Interview with Chef Vuong Loc of Portage and Pig ’n Whistle - Seattle
Heather Sperling: How did you get started in food, and where have you worked?
Vuong Loc: My first food job was working in an Indian restaurant in my hometown of Portage, Michigan. I was like 12 and I got a job on the line. The chef was a friend of my mom's, and used to buy chili peppers that my mother grew from us.
My wife and I went to CIA and we've worked all over. We were at The Ritz-Carlton in Florida for a while, and then we moved to Vegas. I was at Aureole and Pinot Brasserie, and she was at Le Cirque. We moved back home (to Portage, Michigan) for family reasons, but also spent some time in California, where I was with the Patina group. We tried to open a restaurant in Michigan, but the liquor license was really challenging. We were always visiting friends in Seattle, and it's actually very feasible to get a license here.
We opened Portage in 2006, and then Pig ‘n Whistle in 2008. Tricia, my wife, does most of the bookkeeping for both restaurants and is the manager here too. Another reason we opened this place is because there's nowhere to get a good burger!
HS: Would you recommend culinary school?
VL: I would. It's definitely not for everyone though. You have to put the effort into it—you get out what you put in.
HS: Who are your mentors?
VL: The person I worked the longest with was Brian Bennington from Patina, and also Octavio Passera, who owns Pino Bistro. He and Joachim [Splichal] were partners—Joachim owned Patina, and Octavio owned Pino Bistro, and the group sprung from there.
I really like Daniel [Boulud's] approach to food. It’s so classical and all the stuff that people do that they think is so ground-breaking, chefs like Daniel have been doing it for 30 years. I try to model my cooking after him. I think his old, classic, simple approach to things is compelling. I've never met the guy; I've only been to two of his restaurants.
HS: What do you ask a potential cook to get a sense whether they’re right for your kitchen?
VL: I ask their expectations money-wise. It can give me a sense of where they're coming from. I bring in everyone who wants to work here to do a stage. The way they move in the kitchen and their knife skills gives me a good sense of who they are.
HS: What advice do you have for young cooks?
VL: Work at the nicest place you can work at. You might not make as much money, but in a few years you will.
HS: What is an underutilized or underappreciated ingredient that you like working with?
VL: I love offal. I really like wild game offal—venison liver, lamb sweetbreads. I like to use caul fat a lot. Right now, I have a stuffed lamb chop where I put the stuffing on the outside of the chop, then wrap it with caul fat and then roast it. I have a chicken ballotine, and I wrap the whole thing with caul fat and then roast it and serve it cold over pickled squash salad.
HS: What’s your most indispensible kitchen tool?
VL: Spoon—you can't plate anything properly without a spoon. I'm not a gadget guy—I'm pretty old school. I just like good knives, iron sauté pans, and salt. I use a French mandoline, too—the Japanese ones fall apart.
HS: What’s your favorite restaurant off the beaten path?
VL: Greenleaf. It’s Vietnamese. I get bun bo hue.
HS: What are Seattle diners like?
VL: A lot of them are extremely knowledgeable, but they're very casual. No one likes to dress up. We can get people in Portage that are going to the symphony, in formal wear, then right next to them will be someone in shorts and a baseball cap. Overall, they'll try pretty much anything. They're all about local, organic; that's a very big thing everywhere, but Seattle is one of the leaders in that area. Overall, the quality level of things, even at the grocery store, is so high that when people go out they expect to find the best quality ingredients at a very fair price. Even at the Fred Meyer (it’s like Target), there's a huge organic and local selection. So, you have to really be on your game. It's extremely competitive.
HS: What was the idea behind Portage?
VL: When we opened Portage we thought we were opening something casual and neighborhood-y. We thought we were making it very comfortable—roast chicken, $16-24 entrees…but it got treated as a really formal dining room. Which is alright, but it's kind-of turned it into a really special occasion restaurant, whereas we want it to be really more casual. People think it's fancy because of the tablecloths! We won't change it because we do have a clientele that loves that aspect of it.
HS: Where did Pig ‘n Whistle come from?
VL: This is a bar that's been in existence for about 20 years. I live nearby, it was for sale, and no one really wanted it. I enjoy both aspects of dining, from going to a bar with great beer and great pub food [to] fine dining. The menu is stuff that I want to eat at a bar. With the smelts, they're pretty popular because there are so many Midwest transplants. When we opened we had a more extravagant menu (a lot more entrees, gnocchi, homemade pastas), but we scaled it down. People wanted sandwiches. The crowd is all from the neighborhood, except on Friday and Saturday. This past Saturday we did almost 450 covers, and half of them were eating.
HS: What’s next for you?
VL: I'm hoping to expand Portage. Maybe do another concept…but I think my wife would kill me. It would be Vietnamese fine dining.
HS: What does “American Cuisine” mean to you?
VL: I guess it means broad. We didn't even speak English at my house, but we grew up in middle America. We even raised Vietnamese fruits and vegetables in the garden. But I would consider us as American as anyone else.