Chefs Sarah Pliner, Kat Whitehead and Jasper Shen of Aviary

Chefs Sarah Pliner, Kat Whitehead and Jasper Shen of Aviary
November 2011

2011 Portland Rising Stars Sarah Pliner, Katherine Whitehead, and Jasper Shen form the culinary trio behind Aviary—an unlikely dream come true for three individuals who sought the camaraderie of kitchens and found each other. From the beginning, Pliner was seduced by Portland’s magic, and attended Reed College there before she entered the culinary world. Pliner started off at The Heathman in Portland, where her mentor Philippe Boulot urged her to travel to New York to expand her culinary knowledge. She made the move and cooked in Manhattan restaurants, including Alain Ducasse at the Essex House, Aquavit, and Aldea, and ran the full gamut of kitchen positions, from sous chef, chef de partie, chef de cuisine, and executive chef. In a stroke of culinary fate, she met Shen and Whitehead at Aquavit, and the seed for Aviary was planted. Now with feet firmly planted in Portland, Pliner draws on her experiences (including time working under 2009 New York Rising Star Chef George Mendes) to harness the creativity of her fellow Aviary team members.

After a short-lived business career at AIG, Katherine Whitehead found herself drawn to the communal feeling found in a kitchen. She loved working with her hands and followed that love to the Institute of Culinary Education in New York. But Whitehead’s not just a hands-on woman. She also has a creative side, which she fed at the University of Massachusetts with an arts degree. An implant to New York’s culinary scene, she soon met Chef Jasper Shen, at 5 Ninth in New York City, and would end up working with him again at Provence and Aquavit. Whitehead later went on to work as pastry chef and sous chef at Manhattan’s Freemans, but the two remained friends, oblivious that the stars had destined their professional paths to cross again.

Jasper Shen initially studied what most restaurant parents secretly wish their kids would study—business—in his case at the University of Illinois. But he realized that he was not meant for a 9 to 5 life. Like his Aviary cohorts, Shen loved the comradeship of restaurant kitchens, so he started cooking at Maggiana’s Ristorante Italiano in Illinois. He soon left for New York City, where he worked at restaurants from AquavitJean Georges to 5 Ninth and Provence. Shen met Sarah Pliner in New York when they worked side by side at Aquavit. While at Aquavit, Shen was inspired by the teachings of Nils Noren, the then chef de cuisine. Noren taught Shen to see the passion in cooking and showed him how to work a station.

The three chefs united to make the cross-country move to Portland, Oregon, to pursue their dream of opening their own restaurant. There, Whitehead applies her voice and experience to the many details of a working restaurant, from the design to the dishes on the menu, and especially, to the desserts. Pliner has a strong French culinary training and is drawn to clean flavors with disciplined technique. And Shen brings his passion and Chinese heritage to the menu, wielding bold flavors combinations and innovative contrasts on Aviary’s bevy of bewitched diners.

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

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.