Chef/owner of Park Kitchen – Humbly at the Center of it All
I met with Scott Dolich for this interview on the patio of the Bent Brick. Scott was inside making a fresh pot of Caffè Umbria coffee to enjoy with the Nuvrei fleur de sel bagels I brought for both of us. I was outside on a picnic bench among maturing tomato plants in the crisp, fresh, Portland summer morning air. Scott squeezed through a box of fresh apricots that had just been delivered and brought me one. As I bit into the sweet apricot, I looked across the table and noticed how Scott’s vivid blue plaid shirt brought out the obvious sea-blue youthful color of his eyes. It also brought to mind North Carolina and the Blue Devils of Duke, where a younger Scott Dolich discovered a love of working with food. All the elements were there for context: fresh, local produce, artisan coffee and bagels, a guy whose roots were pulled by choice from elsewhere to be planted firmly in Oregon’s food scene, right in this beautiful spot at his spiffy Bent Brick. The patio was there to enjoy because Sarah Pagliaro Hammond, the Bent Brick’s manager, advised him that building it would make the Bent Brick a hang. While Scott didn’t initially agree, now he is glad he did. He built it mostly with his own two hands.
Scott’s Portland roots were planted almost 20 years ago after his bent toward local ingredients was seasoned under renowned locavore Bradley Ogden in California. He was drawn to Portland because of its proximity to farms and produce. He started working with guys like Ricardo Segura and Greg Higgins and David Machado in the early ’90s, and still points to them as Portland’s best restaurateurs. He took much of what he learned in the much smaller Portland food world of the ’90s and made a name for himself once the decade turned. He opened Park Kitchen in 2003, which, in retrospect, can be seen as a milestone. Unlike today, there weren’t five announcements of new restaurants every month. There were a couple notable openings every year. Park Kitchen signaled the start of a new, exciting generation of Portland restaurants, garnering accolades from “Restaurant of the Year” to personal James Beard Award nominations. But the restaurant itself isn’t the whole story. It’s the chef that created fertile ground for more to come.
If you simply visited the restaurants and food businesses of those who were influenced and encouraged by Scott, you’d not only be blown away by what you’re tasting, but your spirit of discovery and appreciation of the essence of Portland’s community spirit would make you feel like a kid in a candy—or cheese store. Among many, there’s David Padberg, who helped put Park Kitchen on the map as executive chef (now at Raven & Rose); David Briggs of Xocolatl de David, whom Scott encouraged to break new savory ground as a chocolatier; and the folks at Portland’s iconic Pine State Biscuits… The long list is a who’s who in Portland food.
The true essence of what’s going on in Portland? The food DNA of Scott Dolich. You can order it up at Park Kitchen and the Bent Brick, and find traces all over this city.
What’s happened since you opened Park Kitchen in Portland?
Portland was on the forefront of that whole movement—farms close to the cities, local produce, whole animal butchery. That’s commonplace now. You can go to any city in the US and you’ll find that. A lot of cities have caught up to Portland. But Portlanders are such a no-nonsense, no-bull eating public that they really force restaurants here to strip away what most normal people don’t want to see in restaurants. Everyone says that fine dining is dying. That’s been said for the past ten years. But our public is forcing chefs to figure out what they can serve without people pushing back. I deal with that constantly. That’s why the Bent Brick is what the Bent Brick is.
Tell me about service.
The longer I spend in this profession, the more I realize how important that is. I get humbled daily on that. There are so many people who come in and have money, they travel, and they are very seasoned diners. They want service. I am not providing food. I am providing a service.
There are so many examples of places that provide an ambiance that people flock to. They don’t have to have great food. The only places you can go that have great food and rotten service—dim sum. But even that. It’s not that it’s bad service, it’s just bare bones. The food is good and you know what to expect.
What do you need to do to stay in the conversation?
I am still trying to figure that out after 20 years being in Portland. There is no stock answer. I struggle with that. I always start going down the road of trying to differentiate myself with food. I don’t think you can survive in this city without a passion for food… whatever it is. It can be high end, or it can be something like Little Big Burger. You have to give credit where it’s due. Micah Camden took a very simple concept like burgers and he made a cool spot. He made it Portland. My family goes there and eats. It’s fast. It’s hip. It’s great.
Now you have to be social media savvy. I don’t have a tolerance for it. But I do have people at my restaurants who are very into it. I have a very hard time self-promoting, but I realize the importance of it. Sarah for instance, is super keyed into getting people in the door here. You have to be in that playing field now. You can’t stick your head in the sand. I had that philosophy at Park Kitchen. “I am going to put out my food and that’s it. People are going to come and they’re either going to like it or not.” I was fortunate enough at Park Kitchen to set all that up before all that happened, and have a wide enough circle that once it hit, people still come in. You can’t do that anymore. You can’t just have good food and good service and expect people to come. You’ll be dead in the water.
I know what I do well and what I don’t do well. I am not a camera personality but I do realize you have to get your story out there. That’s one of the good things about social media. People expect a story and you should give it. Being a chef is so much more complicated now. You can’t just cook. In my heart of hearts, it just sucks. But that’s life. You’ve got to run a business. If you’re not going to do it, you need someone who is willing to sell you. It’s hard to put a dollar symbol on that stuff. But you have to be part of the conversation. You can sell blue sky. You just have to be out there.
You have spawned a lot in this city. Who are you most proud of?
It’s like kids. I’ve learned to associate the people I’ve worked with like family, but that’s not a fair delineation. I’m proud as hell of them. Will Preisch [former chef at Bent Brick]. He’s the one who could put food on the plate that would just amaze me. We would actually get in lots of arguments. It wasn’t my style, but he would just blow my mind. He’s got the most potential to be the next René Redzepi (the chef of Noma, often lauded as the best restaurant in the world).
David Padberg has a fantastic head on his shoulders. He pushed me to let go of my ego and realize that there are people better than me. He allowed me to let go and say, “Alright. Go do it. Here are my guardrails on this end and this end, and as long as you’re in between those, we’re fine.”
There are the people who weren’t cooks… Adam Robbins and Kevin Ludwig, who I still feel push the envelopes for bartenders.
Ethan Snyder. He’s been at Park Kitchen since he was 20. He came in as a punk. He didn’t know how to cook, but he had all the raw material. Super work ethic. Wanted to learn. Athletic. Took care of himself. It was just fun to be on the line with him. I tried to steer him away from cooking schools. I think they serve their purpose, but they put a lot of people in debt. I knew he didn’t have the resources, so I told him I could hook him up in New York. He took my advice and worked for Andrew Carmellini and he got the stuff kicked out of himself. He really learned a lot and got rewarded for it. Now he’s just a monster, organizationally. He’s like two levels above me, and I am super proud of him.
Where haven’t you been that you are curious about?
The constant pressure towards the new is kind of getting to me. That’s one of the things that’s tripping Portlanders up. There are a lot of restaurants that have been around that are serving great food. But there’s a constant pressure… what’s new? The places that work—I’ve been to Noma. I’ve been to Chez Panisse. They provide a sense of place. And in the end, that’s what makes them fantastic. It’s not necessarily the food per se.
I cook for my family as much as I can now because I realize that I kind of short-changed them for a while spending so much time and effort here and at Park Kitchen. Having kids was a wake-up call to realize restaurants are evil. They draw people out all the time, and although I want to promote my restaurants, it really does mean something to just go buy ground beef and make hamburgers. It doesn’t always have to be about food. Food has always been that shiny object for me but I think it can be distracting from what’s important.
When you make burgers do you make regular old burgers?
I mess around with them because I can. It’s a no brainer for me to try an Asian mashup burger with ginger and scallions and make some type of Chinese-style burger.
So where does that leave your kids when they go out and expect a Chinese-style burger?
Who cares? What they’ll know about is where their food comes from and that’s all I really care about. We were driving back from Central Oregon last weekend and the kids wanted to stop at Sonic Burger. I happen to like Sonic Burger. I think it’s fun. Not that it’s good. But they were talking about the cows and what happens to the meat… they’re 9 and 11, talking about something that I didn’t understand till I was 30. There’s always this focus on the new the new the new. Ninety-nine percent of it turns out to be garbage.
Speaking of the new, one of the places that spawned a lot of Portland’s great talent was Pazzo. I rarely hear about that place now.
One thing you can say is that it’s still there. And it’s still doing pretty well. Some of that is the location. I think that the time and the place were important in that equation. It was the mid ’90s. David Machado. He was a pre-media genius. He knew where to be, when to be, and how to promote himself. He was aggressive. That was one of four places: Pazzo. Heathman. Zefiro. Genoa. That’s it. Everyone who was a cook in Portland knew each other. Literally. Now you can’t say everyone knows everyone.
If I were to give Pazzo one bit of advice, it would be to be more proactive about social media. It’s got a great story to tell. It’s not breaking culinary barriers, but it’s good food—solid. You can say the same thing for Higgins and Wildwood.
Where would you send a good friend who was coming to Portland to get a taste of the food scene?
I’d send them to the Portland Farmers Market. It never ceases to amaze me to go there early in the morning. Although I can’t stand the crowds there. But to not be blown away by that, you’ve gotta have your head up your ass.
I would send them to the food carts. Portland still leads the nation on that front. The diversity. It’s almost like a candy shop at that pod on 10th and Alder.
And didn’t the food carts kill your lunch business at Park Kitchen?
Yeah. Food carts killed lunch. But they didn’t take dinner. And they’re never going to. As a restaurateur, I’m a little bitter about lunch, but shame on me for not seeing that.
Park Kitchen. 10 Years. Was there a time when you weren’t in love with it?
I have true faith in that place. It’s my ideal restaurant. Yes, there were times were it was difficult, like all businesses. The transition times are always tough. I remember when David was leaving and I was thinking, “God, am I going to be the one who is in there all the time?” That was a time of apprehension for me. I was really scared. But six months after it happened Ethan proved that sometimes problems can be your greatest opportunity. He’s been great. I really never thought I’d get to 10 years at Park Kitchen.
What did you think?
There’s a lot of fashion in the food world. As I said, everyone is always concerned about what’s new. And just like that I think, “Is Park Kitchen going to be 20?” Park Kitchen is a particular beast. I was cognizant when I set it up that it was not going to have systems—that everything was going to be evolving and changing all the time. And it’s proven that not having a system is a hard system.
How have you changed in your years?
I’ve realized it helps me to have people who are better than me around. We wouldn’t have made it ten years without Anna Josephson (general manager of both restaurants). You can certainly go really far just pushing your own vision through and driving it. That’s not me. I am really good at some things… but others are better than me at most.