[Note from FoodDude: Marco Fife sold his restaurant in 2009 and moved from Portland. However, this interview is still a fascinating read]
The gleaming copper structure on NE Fremont could easily be mistaken for a luxury goods shop, until one walks inside, and senses one’s stepped into a dinner party, one hosted five nights a week by chef Marco Shaw.
“It should be like coming to my house for dinner, where everyone hangs out in the kitchen,” says Shaw, 36, of the scene and American cuisine at his restaurant, Fife.
As a sous chef cleavered ribs in Fife’s open kitchen, Shaw took an hour to talk about why he doesn’t like mashed potatoes, why old people are his favorite customers, and how Portland restaurants could benefit from a little tough love.
When did you start cooking?
I started September 2, 1992—my first restaurant job.
You’d never cooked at home, as a kid?
Little stuff, sandwiches, hot dogs.
Where’d you grow up?
D.C. I graduated college in 1991, got accepted to medical school, got it delayed until 1993; I was going to take a year off. I waited tables in a restaurant in Richmond, Virginia, and about six months into it, I realized, this is what I want to do. I wanted to own a restaurant.
So, I talked to the chef, asked him about culinary school—he was a CIA [Culinary Institute of America] grad. His suggestion was, learn about management and the [accounting] books in school, and then learn how to cook hands-on: take some classes so you get the fundamentals, and do a 6,000-hour apprenticeship. So I worked [with him] for three years. Basically, you’re an indentured servant for three years, if you work forty hours a week. And then, I started cooking.
When I left the East Coast, I had five people I wanted to work for: Alfred Portale in Manhattan; Emeril in New Orleans; Hans Schadler, who’s in Williamsburg; Mark Miller, of Coyote Café on Sante Fe, and I wanted to work at Chez Panisse.
Did you work at all those places?
Everyplace but Chez Panisse.
How’d you wind up in Portland?
I met my wife [Julie] in Sante Fe; I was in New Mexico for two years. My roommates were cooks at the same restaurant I was working for; they went to San Francisco first, couldn’t find a place to live. That was 1997; it was ridiculous. And I couldn’t live with six guys anymore, so we figured we’d come up here—she’s from here—for a few months, and then save some money and move down there. And then, I ended up staying.
What was your first job in Portland?
I opened up Oba. I was a line cook… Then I got hired as a chef at a place called The Alligator Pear. I did everything: I baked all the bread, I washed every dish; I did lunch and dinner by myself, I made all the desserts, which is a lot—that’s why I was there seven months. The place wore me out.
When did you know you were ready to be the chef?
I’m going to say, I knew that I was never going to get to the point where I thought I needed to know—you’ll never know it all. I thought, my skill level was at the point where I was ready to do my own thing, run a kitchen. I went around looking for a space, and there was no one in town I thought I wanted to… well, there were people I wanted to work for, but nothing I thought would further my actual knowledge. They were doing things I’d already done. Then Tuscany Grill hired me, and I’d never done Italian food, and I figured, this is a chance for good exposure, a little bigger kitchen, and I figured, here’s a chance for me to make a name for myself. And I ran that kitchen for three-and-a-half years.
When did you decide to get your own place?
That was always a goal, and it got to a point where… I lived in Northeast and there was nothing in my neighborhood; everybody was doing ethnic food… Julie and I would go out and be like, I wish there was a place where I could just go, like a little French bistro, where the menu changes everyday and it’s just local stuff and it’s simple and it’s not that expensive and we can go every week, so I don’t have to keep going and trying frou-frou stuff. I mean, I love Thai food, but I can’t do it every night, and that’s what it is: Thai, Japanese; Italian. I want something that’s just straightforward American food, and that’s what I’m going to do, and those are the people I’d worked for. I’d learned different regions of American cuisine, that’s what I wanted, and I started looking for a space.
What [Fife] is supposed to be is really simple, straightforward food. It’s French techniques, American ingenuity, but it’s Italianate in that it’s three or four components on a plate. There’s never anything with eight different ingredients. This is not about me showing off, this is about me having an idea and wanting to feed people and throw a party every night. Or five nights—that’s how I stay married.
So for you, an open kitchen is mandatory.
This whole place was designed with that in mind, so I can see what’s going on and they can all see what we’re doing. I get to watch faces. Because the menu changes everyday, I make adjustments from the first round. I can see when people push things; portion too big, portion too small; how it looks as it goes on; by 6:30, I’m set.
What aspect of your daily routine do you most enjoy?
Five o’clock. I like feeding people. I like the room being filled; I like the rush you get at 7:30.
What aspect of your day do you least enjoy?
I’m my own bookkeeper; paying bills is the worst. I’m here at 8:30 in the morning; that first two hours that’s all I do, is paperwork.
The menu changes daily, so this question may not be pertinent but do you have a signature dish?
Crab cakes, I guess; they’re the only thing that stays on the menu.
Do you have favorite ingredients you like to work with?
It depends on the time of year. I like fish; I’m a seafood fanatic.
In your opinion, what ingredient is most overused?
(Long pause.) Garlic.
Are there any ingredients or dishes you wouldn’t work with if you could get away with it?
Mashed potatoes. I don’t think it’s the best showcase for that vegetable. Sometimes I use it just because, if I get a cut of meat in on a Tuesday and I have an idea for it and it doesn’t work, the next night I put that same meat with mashed potatoes so I can get rid of it.
And people buy it because it comes with mashed potatoes?
What, do mashed potatoes call up some primal response?
Very eighties. But also, it’s comfort food.
How do you assure quality control in your kitchen: are you a taskmaster, or do you allow your sous chefs to riff?
There are only two recipes: crab cakes and the sauce for the crab cakes. Everything else is basically a group effort. If they’re here for six months and they know exactly how we put out dishes and how the food’s supposed to taste, then I let them come up with their own things. I taste everything at 4:30.
Do you think it’s important to have a pastry chef, separate from you?
Yep. Yep. I can do it, I’ve done it here, I did it for two weeks in September, but it’s not what I do best.
Which part of your body hurts the most at the end of a shift?
Do you cook at home and, if so, what do you make?
I cook at home one day a week, and we do seafood Sundays. And Mondays, if we don’t go out, I cook at home like I cook here; I just go to the store and see what’s there; I do a lot of Italian food at home because I don’t do that here at all, except for staff meal. And then I experiment with ethnic stuff, I do a lot of Indian and Thai food; Vietnamese.
Where do you eat when you’re not eating at home or at the restaurant?
I go to Ciao Vito a lot because it’s close to me; I go to Park Kitchen; Noble Rot. I go out to breakfast a lot. I used to go to Suzanne’s, she was the best by far, in the city—it closed December 31st. I go to Helser’s now, because it’s close to my house; and then, if it’s just me, I go to Prescott Café; it’s diner food, somewhat greasy eggs.
How important is it for you to keep up with what’s going on food-wise in Portland?
The most important thing is to know what everyone else is doing and I’ve eaten everywhere.
Why is it important?
You get stuck in your space and all you know is what you do. You get information three ways: rumors; stuff in the paper—which to me are the same sometimes—and [feedback] from customers here. Oh, and I get it in the grocery store probably four days a week.
Customers recognize you?
Yeah, it’s simple: I am the only black person doing what I do in this town.
No other black chefs?
Nope. One. The first two years, I was in the paper once a month; we’re in the paper all the time, and I do fifty events a year, so, I’m pretty recognizable, and I’m the only black person doing what I’m doing.
But that’s strange because there’s a sizeable black population in Portland.
Only in Northeast; it took me three years to decide I wanted to stay here. Coming from DC, this is a whole different thing. I lived in New York, New Orleans, New Mexico—where everyone is a minority. This is a completely different situation. I had a hard time finding a job here, and I’ll be damned if I did not have the best resume. At the time, seven years ago, no one had worked for the people I’d worked for; no one. Nobody. [The restaurateurs] didn’t know who the people I’d worked for were.
They’d never heard of Emeril?
Not in 1997. Not Emeril, not Alfred [Portale]; not Mark Miller. No one. Three people [had]: Greg Higgins, Cory Schreiber, and Phillipe [Boulot] at the Heathman.
Has the food scene changed since you got here?
A lot. Things you can do here you can’t do anywhere else—one of the reasons I decided to stay. I can open my own restaurant for cheap; this cost me $220,000; I put everything in: the flooring, the walls, everything; couldn’t do that anywhere else. And I work directly with farmers. I’m sitting down on Tuesday with one of my farms and I go through seed catalogs and I pick the seeds. I pick what’s grown—hard to do that anywhere else.
So, it’s a great food city. What about, as a restaurant city?
People who own restaurants stay in their place, they might go out here and there, see what other people are doing, but they read the paper, “I’m great”; they get on City Search and other websites and see, “People love me”; people come and tell them how good their food is, and that’s all they really know. They have no idea what’s going on.
The food writers in other towns tell you exactly what to expect: “Here’s what it’s like.” For me, the goal of the food writer is to have someone read the article and have him feel like he’s sitting there for dinner: this is what it tastes like; this is what it feels like; this is what the place is about; I understand the concept—or, I don’t get the concept.
Here [in Portland], people… some of it is kind of political, some of it is, “I’m afraid to say bad things.” I mean, there’s no way that a pizza place gets a B+ and then Higgins gets a B+. Completely different things, two different kinds of cuisines—and [the writing] is always flowery. I really don’t care where you bought your water pitchers; I don’t care that the staff has $50 aprons on. I want to know when I go there, am I going to get the same meal that you got? Or did you get a different meal because you called me and said, “Hey, Marco, this is name-not-to-be-said, I’m coming in for dinner.”
Have you had critics call and say, “Hey, I’m coming in”?
Yeah. I know when they’re here—I don’t tell anybody. I see a food writer, my staff does not know until they’re out the door. They use their credit cards; people’s pictures are in the paper. No one saw Phyllis Richman [restaurant critic for the Washington Post] forever; no one saw Ruth Reichl until she was doing Gourmet! You never saw what they looked like. I know what every [critic] looks like, because their pictures are in the paper. It defeats the purpose. It is unethical. Semi-celebrity. It’s really bad, and that’s why [the restaurant scene] is going to stay mediocre.
And also because the restaurateurs don’t push the envelope; people don’t reinvent; people don’t keep up with what’s going on; they don’t change when things go wrong. They let [customers] do what they want to. This is a very—my biggest criticism—this is very, very tame food town; people want it their way and nothing else. When I worked for Mr. Miller at Coyote Café, nothing went out of that kitchen that wasn’t on the menu. People would say, “Can I get this with this?” And he would come out [and say], “Can’t do it. I worked alllll day to figure out what I had to make this right; this is how it works; this is the dish. You came through, you looked at the menu on the front, you read something in the paper and you came through the door and you saw what I had and then you still came in, and now you want something different.”
I used to have problems with it in the beginning; I had people tell me I was never going to make it because I didn’t let people get what they wanted. And I would have to explain to people, “Of course I don’t have asparagus; it’s January. We don’t live in Peru; I don’t have strawberries for this and that. This is what we’re having tonight.” I had to tell people, “To you, it might look like an ingredient list, but to me, this is what I’m selling. I don’t come to your job [and say], ‘Can I get that suit in that color with those shoes for this price?’”
Their asking carries the assumption that you’ve sort of arbitrarily put together the menu.
Mm hmm. I’ve been here since eight o’clock, making this work. [But] there are a lot of people who don’t do that, so, it proliferates; it gets bigger and bigger and then people come here and say, “Well, when I go to such-and-such they let me do what I want to.” Well, that’s what they do.
Do you try to stay out of the restaurant gossip?
I forbid my staff to talk about other places negatively; we just don’t do it. I have people in front of me all night long, saying, “What do you think about this? Have you been there?” I have to make sure everyone knows, once a month: we do not say anything negative about anyone else’s space. I don’t care who it is. If you had a bad meal, you had a bad meal. They’re not competition to me. New Seasons is my competition. I don’t care if [diners] go to Acadia or across the river to Café Mingo; I prefer people to go out to dinner, because eventually they’re gonna hit me. But if you get to the point where you go to New Seasons—and my wife lives there, and I love what they do—and spend eight bucks and you take it home, you’re not coming out to see me.
Are there any dishes you’d love to make but you don’t think they’re gonna move?
Recently, buffalo liver, which was great—can’t move it. When sardines are fresh, or anchovies are fresh, those don’t move. I had a hard time with squid out of Monterey; wouldn’t move.
Any ingredients you have difficulty getting in Portland?
Citrus. Only thing that I regularly source from California.
If you could make one request of the average Portland diner, what would it be?
Trust me. That’s why you came here.
What is your dream restaurant, and are you running it?
Dream restaurant is, me and one other person, fifteen seats, other person takes the orders, pours all the drinks, serves everyone; I write the menu every single day, one set menu, this is what we’re fixing.
Would it be in Portland?
I don’t know—I’ve thought about it before. That’s two places away. Maybe three.
You sound as though you have a plan.
In September of ’07, restaurant number two. That’s located on [NE] Emerson. I’ve been working on that space since March of 2002.
What kind of food?
It’s East Coast seafood. The Hard Shell; that’s what it’s called right now.
Who’s your dream customer?
People who let me just cook for them; I have people who’ve been coming here forever, who’ll call me and say, “Hey, I’m bringing in some friends, could you make us a special meal?” I ask for parameters; tell me what they don’t like, and then I make a special menu just for them. And I love cooking for old people, because it’s simple for them. They say, “Wow, this chicken is great.” They’re not as picky.
Do you have any advice for someone considering a career as a chef?
Make sure you want to do it. It is a lifestyle, not just a job. I have people all the time, from sixteen-year-old kids to forty-year-old men, come and say, “I’m thinking of opening a restaurant but I don’t want to go to culinary school.” [I’ll say], “Come work for me, I’ll feed you every day, come spend a month here and see if this is what you want to do.” There are days when you’re going to be tired, but you have to do it; it does not function without you. You have to be there, and you have to love it. Make sure you want to do it first; it’s a big commitment.
Do you have any humbling anecdotes to share?
I can cook a dish for this table and that table, out of the same pan and send them out. This person will come at the end of the night and tell me it was the best thing they’ve ever had, and at the end of the night the server at the other table will tell me, the person who had that same dish said it was inedible. “It was mutton—I’m sure that that was mutton! I don’t know whom you’re buying your lamb from and they told you these were lamb, but that was mutton.” I grilled the [meat], I sliced it, I had a big piece; your food was ready at the same time; I did all your sauces out of the same pot, I fed you both at the exact same time, and this person wants to move in with us, and this other person will never, ever come back. And I’m sure they’re gonna be on somebody’s blog tomorrow saying I can’t cook.
That’s hard, but, you gotta take it with a grain of salt. People will love it? Thank you very much. Same way with people who hate it: maybe it’s not the place for you. It’s hard—it’s personal. I don’t take it personal at all anymore but… this is what I do, everyday. This is what I do. It might not be the way you would do it, but this is what I do; this is all I do, everyday.
Nancy Rommelmann is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times Magazine and Bon Appetit; lead baker/bottlewasher for Ristretto Roasters, her husband’s coffee roastery and cafe in NE Portland.