An award-winning cookbook author and chef’s perspective from the confines of a Portland food cart.
This is the third in a series of interviews which first appeared in About Face Magazine by Chris Angelus of the terrific Portland Food Adventures. My thanks to About Face. Since this interview was written, Rick has gone on to open the very popular Lardo restaurants.
One might expect that a chef who had a written a New York Times and Food & Wine Top 25 cookbook about farm-to-table cooking, who had also plied his craft at one of Vermont’s most notable farm inns long before farm to table cooking was de rigueur, would be cooking in an extremely notable restaurant. Hot spots like Aqua in San Francisco or Olives (one of restaurant powerhouse Todd English’s own) in Boston or New York would employ that chef in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. In fact, they did. But this is Portland, Oregon, circa 2012, and here, you’ll find that same chef in a food cart. Rick Gencarelli’s talent for cooking up delicious food has propelled him to the top echelon of our hundreds of food carts, and garnered him the distinction of being the first and only food cart chef in the ten years of the wildly popular Plate & Pitchfork farm dinner series to cook for their appreciative food-loving patrons. Rick came here for the reasons so many of us did. Simply because he loved all that those of us who live here love about Portland. But also for Rick, it was his heart and soul as a chef that couldn’t withstand the romance of the proximity to farms and the ability to work closely with them again as part of the burgeoning Northwest food community.
He came out here with a goal, but didn’t quite know how he was going to accomplish it. While Portland is an indescribable city when it comes to its food culture, it’s so full of talent that anyone worth the salt with which they season their dishes has to demonstrate over the long haul that they have the chops to make it here. Rick’s eighteen months as Lardo’s ambassador of pork has generated a cult following that stretches from the pavement at the Good Food Here cart pod, to the pages of publications like Sunset magazine.
We were able to steal a few hours from Rick to get a surprising inside-the-cart perspective of being a food cart proprietor in Portland. Thinking of starting a food cart? Read on.
Did you have a Portland epiphany moment?
Yeah. I had been reading about Portland in Vermont. I would get Gourmet, Food & Wine, Bon Appétit, and the Wednesday food section in the New York Times, and I’d scour all of them in my downtime. Portland was referenced everywhere. And it wasn’t in a fine dining sort of way, but in a young chefs way—meat, nose to tail, picking vegetables—small restaurants opened with small budgets. It sounded so fantastic. And I was in Vermont for six years—four as the chef at Shelburne Farms—and felt like our time was done there. We had moved to Vermont from New York City, and it was a big change. So, I convinced Sheila to come to Portland for a long weekend and check it out. The clincher to all this was whether Sheila liked it.
So day one, we woke up early and went for a few miles around the Willamette and she was like, “I feel like I’ve lived here all my life.” It was that quick. It’s been two and a half years now, and we just really feel at home–we have since day one, I think. It’s got a little bit of everything. It’s got little bits of the things we miss in New York and Vermont.
How did you figure out the restaurant scene? Where did you go?
Basically, the greatest hits list that we came here with: Le Pigeon, Beast, Toro [Bravo]—the ones that were getting national press. And then I figured that I’d navigate around to the little carts at 9th and Alder. I’d just never seen anything like that. There are food carts everywhere, but not like this. And so we ate and had a great time. Once we went back home it wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when. I was so psyched. The funny thing about Portland? You can be far away from the East Coast, but not feel like you’re on the West Coast. San Francisco—it always felt like I was sort of at a party I wasn’t invited to. Portland’s just way more comfortable.
When you came out here, what was your plan?
I didn’t have a plan, other than to eventually open a restaurant. If I could have picked a place in the US where I had absolutely no friends, no juice at all—it was here. Plus, I’m not a great self-promoter or networker. That made it even more difficult. So, one day Sheila said, “You should open a food cart. You should do your lamb sliders that you were doing at the Farm.” I was like, “No way.” (laughs) “No way.” But she kept mentioning it and eventually I was compelled. I ended up finding this cart on Craigslist that I loved. It’s like a little house. It’s what Lardo is now.
And how does Sheila feel about the food cart now?
I have to keep reminding her it was her idea. That’s running thin, too. Like me, she likes it and knows it’s done great things. And only in a town like Portland can you open a 7×10 kitchen and make a name for yourself. It’s just remarkable. But, in terms of being a real viable way to make a living—in my position, with a family—it’s not really viable. It’s always been an incubation period to do something else. And on that front, it’s really done more than I ever expected. The press, the attention, the excitement surrounding Lardo has been great. But behind the scenes—a lot of cold winter nights and days, a lot of dish-washing, cashing out… shopping. It never really ends. Even if the cart is closed, I am working.
So if someone came to you and said, “I’ve got a family. I’ve got to feed them. Should I open a food cart?”
Hell no! And I get those calls all the time. And I don’t want to discourage anyone. I mean, it’s such a hard question; it’s so subjective. I don’t know if you can afford to do this. You know, I don’t know if you have another source of income or money in the bank or a spouse that’s going to support you. Sheila is carrying us right now, you know? So, people email me all the time. They want to know how I did it. I’m the success story, apparently, because that’s the perception—if you get a lot of press, you’re just rolling around in $100 bills. The press helps. It’s been fantastic. So, I would say no, don’t do it if you’re looking for this to be a source of income and not just a launch pad, not a stepping-stone to do something else—some point, the cart is going to do what it can do. There’s a ceiling. Unless you want to open more. Charles from EuroTrash is different. He’s got three, four, maybe. And now he’s sort of the food cart guru. Now he’s a consultant. He’s buying and selling carts. I think he’s managed to really do well with it. But that’s a different thing entirely. For me, this was—let’s make kick-ass sandwiches the same way we would approach a $25 entrée. Does it have textural components? Does it have hot and cold? Is it balanced? It’s like, I definitely want people to remember what they ate. Hopefully it shows.
But what would I really tell somebody that’s interested in opening a food cart? Get a truck that you can drive. That’s a no-brainer. Much like Jimmy [of the wildly successful Bacon Bacon food truck in San Francisco, with whom Rick consulted] who goes towards the business instead of sitting in one place and waiting for them to find him. He lives by Twitter. That’s how they find him. He can go to Google and Oracle at lunchtime. He condenses an entire day of revenue into three hours. He crushes it.
Could that be done in Portland, though? I mean, it’s all different here. And he can do it because there aren’t 17 other food carts a block away.
Yeah. It does allow for more flexibility. Like here, Violetta goes to Nike. At least twice, three times a month, I get an offer to cater something. I have to decline those opportunities. Pitching that thing to a truck and dragging it somewhere is not easy, and it costs a lot because I don’t have my own truck. And it puts a lot of stress on the cart. It’s not really designed to be constantly mobile. But a truck like the one Violetta has—that’s what they do. They just crank out food.
Are there ever any days where you say, “I’m not coming back tomorrow”?
I am sure you’ve had a few of those.
Yes, that’s the nature of it. It’s hard. It’s really, really hard. There’s no insulation between you and the customer. No matter what kind of day you’re having, you’ve got to put on a happy face. Or they’ll get on Yelp and call you an asshole. Now in the winter, I get beat up for not having regular hours—“I came down there and you were closed. I came all the way from Beaverton.” Dude, my phone number is EVERYWHERE. It’s on my website. It’s on Facebook. It’s on the chalkboards on the cart. But for some reason, there’s this idea that we’re always open. But it’s just too hard to keep regular hours during the winter.
What do you think is going to happen with the food cart scene in Portland over the next four or five years?
It’s already starting to tip out. Like anything else, there’s this big swell. There’s already talk of more regulation, and making it harder and more exclusive. The Oregon Restaurant Association has a pretty strong lobby. They don’t love the food carts, so… I don’t know. I just read somewhere the other day that 2012 is the year that we lose our love affair with—oh man, in one article it was food carts and pork belly. So I felt like—shit! Double whammy! Wow. Pork belly and food carts. We’re not cool anymore.
Well, they’re all saying that seafood is next.
Yeah. You know what? Pork belly has been around—I’ve been roasting pork belly since the early 90s. You know? It’s just good. And yeah, it’s got this surging popularity, and it’s not definitely going anywhere. It’s just too freaking tasty.
Who’s really knocking it out of the park in Portland?
I don’t get out enough to really know what’s really happening, but I can tell you that most recently, my dinner at Wafu was one of those holy shit moments where, as I was walking out of the place I was wondering, when is my next opportunity to come back here? I love going to Nostrana. It reminds me of how I used to eat when I was young. We used to have big Italian dinners in my house, passing plates of pastas and salads around. It’s loud, and there’s an open kitchen. There’s a lot of energy. The food is great. I love Sushi Mazi on Division. I think Marc is killing it. He’s always there. He and his wife run that place, and they’re super hard workers, and the fish is always great.
So where do you go from here?
If you asked me a year and a half ago, it would have been—work the cart, make some inroads and get into a brick-and-mortar, full-blown restaurant where I can get right back into it. And now, fast forward a year and a half, and I think that I really like the sandwich concept a lot. Not to say that I don’t want to eventually be back doing a restaurant, but Lardo allows me to spend more time with my family, to have a life, to still be creative and run a business, be fully active and working… it also allows more freedom. Being a chef in a restaurant—five years later, what do you have? The restaurant is only as good as when you’re behind the range.
So when you open a real restaurant, would you keep the cart?
I don’t think so. No.
There’ll be a lot of tears out there. You’re going to have pork joneses.
I know. I think about staying in the neighborhood that I love—the Southeast—and I’ve become such a part of it. You know? That whole stretch of Belmont there, I feel like I spend more time there than my neighborhood that I live in. So I feel very connected to it, but in the end, I have to do the right thing to try to make some revenue, so I don’t know where Lardo will end up.
Are you going to miss the day-to-day contact with handing people your phone and sliding credit cards and handing them cokes and calling their names?
I plan on staying pretty well connected. Just, you know, maybe not as connected. I’ll still be there all the time, but if I’m not there swiping credit cards, that means I’m there making the next good sandwich. Better use of my time.
What’s the most ridiculous complaint that you’ve had?
Too much fat in the porchetta is my favorite. I get that at least once a week. Or here’s a good one: They mistake mortadella for portabella and they come back and say, “There’s meat in my sandwich.”
And your answer?
Chris Angelus’ love of the Portland food scene includes the bounty that’s available to us, and those who produce and prepare it. He sincerely enjoys sharing what and who he discovers with others. portlandfoodadventures.com