Interview with 2011 Portland Rising Stars Kat Whitehead, Sarah Pliner and Jasper Shen of Aviary - Portland, OR

November 2011

Francoise Villeneuve: What inspired you to cook professionally?

Sarah Pliner: I was doing it as a part-time job while I was in school and I fell into it. After I had done it for a few years I got much more involved in wanting to learn. If this was what I was gonna do with my life I should make it worthwhile, I shouldn't half ass it.

Jasper Shen: When I was a kid I grew up with some uncles outside of Chicago. I grew up in kitchens, helping the bartender. They were Chinese restaurants, and one was in Evanston.

Kat Whitehead: I guess after college I worked in insurance and I found it really boring. I had always enjoyed cooking. I like working with my hands and enjoy the friendships that develop when you work with people in a kitchen. Insurance is not a nice business. You make a lot of friends but it's very false.

FV: Do you recommend culinary school to aspiring chefs?

SP: I worked in Portland for about 10 years before I went to New York and the first four years were not the kind of restaurants you went to culinary school to do. Then, by the time you took it seriously I was already 4 or 5 years in and I was a solid line cook. I knew I could get a job at Aquavit and learn what I needed to know there.

JS: I went the normal route I went to college at the University of Illinois and studied business for a while. One summer I was looking for job. I had served for a little while and they didn't have serving jobs, they had a job in the kitchen. I said “fine, I'll take it,” and went in knowing nothing. A dishwasher showed me how to cut an onion and make stocks. One day a guy didn't show up Saturday night and they said “you've got to work on the line.” I went down in flames, but it was fun and I asked if I could start working on the line. They said fine, and I've kind of been cooking ever since.

FV: What advice would you offer young chefs just getting started?

SP: Cook as much as you can at home, play with spices and flavors, and try things that you don't think would work. You'll understand why they don't work. You need to hone in your palate on what works together and why it works together. Every time you make something bad, you'll come up with an idea for something that's good.

FV: What is your philosophy on food and dining?

SP: For me, my philosophy is that going out to eat is a special occasion and something interesting and exciting and different and hopefully better than you could make at home. I like the farm-to-table idea, but I don't like idea of taking a potato and cooking it and serving it to a paying customer.

JS: I think my philosophy is food should be fun. Dining should be fun. Going out should be about having a good time.

FV: What goes into creating a dish?

SP: It’s a collection of things. Either a season changes or something I want to use or do. For me, I try and work my way up from one idea and it'll be a meal I had 10 years ago or my favorite dish from a restaurant and take what it is that I love about that and play with it. I usually do most of the work in my head.

JS: The way it works is that we're here a lot so we talk a lot about food and creative ideas. Some things we tell each other don't work and some do; we talk about it and add or subtract ideas. We're just open minded to other peoples’ ideas.

KS: The key to the collaboration is no-one feels they're any better than anyone else or their ideas are any better than anyone else's.