5 Cooking Tips From Portland's Top Chefs

5 Cooking Tips from Portland's Top Chefs

by Kristin Griffin


Portland, Oregon, is known to be a little food obsessed and its biggest, most beloved food festival—Feast Portland—showcases the sheer talent, creativity and energy that can be found in its host city.

I went to all the big events and, while Feast draws chefs from across the country, was struck again and again by the bounty of talent we have here in Oregon. From Top Chef Chris Cosentino's stunning cabbage salad to beloved food truck entrepreneur Melissa McMillan's house-cured pastrami sandwich, bite after bite was an education in how to up my home cooking game. Here are the top five tips I'm taking back to my kitchen just in time for cooking weather, from Portland's best chefs to you.

When making savory sandwiches, don't forget the sweet.
One of Feast's main events is a sandwich-themed competition where chefs face off for the best-in-show trophy. After sampling all the offerings in the running, I was struck by how my favorites offered unexpected notes of sweet with the savory. A drizzling of floral honey lifted Rick Gencarelli of Lardo's fried chicken sandwich. It ended up winning the grand prize. Melissa McMillan of Pastrami Zombie's pastrami sandwich would have been a little less stunning without the sweet house Russian dressing that held it all together. She took home people's choice. Next time I make a savory sandwich, I'll be thinking about how I can bring in a sweet note too, maybe through a drizzle of honey, a swipe of creamy dressing, or a spoonful of jam.

Tea can be more than a drink.
I love tea but never thought of doing much more than brewing it in a mug. A new collaboration between Tony Tellin, head teamaker at beloved Portland teahouse Smith, and Seattle mega-restauranteur Tom Douglas opened my eyes. The tea they developed together—a nutty, almost creamy oolong they're calling Arbequina—pairs perfectly with dumplings. But at a Feast-related event, rather than enjoy the tea alongside, they poached vegetable dumplings in the tea itself. The tea-based broth was a revelation to me—light enough to showcase the dumpling, but complex enough to be a memorable element of the dish all the same. Oolongs and senchas would work best here. I bought boxes of each.

The best pairing for something fatty is something fresh, crunchy and bright.
Again and again across the weekend, I noticed a trend: Whenever a chef presented something fatty, there was always a riff on slaw to go with. The most striking version of this was at Top Chef Chris Cosentino's beautiful new restaurant Jackrabbit, where he served a cornucopia of meats and potatoes alongside the loveliest cabbage salad. I would have lost the tender textures of the proteins, the different sauces and seasonings, if not for the salad to cut the fat. Balance on the plate isn't a new concept and slaw is a smart choice for long events as it doesn't suffer from sitting, but it was a reminder to bring that simple pairing into my home repertoire. 

Try adding a "third thing" to bring a plate together.
One of my favorite food writers and recipe developers Julia Turshen taught me to add a "third thing" to a meal to help it all cohere and feel a little fancier—something like a citrusy salsa verde with scrambled eggs and bacon, or a miso tahini sauce with roasted vegetables and rice. I was reintroduced to this concept at Feast. Chef Sarah Schafer of Irving Street Kitchen was my favorite example. She served a grilled quail and spiced goat sausage dish with pickled raita and plum chutney. The raita and chutney swirled together and made this smooth, sweet, sour "third thing" that bridged the gap between the quail and goat.

Never apologize.
It was Julia Child who urged home cooks not to apologize for their work in the kitchen, to "serve it forth" with love. So many of the chefs I watched worked long, hot, hard hours in event tents put this old adage on display. Chef Lisa Schroder of Mother's Bistro was one, sliding a dish of her riff on mac and cheese to me with such warmth and heart. I'm still thinking about her smooth, nutty béarnaise and that tender pork, but it's her that makes that dish really sparkle in my mind. Cooking is about tending to yourself and others, after all. Once what's done is done in the kitchen, I'm going to try not to forget the last step: to serve with intention and enjoy.