Interview with Olympia Provisions Founder Elias Cairo
Olympia Provisions is one of Portland, Oregon’s pride and joys.
Chef/Owner/Salumist Elias Cairo is a first generation Greek-American who fell in love with all things charcuterie watching his dad curing meat at home for the family. So it’s no wonder really that he would grow up to found such a renowned company.
Cairo spent five years in Switzerland studying under master chef Annegret Schlumpf. He then served as a chef’s apprentice in Greece. For as long as he can remember, Cairo’s motto has been “handmade is better.” So when he returned to the US, he made his way to Portland, where he paired the best ingredients with his master skills to craft charcuterie the way it should be.
Olympia Provisions is Oregon’s first USDA-approved salumeria. He founded it in 2009, but its roots dating back to the first century AD. Purity and patience are the hallmarks of Cairo’s craft and Olympia Provisions is much like an artist’s studio where the team butchers antibiotic-free Pacific Northwest pork and turns it into world-class charcuterie.
When Cairo does tear himself away from all things culinary, fly fishing and rock climbing are his go-to means of relishing the great outdoors of the Pacific Northwest. We had the opportunity to chat with him about his culinary philosophy and love of cured meats.
The Daily Meal: From where did your love of all things culinary develop?
Elias Cairo: I grew up in a family where the main focus was food and drink. My father is from a small village in Greece. We raised animals for meat, grew most of the vegetables in a huge garden, and had a bunch of fruit and grapes for wine. We also operated two Greek-American restaurants for most of my childhood. Eating and drinking is what made my family the most happy and we did it with abandon.
What would you say is your overarching food philosophy?
Being genuine and doing exactly what you say you are doing; treating everyone and the product with respect; and not forgetting the fact the you are fortunate enough to be making food for a living. Also, eat and drink really well because you can!
How would you describe the vibe at Olympia Provisions?
Chameleon-like, as it changes throughout the day. I love the fact that OP is open all day and even for brunch on the weekend. You will see hungover hipsters slurping down Bloody Marys and eating Benedicts at brunch right next to a family with tiny kids eating a huge stack of pancakes. Then at lunch you will get a great mid-day wine crowd enjoying champagne with a hot dog. As dinner service rolls around, it turns a bit more intimate, a nice mix of a date spot and larger tables of diners enjoying great big spreads of meat and amazing food with a table covered in wine glasses.
Can you tell readers a bit about the inspiration behind your menus, and what you are hoping to achieve with their offerings?
My partners and I have a lot of love for the old world of Europe. We wanted to create something that we often found in Europe but had yet to find in Portland: an amazing charcuterie shop with a restaurant attached to it; a spot you could swing into any time of the day and grab a great salad, some chorizo, and an amazing bottle of natural wine in a casual but professional environment.
What do guests tell you they love the most about the restaurant, the menu, and the food?
Charcuterie is the obvious answer here. We pretty much sell one to every table that comes in. But I am often told by patrons how much they love the salads, and anything done with octopus or baitfish are always a great hit. Also for the folks that love wine, we get an amazing amount of great feedback on how great the list is. We really, really love wine at OP.
What are some of your personal favorite menu items?
Oh my, I love it all. But I have to say any time Alex Yoder [the chef at OP Southeast] makes anything with octopus, it is just way too good. Also, I get so happy eating any salad or veg dish at OP Northwest. Eric Joppie [the chef at OP Northwest] really knows his way around the farmers in the Northwest and how to use their produce.
What are some of your favorite ingredients and/or cooking styles to experiment with right now?
I have been obsessed with Oregon truffles for the last three years. I’m just blown away by them, especially the good ones that are harvested by dogs. For a very long time they just kept getting compared to European truffles, which I do not fully understand. They are their own thing and have such amazing flavor. Plus, the fact that they’re here for only a short time and then they’re gone. That, I just love. I make saucisson aux truffes with them every year by just storing them next to my Saucisson d’Arles in a closed container and over a few weeks’ time, like magic, they develop a flavor that you just cannot replicate. It is very rare to be able to say that. I could give you the exact recipe and technique but if you didn’t have my wild salami molds mixed with these wild flavored truffles you cannot replicate it. I just love that! It is the true meaning of terroir.
What do you think is the most important thing that people don’t know about food right now?
I think that there are a lot of really great producers and chefs out there that are trying to make a big difference in their world. Be it through direct support of farmers or sourcing very responsibly. However, there are an equal number of folks who are trying to take advantage of this as a marketing ploy and there are a bunch of “smoke and mirrors.” Consumers should really do a bit of digging to make sure that the products they are buying and the restaurants they are going to are what they say they are and not a pretty label put on a crappy product. Also, the fact that we still have so many hungry people in this country and are wasting so much, just breaks my heart.
Anything else you’d like to share with readers about all things culinary at Olympia Provisions?
I really enjoy telling folks that we are a family business, that when it all started I was the only employee in the meat shop with the intent to sell at only a few local farmers’ markets. But over the last 6 years, we have been able to grow and distribute our product in almost every state in America and with our webstore we ship daily all over so people can enjoy our meat pretty much anywhere. The Salami of the Month Club is a perfect example of “If we can think it up, it can happen.” We ship thousands of salamis out every month to lucky customers that get them with a story and some pairing tips. This just makes me so happy.