Interview with Portland Rising Star Concept Chef Elias Cairo of Olympic Provisions - Portland, OR

November 2011

Francoise Villeneuve: What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Elias Cairo: I was actually talking about this last night. There was never really a moment. My family owns three restaurants in Chicago, and food has just always been a huge part of my life. My mother baked bread every day and we owned a huge garden and slaughtered our own animals. I’ve been in restaurants working since I was 15 years old. It’s something I’ve always loved.

FV: How about charcuterie?
EC: Any cook that sees a product wonders how it’s done. For me, we made sausages and pâtés to utilize the animals we were killing at our house, and we started smoking meats. It’s always really interested me. Then I moved to Switzerland to do my apprenticeship and I got into an accident—I slipped and burned my hand. My hand was swollen and they packed it in oil. [So that it would stay cold, they said] "you’re going to the butchers shop," and we’d get 20 to 30 elk and mountain goats and we’d process them and I quickly learned that I loved butchering and utilizing the animals. 

FV: Tell us about your concept at Olympic Provisions. What defines it?
EC: Definitely the meat and being able to distribute our product, and making charcuterie like I remember it being in Europe—not a mass-produced American product but a true homemade quality product. That is very important. Not cutting corners. There are so many ways to cut corners in the meat industry, and Olympic Provisions would never do that. We grind out garlic every morning. In the meat industry, that’s totally different. They’re using dried onion and trying to get it done as soon as possible. Alex can come to me and say they want to try different type of pâté and we can work together and try and find a product that we’re really happy with.

FV: Tell me about your product.
EC: If it’s cured salami, if it’s a pâté, it’s done using every part of the animal in a very ethical way. We support farmers here in Oregon. The first year I was using only farmers I knew, Red Wattle and Sweet Briar Farms. Within a year the product line grew so fast that none of them could keep up with me, so I found a larger local company. They’re not a small family farm, but it’s a larger pork company—Carlton. It’s a delicious Northwest pork.  I started feeing guilty that I’ve had to switch. I do 17 to 18 farmers' markets a week.  Then I started doing free processing for the small farmers; they take it to the farmers' market and sell it at the largest profit margin they can get. The goal of that is to support them. They are the hardest working people, and if I support them now and make sure their farms grow, eventually we can have a complete product line only supporting their pork.

FV: What’s your favorite charcuterie item to make?
EC: They’re all so fun. The dried fermented salamis are definitely the most challenging. The Sauscisson D’Arles with heritage pork and salt is the most challenging because if anything goes wrong in the environment, you can’t hide behind the flavor of it. It’s very pure and clean, and it’s also the one that really depends on what the hog has been eating and how it was produced. If you had mass-produced, corn-fed pig from Iowa it tastes like nothing. You see the difference and you have to handle it perfectly and cure it perfectly.
We never brush or take off any of the mold so it’s the same product you would receive in Europe.

FV: What has been your proudest accomplishment in your career to date?
EC: I would have to say I have 55 employees and they are all super amazing. They’re the most hard working, creative people. They’re learning about food or wine or making a cocktail or learning more about production. My whole family works for me so it’s definitely being able to walk into work and see that they’re the most amazing people. I’m pretty proud, especially in such a crappy economy, to be able to offer so many jobs.

FV: What’s the toughest thing you’ve had to do in your job?
EC: The learning curve from when I said I wanted to do this and I got my first USDA inspection, that was definitely the most difficult thing to do. The amount of sanitation and HACCP development. You learn about how you’re killing all of these pathogens, and the stress of being here at 6:45 in the morning, making sure the USDA does a full walk-through of my plant every single day, and producing a product of the highest quality. We have an amazing relationship with the USDA, but to get to that was a huge challenge.

FV: What did you learn from your mentors? What did you take from working with them that you use now, in your current operations?
EC: From the owners of Castanga—that cutting corners in anything you do, you’re gonna pay for it later. They have an amazing ability to have highest quality ingredients. And if you’re going to clean something, clean it proper. If you’re going to cook a staff meal, cook it proper. Set a tone of professionalism, and people are going to follow it. And build an air of family, and work really hard and make something really perfect.

FV: How do you run the charcuterie facility? Is it very regimented?
EC: It is USDA regimented so we have to. If we were going to walk out and walk in and someone doesn’t wash their hands, you would get in trouble. It’s very regimented, but we also have way more fun. We listen to only vinyl, and the USDA walks in and they were like you are processing under all natural light and I say, yes, it’s pretty. The big, beautiful warehouse, and then my employee flips over a record and they say it’s the only USDA plant that listens to vinyl. I’ve yet to lose an employee. We hang out, we cook, clean and eat together, and we talk to each other throughout the weekend. Everyone working for me is so motivated. I’m definitely the luckiest guy.

FV: What level of input do you have in the restaurant menus?
EC: Of course chef plays a huge role. We have charcuterie menus in both places. We’ll talk about how things are going day to day—and more than just the food being produced.  We talk about how to handle somebody and also if they have anyone they need for development. Then of course I get to eat and give them feedback. If there’s an event or anything they want me to go to, we’ll team up on it. I still cook plenty.

FV: How did the wholesale program develop?
EC: We wanted to make sure we had a good local standing. So we initially started at the farmers' markets in Portland. Portland’s a very small town, and we all know each other very well. I started going to my favorite grocery store, and we have Steve from the cheese bar and all these people. I would go talk to them, and I said if I get these people to give me feedback, I feel like I’m in good hands. So we started in farmers' markets and went to high-end grocery stores, and that went well. And we won the Good Food Award last year—it’s a handmade food competition. They do beer brewing, coffee, charcuterie, and cheese. It’s all my peers. We entered four products and all four won an award. We were the only meat shop in America that won for all four. Marlow and Sons called and people in New York called. Michael Ruhlman tried my product and said it was delicious. And wholesale orders started trickling in. We’re still so small. There are only four meat producers. It’s developing, and we’re trying to figure out smartest avenues to do that. You have to develop your avenues of revenue in so many different ways. It’s all part of business and it’s very exciting.

FV: Did you have any idea your charcuterie would end up across the country?
EC: Of course you dream of it. You’d be flattered to be at Marlow and Sons, and there are so many people like Beecher’s. I still can’t believe it. Of course you dream of it when you’re working 80 hours a week, that somebody would notice it somewhere. I never thought it would happen this fast, that’s for sure.

FV: What’s next for you?
EC: I think we’re definitely developing more products, which is a lot of fun for me, but for a little while making sure Olympic Provisions and my brand grows slowly and just keeps fighting the food fight. We want to ensure that Olympic keeps growing really well and building a really healthy family environment for everyone that works here. That’s pretty  much it. Keep working.