, gratifying flavors whether it’s fried chicken or foie gras, and Scratch satisfies with aplomb. It’s unfussy and unpretentious – a solid ship, albeit a small one – in a sea of flash-in-the-pan dining concepts. Local, fresh, well-paired tastes on every plate.
When I returned to the restaurant late last month, I was thrilled to see the location still going strong, tables filling with repeat diners even on an early Tuesday evening.
Q: I joked about Scratch still being in business when I walked in, but three years in the life of a restaurant is pretty impressive. How are things going?
A: We’re totally growing, we’re seeing leaps and bounds. We’ve gone completely gluten-free. It forces me to develop as a chef in a way I’m not used to. It forces me to reinvent things because gluten-free flours don’t act like standard flours.
I’ve always wanted a restaurant to be able to feed anyone who walks in the door. We tried doing gluten-free options for people and the more research I did, the more I found out that you can’t really be gluten-free friendly without being 100% gluten-free. I read this horrible story about a gluten-free woman who lived on a block with a bakery, and was sick every day due to flour that would make its way into the air. The more I played with gluten-free, I realized a lot of the traditional French techniques were eliminated. You get more creative, look at quinoa and the thousands of gluten-free flours.
I think the only problem I’ve seen with that is that we’ve become known as some place where your allergy – any allergy – can be accommodated, and then you have someone on a Friday night trying to find something that’s gluten-free, dairy-free, anti-inflammatory, etc.
You do the best you can. I don’t encourage substitutions, but I want to make sure that when you come into the restaurant, you’re going to have a positive experience.
Q: So what brought you to cooking, and Scratch?
A: I started working in a restaurant when I was thirteen at a Mexican restaurant in southern California, but I was so awkward in the front of the house that I hung out in the kitchen a lot. Worked through a handful of mom and pop restaurants. I moved to Portland at some point, played in a rock-and-roll band as everyone does. Toured for a few years before it fell apart during a broken fan belt on I-80. I came back to Portland and wanted to work in fine dining, but didn’t have any formal experience, and found myself in casual dining hell. I was beating my head against the wall because I was basically a monkey. I started circulating my resume, and got hired in Cleveland by a company that bumped me all over the country, and eventually got sick of it. Came back to Portland and was hired as an Executive Chef at Madison’s on Fifth, worked there for three years, got married, had our first child, and I knew it was time to get serious. So I went to culinary school. I went to Le Cordon Bleu to learn the classical foundation of being in the kitchen. I had the opportunity to go into the cooking classes and say, Why? How? Show me! I wasn’t there for kitchen skills – I had been using a knife for twenty years – I was there for the bigger picture. I left school very happy.
I was in a quandary, though, because when I was in school, I got a scholarship from Charlie Trotter. Once I graduated, he invited me to come work for him. I was looking for jobs in Portland, and just couldn’t find anything. I had job offers in Ft. Lauderdale and Houston as well, so I talked with my wife about what it would take to accept the job in Chicago. And after a lot of discussion, she said, “You know, you’re a talented chef, and I believe in you, and I think we should stay here and open our own restaurant here in Portland.”
I felt like I had had so many experiences in restaurants that I could cherry pick everything, all the aspects that would really work well. I sat down one night, wrote it all out, started looking for a space. We scratched together all the money we could find. So with $9750, and a crazy amount of Woohoo! we went for it. It seemed a nearly impossible feat – with the cards on the table, you’re like Good luck. This will be a learning experience for you. And it was, it has been, and we kind of beat the odds.
Long story short, we found this space because the landlord of our original space was actually measuring the outside wall of the building – instead of the inside space, a mere 375 square feet of distance – and charging us for it. As soon as I walked in the door here, though, I could see that I could do it. I worked out a deal with the previous renters, took on their lease. Paid my deposit, bought smallwares, a very limited amount of wine and booze and food, and had $16 left in my bank account on opening night. And we sold out. We were so busy right out of the gate.
I’ve learned so many things over the last two and a half, three years of running this business. I’ve paid everything off – it’s all mine. My landlord has offered me the space next door, so we’re going to expand.
The expansion is going to be different. A lot of people, when they get more space, try to figure out how they can get more bar area, or more tables in. I’m thinking, How can I get more kitchen space? I’ve been working out of a shoebox of a kitchen, and I’d really like to spread out a little. During the daytime hours, I’m going offer gluten-free cooking classes, every Saturday there will be kids’ cooking classes. And then at nighttime, diners will have a chance to dine at tables in the kitchen.
Q: You opened a second location at some point as well, yes?
A: Well, we opened a location downtown last February, and we failed. It was good in the fact that we did it all ourselves, but we didn’t think about the greater scope of where were going. We found the space in the Justice Building, and we were thinking it was perfect for day traffic – there are lawyers, judges, people moving through there every day. But the door was right near where folks left after their court appearances, so none of the cops, none of the judges, none of the lawyers wanted to come in, because they didn’t want to be in a public space where whoever was leaving the courtroom could come in and harass them. So nobody supported us, and it was a painful thing, and it almost took us down. After a certain point, I had to start funding that restaurant personally, and $80,000 later we realized we had to get out. So we liquidated everything, managed to get out of our lease. It didn’t work and we walked away after three months.
We came back out here, buckled down, and really focused on paying this place off before we got involved in any other shenanigans. I’m focusing heavily right now on this transition, building my brand. I tried for a long time to separate myself from Scratch as a brand, but I think I was really fighting myself the whole time because what I needed to do was really embrace Scratch, and myself, as a singular entity. Live and learn.
Q: I remember we talked when you first opened about the location, with the restaurant being here in Lake Oswego and not in Portland proper, whether it would be a hindrance. How has it been?
A: It’s a mixed bag. I love Lake Oswego, and I love all my customers, and they’ve been really supportive. I sort of take offence, though, that I’m not considered a Portland chef. I get no love. The Portland chefs are a real tightknit group of folks, and I know everyone, but because I’m in Lake Oswego, they don’t care. It’s in the food writers, the food reviewers. Willamette Week has never reviewed us, no Portland Mercury.
Q: Are you still looking at some television time? There was a mention of Iron Chef America back in the day...
A: I would love it. I have harassed Michael Symon on Twitter to no end.
Q: Hopefully still in the cards?
A: Hell yeah!
Q: And any plans for a cookbook?
A: At this point, I’m on menu number thirty-one here at the restaurant, and I’ve been documenting them all. So it’s definitely a possibility. I’ve been approached, I’ve done a sample chapter, I’ve got someone working on it, particularly with the gluten-free niche.
— Jennifer Heigl, Daily Blender
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