History, Trade, Commerce, Warfare: “In the Center” with Dave Machado

Dave Machado

Dave Machado

Nel Centro, Dave Machado’s latest venture, is a hard-hat-only area in late March. Standing amid buckets of grout and workers using acetylene torches, Machado explains how he came to open his third Portland restaurant in the eight-thousand-square-foot space on the ground floor of the Hotel Modera.

“You remember what this place was, that skuzzy Days Inn bar?” he asks. I tell him, I do, and how depending on your mood, the purple lighting and soiled carpet and solo drinkers put you one step closer to either writing the Great American Novel or suicide.

“It was pretty bad,” he agrees. “And the space – everybody in town looked at it and nobody wanted it.”

Everybody?

“Greg Higgins, Bruce Carey and in between,” he says. “It was under demolition and everybody went, ooh, location!”

The location, on SW Clay and Sixth, is pretty amazing.

“It is. But then you walk through the space and think: it’s just too damn big. I looked at it back in March of ’08; did a walk through, went home and forgot about it.”

The people behind the hotel, however, convinced him to take another look. “They also own Hotel Andra, up in Seattle,” he says. “Tom Douglas has a restaurant there.”

Tom Douglas who owns Serious Pie?

“Yeah, and also a bunch of other restaurants,” says Machado, who also owns Lauro and Vindalo. “So I came back and looked again, and look at this.” He turns north, west and south, toward the hi-rises just beyond the floor to ceiling windows. “You have the Portland Building, you have the Oregonian across the street, and PSU owns all those buildings,” he says. “And if you look on Sixth and Fifth [Avenues], you will be absolutely blown away by the number of brand new buildings. It’s staggering.”

Walkway

Walkway

Machado’s eyes ask, are you seeing what I see? I am; the landscape is monolithic. I don’t think there’s a restaurant in Portland with this kind of big city view. “And one block over you have the Wells Fargo Building,” he adds. “You have six thousand tenants, including [a hundred] attorneys at Davis Wright Tremaine, and they have to eat lunch somewhere.”

Where do they eat now?

“It’s not that there aren’t other restaurants in this end of downtown. You have Higgins and Carafe and Veritable Quandary, and they’re busy,” he says. “But there aren’t enough restaurant seats at this end of downtown, not with the arts scene you have around here. It’s a five-iron shot to the Schnitz, a two-iron to the Keller. I’ve got a hundred and twenty parking spots underneath me, and a hundred and seventy-four hotel rooms above – you have a built in breakfast crowd.”

He’s going to need a breakfast crowd if he plans to fill Nel Cento’s planned two hundred and seventy-five seats.

“Yeah, but not all of them are in the restaurant,” he says, mentioning the five discrete dining areas, the private room with the big slab of Doug fir at which folks can dine communally, the three thousand square feet devoted to banquet rooms.

Banquet rooms?

“In hotels, banquets always make up for loss leaders,” he says. “Like room service; you always lose money on room service.”

Machado knows about hotel dining. He spent years working for Kimpton, first in San Francisco and then in Portland, where in 1991 he opened Pazzo in the Vintage Plaza Hotel. “Opening [in Hotel Modera] is like coming home for me,” he says, leading a tour of the spaces that will become Nel Cento’s two kitchens, its rotisserie; pointing out where the Calcutta marble walls will be, and the leather booths, and the giant four-sided bar.

Fire pit

Fire pit

“And if there’s a better public space in Portland, I don’t know what it is,” he says, walking directly from the bar to the courtyard, with its oblong fire-pits and slated wood partitions and thirteen-foot-high “living wall” of stone and steel and lichen-like plants. Designed by Holst Architecture in conjunction with Lango Hansen, the courtyard is urban in a way other Portland public spaces have not yet tried to be, both spectacular and serene, looking more like an adjunct to a museum.

“And it’s open to anyone,” he says, taking a seat at one of the fire-pits. “You can just sit here and read a book.” Which, in fact, a woman is doing as Aubrey Lindley, owner of the certifiably chic Cacao, wanders in.

“What is this place?” he asks, mentioning he’s on his way to a meeting but had to check out the courtyard “because it’s just so gorgeous.”

Not as gorgeous is the current economic climate. While any restaurant venture is risky, at any time, right now it’s especially fearsome. Yet Machado seems remarkably poised about the prospects of Nel Centro, which means “in the center,” perhaps because at fifty-four, he is without illusion.

“Look, restaurants are always real estate deals,” he says. “You can window dress them to be something else; they’re food, they’re cuisine, they’re feelings, they’re good times. But they’re always real estate deals, because it’s a space, and a lease, and equipment, and debt. This deal [Nel Centro] comes at a time when not many people want to take a risk. The deal to get into this hotel space is extremely… beneficent.”

They want to make it nice for you.

“They want me to succeed in the worst way.”

Success, he says, is not about being “a market leader or an educator or innovator”; about foams and hemp and menu arcana that make the customer feel ill equipped to order. “You make food and open restaurants for those that will come in and purchase food and enjoy the restaurant,” says Machado. “Since I don’t use investors, I don’t use partners and it’s all tied up in my own house and my own money, I can’t afford to have failure, or even a near-miss. I can only live in a world where they’re open and they’re generally full. And Lauro and Vindalo generally are.”

The menu at Lauro is heavily Portuguese and Spanish, with some Arabic influences, and Vindalo is “Spice Route” cuisine, broad swathes of land and peoples and cultures and time. While Nel Centro is equally informed by history, its locus, Machado says, “is very, very finite.”

“Both sides of the border in Italy and France, the city of Nice and the city of Genoa, really kind of make up what we do,” he says. “I’m taking classical recipes from those cuisines. An example: a beef daube the same way it’s done in Nice, the same orange peel, the same thyme; we’re putting a pig’s foot in it. The same giant, twenty-five pounds of chuck cut in cubes. It’s classical.”

Also on the menu: salt cod croquettes, bouillabaisse with red pepper rouille, and breads, pastas and desserts from pastry chef Lee Posey.

“She was my pastry chef at Pazzo for five years, and she’s spent the last decade running Pearl Bakery,” he says. “She’s looking for a challenge.”

Speaking of a challenge: the press release says the wines at Nel Centro, put together by David Holstrom, are going to be “playful” and “cerebral.” What does that mean?

Machado chuckles. “Dave is a cerebral guy; he’s got a degree in Slavic languages. He’s very smart, and also very impish and I try to keep Dave in a box. I say, ‘Dave, you can’t say what you just said…”

Because no one will understand…

“He’s just weird that way but I love him because he’s really smart,” he says. “Dave comes to me and goes, ‘I’m having a trouble with the price points, but if you allow me to go to Sicily, everything is going to change.’ So I said, you know, in Genoa, a lot of Sardinians and Sicilians came up to do trade, especially in their cheeses; so I said, if they have trade, and they have cheese that gets transported up there, we’re going to go on it.”

Because you demand a proper historical connection before you put an item or a wine on the menu?

“Yeah,” he says. “I’m very, very historical; everything is history, trade, commerce, warfare: what is the tie-in? As Americans, we’re so…” He pauses. “We don’t know that the port of Venice and the port of Genoa control almost all food products from the Arab and Asian world in the fourteenth, fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. They control everything because they have finance. They’re supplanted by the Portuguese and the Spanish, and later by the Dutch, and later by the English-and the only reason is that each one has finance! The Portuguese and the Spanish, through the Inquisition, get rid of all of the Jews, who are all of their financiers. And guess where they go? They go up to the Netherlands, so the next era of discovery and the next era of trade is the Dutch! It’s all about trade, it’s all about finance; it’s all about warfare: who fought for who could control whom.

“That’s what makers me crazy about Portland and the bloggers,” he continues. “They get all fundamentalist, about authenticity and food. It’s like, where do you think that food came from? Where do you think a dish in Italy came from? It came because some Portuguese explorer put in tomatoes or fava beans. It was a result of trade and commerce that you get cuisine. You didn’t get cuisine in a vacuum; you got cuisine because people brought you products.”

I tell him, don’t get me started on provinciality, as though we should only eat foods from within ten miles of here. That I’m a little more curious than that, actually, curious about coffee and chocolate and chiles and other things that do not grow in the 97_ _ _ zip code.

“You get to a Luddite way of dealing with the world,” he says. “People become fundamentalist about food; you want to say, stop; stop. Stop. Be a little more open.”

So you’ve got your eager pastry gal and your wacky wine guy. Who’s the chef?

Machado measures his answer. “I’m writing all the recipes and developing all the food in conjunction with my team,” he says, but I’ve talked with him enough to know, there’s going to be an addendum.

“This is an often asked question, and it’s a difficult one to explain,” he says. “People like to identify with the chef, so they look at a white coat or chopping in the kitchen; they have these images they need to have validated. But a lot of the stuff I’m doing, I’m the editor. I’m running the business, every aspect, from the cocktails to the menu to the uniforms to the logo; I’m doing all of it.”

Machado looks toward the bar area. “I built and positioned that bar so that if you come into the hotel, and you walk down the lobby, the first person you see is a bartender who says, ‘Hi. Welcome.’ The other bartender is the first person you see from the other door [on Sixth]. I hate when you go into a restaurant and you say, ‘How does this work? Where do we go? Who are we and how do these people feel about us?’ There are so many details in a business like this. Will I go in [the kitchen] and cut something or sauce something or flip something over? Absolutely. But that’s a young man’s game; it’s for twenty-five-year olds.”

Speaking of young men, how did the hiring go?

“First Craigslist ad got five hundred in twenty-four hours,” he says. “Before this particular economy, [we'd get] twenty, sixty, maybe eighty. I have mixed feelings about this: it’s good for any employer; plenty of supply. In terms of pure capitalism, it’s a buyers market. But it’s not a good situation, because it says that the economy is contracting at a rapid rate. When you have qualified chefs saying, I’ll be a cook, or qualified managers saying, I’ll wait tables, then everybody’s throwing their hats in and saying, I’ll take whatever I can take.”

And some are throwing in the towel.

“Yeah,” says Machado, and we talk off the record about who in the restaurant business is on top and who will go under. Which extremely well known restaurants are on rent abatement and which one owes $480,000 in back taxes.

“I’ve had people apply for jobs behind their bosses’ backs because the restaurant stopped paying staff altogether,” he says. When I ask how this is possible, why employees would stay without being paid, he likens it to the Stockholm Syndrome. “They still have a job, the bosses are nice…” Machado shrugs.

“Have you been to Toast?” he asks.

I haven’t.

“You gotta go, 52nd and Steele,” he says. “One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most this year, my breakfasts at Toast.”

Nel Centro opens in May
At the Hotel Modera
1408 SW Sixth Avenue
Portland, OR 97201
503-484-1099
www.nelcentro.com

Your thoughts are welcome

  1. says

    Thank you. And my mistake misspelling Vindahlo, the spelling of which I know, though apparently not that day. I’ve asked the Dude to correct it (times three).

  2. meimoya says

    Well written indeed. However, wouldn’t it be better to use the past tense when talking about 14th and 15th century Genoa and Venice?
    And Nancy…get thee to Toast!

  3. says

    I’m looking forward to seeing something different downtown, especially on the south end. Great article, and it was nice to see Machado come off as such a thoughtful guy. His comments on “historical perspective” and “food fundamentalists” are spot on. For me the bottom line has always been: Is it good? I’m guessing with his background and commitment, the answer will most likely be yes!

  4. Catherine Cole says

    Wonderful piece. “I can’t afford to have failure, or even a near-miss. I can only live in a world where they’re open and they’re generally full.” Wow; that’s a hell-of-a quote if I’ve ever read one.

  5. Tass says

    Wineguy, all this time I thought you were holding barbells. Glad I finally realized it’s wine bottles. Phew…

  6. elwood says

    pdx_yogi,

    I can’t tell if your being sarcastic, but here’s a few thoughts on authenticity. Authenticity, as a concept, isn’t so much “bogus” as it is slippery. It’s not a term that gives itself to black and white definitions, but exist wholly in some sort of gray area. The concept, however, is real and should be held as an ideal rather than an object of derision.

    To use certain key ingredients in a dish that are sourced from a particular area and time in history lends to the final product’s authenticity. There is an authentic way to make various dishes, just as there are in-authentic ways. An understanding of food history and food criticism should only bolsters one’s understanding of, for example, a real glass of red burgundy verses something made to replicate that experience.

    Machado is right, though, things change, ingredients change and cultural practices change. Today’s authentic was yesterday’s fusion. But food evolves in concert with its context. Understand the context (ie, the cultural, economic, technological &c reasons certain foods are the way they are) and one comes closer to understanding the concept of authenticity in food.

    To throw out the concept is just tossing the baby with the bathwater.

    Of course you may have been kidding, in which case…. uh, never mind.

  7. pdx_yogi says

    I was dead serious.
    It is used as shorthand by lazy food writers.
    It is used to elevate food that one likes, giving it some supposed stamp of an ideal of excellence.

    Who is to say what is an “authentic” quiche? The rustic version made in a cast-iron pan with pastry edges that were not crimped, first created by some rural peasant 500 years ago in a mud and stone hut in Lorraine?

    • mczlaw says

      So. . .if you were king, “yogi”, would you throw out all the AOC, DOC and other types of control designations imposed to protect the integrity of certain regional foods and wines? Or are these labels just another effort to “elevate food that one likes.”

      Should champagne made outside the particular area of France, say the California or Italian sparkly stuff, be able to be called champagne if the same types of grapes and production methods are used? Would you insist those bubblies are just as “authentic” as the French stuff?

      As my questions imply, I am inclined to go along with “elwood’s” sensible, less cynical assessment of authenticity–that there are certain longstanding, common characteristics of particular consumables that cause folks to classify conforming examples as “authentic”–even though I don’t necessarily disagree that the term may be overused, if that is really your point.

      –mcz

  8. extramsg says

    How about if they made if the NY Bagel Society made a rule that bagels must be cooked in wood ovens and only contain flour, salt, yeast, and malt syrup? You’d have to change your bakery’s name to Touch of Grace Rolls with Holes, mczlaw. ;-)

    There’s plenty of evidence that such designations do as much harm as good since they’re more about solidifying recipes than advancing quality, yet imply that quality is indeed supported by the designations. It creates a false economy where winemakers, cheesemakers, salumi makers, etc, are coerced into making items that meet arbitrary guidelines because those government/industry-created brands qua designations fetch a better price, whether they’re better products or not. And, of course, most of these designations aren’t pushed by foodies, but by industries looking for protection and a government-induced monopoly.

    Let’s maintain recipes in books, not in laws.

    • pdx_yogi says

      Great point msg.
      Taking that a step further, what if the NY Bagel Society made a rule that you couldn’t call it a bagel unless you were a member of their cartel and the bagel was made within the city of NY? They could reason that the only true bagel is a product of certain strains of yeast that can only thrive in that area, and the water has certain unique properties, blah blah blah. Not so different from not being able to call it Champagne unless it’s made in Champagne.

      Thanks mcz for your concession that this term is overused.

      • whatthef says

        What are you guys smoking?

        Your fantasy version of how some big bad fantasy government might try to take away your ability to call a bagel a bagel and then somehow making the jump to an actual physical geographical zone in France that calls their wine Champagne, because, well, that is the NAME OF THE REGION. And how all of this is impeding your life – How?

  9. whatthef says

    My take on Machado’s comments had more to do with calling out the people who use authenticity (or the lack of it) as a stick. He wasn’t calling out the people who actually to live, grow food and wine and cook in the area of question, only the self proclaimed experts (fundamentalists).

    He is absolutely right that trade changed everything, the question is how/why did certain areas integrate certain ingredients into their cuisine?

    Climate, wealth and the ability to grow (save/store) products all play as big a part as their availability.

    In modern times with everything available to everyone (if you can pay for it), cuisine continues to evolve. For good and bad.

    While there is a grain of truth in the industrialized food producers investment in the origin of place designations, it has not been my experience that they “do as much harm as good”. There is no coercion going on, food and wine producers can make their products any way they want, without the designation.

  10. mczlaw says

    1. I did not suggest that the concept of authenticity should be elevated to law, nor did I sense that was “elwood’s” point. I referred to characteristics that were common and longstanding. Elwood speaks eloquently of key ingredients “from a particular area and time in history.” This is distinct from some unwavering, immutable principle mandating what an “authentic” product must be.

    2. Yogi’s point of view (and possibly yours unless your are just having fun playing devil’s advocate) that nothing can ever be authentic is just as extreme and dogmatic as the opposing position.

    3. It had never occurred to me that the AOC/DOC denominations might really be an anti-competitive government/industry conspiracy. So, I guess you think those designations should be thrown out. As I am poring through the “1001 Foods You Must Taste Before You Die” and am seeing all these unusual speciality items (many of which I had never heard of) that are made in tiny batches in traditional ways by a handful of producers in little nooks and crannies of the world, it strikes me as far more tenable that the control designations exist to protect these folks against the free market predations of the industrial titans.

    4. Returning to the theme of this thread, Dave Machado is a helluva business person and salesman. He’s also the most quotable person I know in the restaurant industry. So, it’s good and expected to have him stir the pot a little in advance of Nel Centro’s opening. It will be interesting to see how closely he hews to the “classical recipes” from Nice and Genoa he talks about. It would have been nice to know, too, who will be running his kitchen day-to-day, the one fact he seemed to dance around in Nancy’s interview. He can be the recipe writer and the “editor” all day long, but a skilled hand at the skillet is still going to be critical to the success of his restaurant. I wish for him and Portland Nel Centro’s great success.

    –mcz

    • extramsg says

      I never said anything on “authenticity”. But yes, I think the government should get out of the business of legislating authenticity and branding food. It only encourages the customer to be lazy and creates one more barrier for someone to do something different and unique. It takes one generation of a product and says that it must remain the same forever, versions before and after never to be considered “real” if they stray from some arbitrary standard.

      Think about the government designation of “organic” and all the negative side-effects from that and the barriers it creates for farmers who may be growing stuff that’s largely organic and even more natural or healthy in many/most ways, but doesn’t meet the requirements for the designation so it doesn’t get the government’s stamp of approval. AOC/DOC has the same types of limitations. And again, like with the “organic” stamp, just encourages consumers to be lazy.

      If the US government ever gets over its hysteria of lysteria and other food-borne illnesses, I think we could leap-frog the Euros. Look at a cheesemaker like Estrella in Washington who is always playing with cheese styles and mixing milks, etc, to create unique and interesting cheeses. Now if we could just give them some raw milk to play with….

      • whatthef says

        msg –
        The designation of organic has nothing to to with the DOC/AOC designations, and so far no one has tried to make the jump from organic to “authentic”, so can you clarify what argument you want to make?

          • extramsg says

            a⋅nal⋅o⋅gy   /əˈnælədʒi/ Pronunciation [uh-nal-uh-jee]
            –noun, plural -gies.
            1. a similarity between like features of two things, on which a comparison may be based: the analogy between the heart and a pump.
            2. similarity or comparability: I see no analogy between your problem and mine.
            3. Biology. an analogous relationship.
            4. Linguistics. a. the process by which words or phrases are created or re-formed according to existing patterns in the language, as when shoon was re-formed as shoes, when -ize is added to nouns like winter to form verbs, or when a child says foots for feet.
            b. a form resulting from such a process.
            5. Logic. a form of reasoning in which one thing is inferred to be similar to another thing in a certain respect, on the basis of the known similarity between the things in other respects.

            ———————————————-

            Origin:
            1530–40; < L analogia < Gk. See analogous, -y 3

            Synonyms:
            1. comparison, likeness, resemblance, similitude, affinity. 2. correspondence.

      • Huck says

        Should they get out of the copyright and patent enforcement arena too? Look, mcz and wtf both admitted the original point was valid, but that you msg and yogi might just be going too far, and here you are, going even further. Your points are valid, and yet, don’t support your conclusion msg. Getting rid of the regulations about raw milk aren’t the problem, because so many dairies produce shitty milk. Allowing raw milk, on the other hand, is a necessary tweak to existing regulations, so long as it comes with appropriate regs (all I’d really want to see is some sort of subsidized, mandatory insurance). Same with organic… it is all part of the process of evolution.

  11. MrDonutsu says

    Well, anyone who want’s to dump their government legislated “authentic” Champagne out of principle, I’ll gladly trade you an equal quantity of red-blooded, free market American “Champagne” for it.

    Hell, I’ll even match you three for one.

    Just let me know…

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