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The Portland Rising Star Award Winners and Why They Shine

by Francoise Villeneuve with Antoinette Bruno
Antoinette Bruno and Shannon Sturgis
September 2011

When we came to the City of Roses last year for IACP’s annual conference, we knew we had to make it a Rising Star city—and fast. It wasn’t just the micro-breweries, distilleries, and coffee roasters. It was Portland’s pioneering spirit—the excited ambition that has stellar chefs opening their own carts and tiny, 30- to 50-seat restaurants. The result? Each operation, be it fine dining restaurant or humble food cart, puts its own stamp on the Portland food scene. It’s become a land of opportunity for restaurant folk, where chefs can follow their passion (whether it’s baked goods from just the right flour, or high-end sustainable fare) wherever it might take them—for very little money. It almost seems like the underdogs here are the 100-seat restaurants.

We tasted savory dishes, desserts, cocktails, and wine pairings from more than 90 of Portland’s talented chefs, pastry chefs, mixologists, and sommeliers. Only 17 earned the title of Rising Star. Why do they shine? Our winners were chosen for their creativity, ambition, and most importantly, a stand-out dish, wine pairing, or cocktail.

As if nailing all those things weren’t impressive enough, each Rising Star has qualities that make it clear he or she is the future leader in the national culinary scene—the up-and-coming vanguard of food and drink. Here’s an introduction to the 2011 Portland winners—who they are, what makes them shine, and how they’re defining the future of American cuisine.

CHEF: Aaron Barnett, St. Jack
For Aaron Barnett, size truly doesn’t matter. From a pint-sized kitchen, Canadian-born Barnett leads a team that turns out elegant French bistro dishes with inventive bursts of flavor. He balances the unabashed comfort of his menu with sophistication learned at Gary Danko. The result is rugged refinement: French peasant dishes like Fishermen’s Stew are transformed, straddling upscale elegance and earthy tradition. A briny dose of trout roe turns the dish into a revelation. And Barnett’s young staff fills the adorable checkered-curtained space with life and verve to match the boldly-flavored cuisine.

The Dishes that Clinched It:
  • Blood Sausage, Roasted Apples, Pommes Purées, and Mustard
  • Fisherman’s Stew: White Wine Fumet, Seared Scallops, Mussels, Leeks, and Trout Roe
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    CHEF: Greg Perrault, June
    This talented young chef draws on his time working on an Oregonian farm (and experience at New York’s Bouley, The Tasting Room, and DOC) into his role as a chef at the 30-seat neighborhood restaurant June. In meat-centric Portland, Perrault’s veggie worship shines. By using unusual Oregon produce, Perrault takes the diner on a journey of obscure vegetation, enabling diners to explore textural diversity like never before. Dishes like Celery Root-Salt Cod Napoleon, Roasted Carrots, Créme Fraîche Panna Cotta, and Frikeh are the stars of Perrault’s out-of-the-box menu. Perrault’s dishes and restaurant bear the stamp of independent thinking—he and his partner built June from the ground up, using mostly refurbished materials. The cuisine feels almost built from the ground up too—his celery root dish was born of leftovers from two now-defunct dishes, but the ingredients come together as if they were meant for each other and the result is one-of-a-kind. 

    The Dishes that Clinched It:
  • Celery Root and Salt Cod Napoleon, Pickled Egg Yolk, and Confit Mushrooms
  • Roasted Carrots, Créme Fraiche Panna Cotta, and Frikeh
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    CHEF: Chefs Sarah Pliner, Kat Whitehead, and Jasper Shen, Aviary

    Think of them like a happy, three-headed chef-monster. Kat Whitehead, Jasper Shen, and Sarah Pliner are a risk-taking team to watch—they met as 20-somethings in the trenches of New York City kitchens and moved to Portland to pursue their dream of opening a restaurant. We love the interplay between the trio—not to mention the Portland dining scene they’re engaging. Pliner, Whitehead, and Shen unselfishly combine forces to develop some of the most original dishes we’ve seen in the city. The meeting of equal minds yields wonders, often with deft textural play, like their Crispy Pig Ear, Coconut Rice, Chinese Sausage, and Avocado. All three contribute dishes to the menu, and their (almost miraculous) lack of ego leads to free exchange behind the line—and some really unusual flavor profiles. We can’t wait to see what these ambitious chefs have in store for Portland. Whatever it may be, it won’t include playing it comfort-food-safe.

    The Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Crispy Carlton Farms Pig Ear, Coconut Rice, Chinese Sausage, and Avocado
  • Warm Snap Pea and Black Barley Salad, Hon Shimeji Mushrooms, Citrus, Lily Bulb, and Black Barley Crisp  
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    CHEF: Naomi Pomeroy, Beast

    This ballsy and ambitious beauty works magic with her Beast. Pomeroy breaks down a whole animal each week for her set menu and once-a-night seatings, serving a different cut each night and converting the flesh-of-the-day into rustic, pointedly Portlandian cuisine. It takes moxie to do all that in an open kitchen in front of your guests, all while perfectly coiffed and lipsticked. And as it happens in the fairytale universe of Beast, a bevy of belles transforms from sweaty line cooks to adorable servers. There’s a sauciness about Pomeroy’s dishes—they’re seductive and comforting, a welcome reminder that a chef’s distinctive culinary stylings are never so completely on display as they are in a city full of small restaurants like Portland.

    The Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Maple-glazed Pork Belly, Turnips, Sour Cherry Chutney, and Fried Shallots
  • First of the Season Asparagus Soup, Sake-washed Steelhead Roe, and Chive-Lemon Oil
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    CHEF: William Preisch, The Bent Brick

    William Preisch might not be a name you’ve heard before, but trust us, you will. Working with Portland Chef and Restaurateur Scott Dolich of Park Kitchen, Preisch crafts a menu using almost entirely domestic produce. But he doesn’t view this as a restriction. In fact it’s more of a mantra—local, domestic, sustainable. And Preisch more than rises to the challenge. We love the way he layers flavor—like the carrot cake, carrot balls, and carrot tops he serves with pork and root beer glaze—and breathes life into dishes with quiet confidence, thanks to sound technique and pared down flavor profiles. Like a modern painter infatuated with his brush and paints, Preisch takes one ingredient on each plate and unleashes his creativity, showcasing it in a myriad of ways, using different techniques to build nuances of texture, flavor, and color in each sumptuous layer. 

    The Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Pork Carrots, Root Beer Glaze, Almond Yogurt, and Carrot Tops
  • Oregon Dungeness Crab, Louie Sauce, Cucumbers, and Pickled Grapes
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    CHEF: Gabriel Rucker, Le Pigeon
    Gabriel Rucker is young and spirited. He worked at Paley’s Place, the brainchild of one of Portland’s culinary founding fathers, Vitaly Paley, before opening Le Pigeon. And that early experience shows in Rucker’s food. It has a similar elegant comfort slant. But Rucker brings to that approach an otherworldly passion for foie gras and unusual offal, like chicken heart. We’re obsessed with his decadent foie gras profiteroles—the mere thought of them makes our mouths water. Both Le Pigeon and its little sister, Little Bird Bistro have a well-worn, rustic feel that is as comforting as the food, making diners instantly feel at home in the quirky house of Rucker.  

    The Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Foie Gras Profiteroles with Caramel Sauce and Sea Salt
  • Pig's Foot Frisée, Sixty Minute Egg, and Shaved Foie Gras
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     HOTEL CHEF: Andy Arndt, Aquariva at Avalon Hotel and Spa

    When it comes to Portland’s dining scene, Aquariva is fairly off the beaten path. Since Andy Arndt joined the team at this Avalon Hotel and Spa’s restaurant, though, it has finally started to earn some well-deserved buzz. His ability to juggle comfort food like short ribs with creative fare like gin and tonic gelée-topped salmon over salmon is impressive. Even more striking, he runs the entire LEED-certified hotel and spa’s food and beverage program, from the luxe spa menu to the complimentary breakfast on each floor. The little changes he’s brought about are as important as the big ones—like the freshly brewed coffee for breakfast from one of Portland’s local coffee roasters instead of generic coffee.

    The Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Gin and Tonic Springer Salmon: Pan-seared Juniper-glazed Salmon, Gin and Tonic Gelée, Juniper Berry Syrup, Citrus Granita, Sorrel, and Nasturtiums
  • Coffee-smoked Australian Short Ribs, Bruschetta Tomato, and Polenta
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     SUSTAINABILITY CHEF: Sunny Jin, Jory at the Allison Inn & Spa

    Sunny Jin is an inspiration and the man in charge of an impressive juggling act, balancing sustainability with room service, restaurant service, banquets, spa menus, and picnic baskets as the hotel chef at the Allison Inn & Spa. Jin also keeps bees for the restaurant’s honey supply, has a half acre chef’s garden on site, and regularly tours his purveyors’ farms to ensure their practices align with his exacting standards. “I need the piece of mind that I am sourcing the best.” Jin’s always striving to do better, to do more. He’s currently working on expanding the chef’s garden and setting up a viable and sustainable pig farm, so it’s apt that his restaurant Jory has its home in the LEED-certified Allison Inn & Spa. When he’s not busy building a “symbiotic bond” with the Northwest, Jin's crafting technique-driven regional cuisine honed by his time at fine dining temples like El Bulli and The French Laundry.

    The Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Muscovy Duck Breast and Confit, Stewed Cherries, Grilled Onions, and Romaine
  • Chilled Cantaloupe Soup, Aged Speck, Verjus Gelée, and Mint
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     COMMUNITY CHEF: Jenn Louis, Lincoln

    Jenn Louis makes time for the community—while running two successful restaurants (Lincoln and Sunshine Tavern) and a catering business (Culinary Artistry). She not only teaches cooking classes at a homeless youth shelter, but also works with Growing Gardens, a charity that teaches low-income families how to create home gardens to produce fresh food. This Rising Star shines so bright because she’s at the heart of chef-driven change in Portland. She also is a sponge of culinary knowledge, researching recipes and food (especially her beloved pasta) to keep her on the forefront of this challenging industry. Louis is a strong woman who has a clear vision of what she wants and isn’t afraid to lead the way. And both of the restaurants she operates with her partner-husband have become neighborhood gathering spots, where families convene for free pinball (with a side of comfort-driven cuisine).

    The Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Baked Hen Eggs with Cream, Castelvetrano Olives, and Herbed Breadcrumbs
  • Ricotta Cavatelli, Nicky Farms Rabbit Ragu, Prosciutto di Parma, Turnip Greens, and Parmigiano-Reggiano
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    CONCEPT CHEF: Salumist Elias Cairo, Olympic Provisions

    Not content with an under-the-table charcuterie operation, passionate salumist Elias Cairo opened a state-of-the-art, USDA-certified home for chorizos, frankfurters, and salami—the porky foodstuffs that act as the backbone of the small plates at Olympic Provisions. Cairo’s salumi are set to sweep the nation—literally. Not only has the first restaurant expanded to a second location, the cured sausages are now available wholesale; we’ve seen them cropping up all over the place—including (happily) our home base in New York! Beyond keeping things above board and inspiring an appetite for his carefully crafted charcuterie, Cairo follows through with Portland’s local-sustainable mantra by participating in the Heritage Program with Carlton Farms and often using Oregon-sourced antibiotic-free meats. Cairo has helped create a concept that’s not only wildly successful in Portland but also is ripe for expansion.

    The Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Australian Lamb Prosciutto and Assorted Charcuterie
  • Assorted Cheeses from Emmi Roth USA
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    PASTRY CHEF: Kir Jensen, The Sugar Cube

    Kir Jensen runs the little dessert cart that could (and does, and how!). Jensen crafts desserts you could serve in the most high fallutin’ restaurant from the modest space of a tiny food cart kitchen—and with one assistant. Just the presentations alone are impressive. Her elegant plating—with vintage china and flatware—blew us away. And Jensen’s refined flavor profiles, like sesame, chocolate, coconut, and banana, make for a seductive harmony in her panna cotta, and her salted caramel-banana shake is orgasmically good—not a descriptor we use lightly. With a cookbook in the works, dreams of a brick and mortar Sugar Cube, and a cult following in Portland, this Rising Star is sure to be sweetening the country for years to come.

    The Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Coconut Panna Cotta, Chocolate Pot de Crème, Brûléed Banana, and Sesame Brittle, and Caramelized Banana
  • The Banana What What: Banana Malted Shake, Fresh Whipped Cream, and Salted Caramel
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    PASTRY CHEF: Kristen D. Murray, Paley’s Place

    For one of the most buzzed about pastry chefs in town, Kristen Murray is surprisingly humble. And that’s a refreshing quality in someone who could easily boast about her imaginative and technique-driven seasonal desserts. You won’t find “pay attention to me” desserts with circus-like presentations on Murray’s menu. Where she really shows off is with unexpected flavor profiles—where else have you had pain perdu, grapefruit, and green almond together? And when it comes to flawless concentrations of flavor and spot-on technique, Murray is in her element—basil sorbet tastes like it was plucked straight from the plant on a hot summer day, and her heirloom corn pudding with mascarpone is rich and full in the mouth. When Murray’s imagination hits the plate, it doesn’t just mix together flavors—it tells the story of a flavor profile or ingredient, and we’re listening closely.

    The Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Black Pepper Cheesecake, Rhubarb-Apple Confiture, and Celery Leaf Gelée and Sorbet
  • Heirloom Corn Pudding, Mascarpone Mousse, Viridian Farms Strawberries, Salted Butter Ice Cream, Strawberry Sorbet, and Strawberry Leather
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     BAKERY: Tim Healea, Little T American Baker

    While studying at ICE in New York, Tim Healea pickled up Nancy Silverton's book Breads from the La Brea Bakery and started making his own sourdough starter. The passion that came from this simple discovery led to the best baguette we’ve had outside of Paris. Healea had help from a little good timing. He arrived in Portland just as the baking scene was about to take off—and Healea was part of the charge. The flour-obsessed, meticulous baker starts with an often-overlooked strain of flour for just the right crunch, chew or snap in his breads and pastries, and builds from there. We’ve seen some of Portland’s cheffy finest (we won’t name names) picking up bread here, and that’s a dead giveaway when it comes to spotting who’ll continue to set the culinary scene ablaze. There’s even talk of plans for East Coast and Seattle projects from him!

     The Dishes that Clinched It:

  • Baguette
  • Bittersweet Chocolate Tart
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    SOMMELIER: Jack Hott, Castagna

    Jack Hott took a roundabout route to the life of a sommelier—involving amongst other things, a Kerouac-fueled trip to Portland. But now that he’s here, he’s killing it. His analytical mindset and tendency to “geek out” with winemakers over specifics is well-suited to a fine-dining temple like Castagna—where complex dishes incorporate ingredients most sommeliers haven’t even heard of and don’t leave any room for default or standard wine picks. As if his infectious enthusiasm, tableside manner, and well-articulated, great wine picks weren’t enough, his pairing skills are very impressive. It takes some serious skill to come up with pairings that not only keep up with the restaurant’s imagination, but complement ingredients that would be outside of most somms’ pairing vocab (geranium, anemone, hay, and wild ginger). 

  • Wine pairings for chefs’ dishes

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    RESTAURATEUR: Kurt Huffman, Chefstable (Grüner, Ping, St. Jack, Kask, Foster Burger)

    Kurt Huffman is shaping Portland’s culinary scene through his dynamic, chef-driven restaurant concepts. The man behind Grüner, Ping, St. Jack, Kask, and Foster Burger is as successful as he is today because he collaborates with chefs on each concept and makes each restaurant an individual entity, rather than trying to construct a Mc-Restaurant empire. Huffman’s been selective about who he decides to get into bed with, and it shows in the universally stellar quality of his restaurants, from James Beard nominated Chris Israel behind the Alpine-themed Grüner to Rising Star Aaron Barnett’s French bistro-themed St. Jack to Chef Andy Ricker. Part of what makes Portland shine is its plethora of impossibly unique concepts and specialties (trying to out-unique the Jones’s?). Huffman taps into that vibe and goes with it, and that’s what sets him apart among restaurateurs in the free-wheelin’, hard-working city of Portland. 

  • Hamachi Sashimi, White Soy Ponzu, Wasabi, and Olive Oil
    Prepared by Chef Trent Pierce of Wafu – Portland, OR

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    MIXOLOGIST: Jeffrey Morgenthaler, Clyde Common

    Jeffrey Morgenthaler is one of the major figures in the Portland (and U.S.) craft cocktail scene. His off-the-charts cocktail pairings with Clyde Common Chef Chris DiMinno’s Northwest Barber-esque dishes are as impressive as his buzzed-about barrel-aged cocktails. And Morgenthaler’s skills behind the bar have not only helped make the restaurant a success, but have revitalized the neighborhood. Instead of jealously guarding his knowledge, Morgenthaler shares everything from techniques to recipes (to the less sexy, but necessary costing sheets) on his website, extending his knowledge to a national community of mixologists. He’s revitalized the interest in barrel-aged cocktails and was the major pioneer stateside of the technique, proving himself a leader not only in the Portland mixo scene, but across the nation.  

    The Drinks that Clinched It:

  • Barrel-aged Negroni
  • Flannel Shirt Cocktail featuring Highland Park Single Malt Scotch Whisky
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