After training at the Culinary Institute of America, and spending four years at Chez Panisse, Troy MacLarty landed in Portland, as chef of Family Supper, a job he left in late 2005. After stints at Simpatica and Saucebox, in November 2006, he took over as chef at Lovely Hula Hands, when it debuted at its new North Mississippi location. As cooks prepped dinner in the second-floor kitchen, MacLarty explained what Joe Montana should call any restaurant he opens; why you can tell how good a cook is by how he sweeps the floor, and what you should never, ever put in tomato sauce.
When and why did you start cooking?
When I was young, I didn’t cook at all, not until I was in cooking school. I have a degree in Biology and I was working in a biology lab, and somebody gave me, On Food and Cooking, Harold McGee’s book, and I kind of fell in love with the science end of food. I had no idea what good food was; I never really ate in very good restaurants. [I grew up] in San Diego, which is a pretty poor food town other than tacos and such. The lab that we worked in, we read a lot of slides, and you can only do that for so long before your eyes kind of wear out, so you go 45 minutes on, 15 minutes off, and I would always spend my 15 minutes off reading about food and cooking. Eventually, my professor talked me into going to cooking school [at CIA].
Did you go thinking you would cook professionally?
I think I had an inkling I would cook professionally. I loved the thought process of being a cook, or, what I kind of romanticized as being a cook—which has not been too far off. I think one problem with being a chef is that it’s a lot of years down the line before you get to the actual skill set of being a chef. There’s no saying that you’re going to get to the end and enjoy being a chef.
How long were you cooking professionally before you felt ready to make the leap?
I don’t know that I ever felt ready. [Laughs.] It was kind of baby steps for me. I was lucky enough to work at Chez Panisse for a number of years, which got my skill set as far as food. The food end of it is not scary. But running a staff and purveyors, all that stuff, was a little daunting at first. Which was part of the reason of taking the job at Family Supper; we didn’t have a staff; it was just me. I was a chef, but I didn’t have to manage people. A dishwasher, maybe; some front of the house people. It’s one of those things; you don’t feel you’re ready to do it until you just do it, and you’re either going to be good at it, or you’re not. There are a lot of great cooks who are terrible chefs.
You mentioned that you were once Joe Montana’s personal chef.
Yes, for a while, part-time. People have really romantic ideas about restaurants, that they’re fun. So, he was going to open a restaurant, and he was talking to me about being the chef. He wanted to open in Calistoga, but he didn’t want to attach his name to it, at all. I said to him, “Restaurants are really hard, and the thing you have going for you is, not your food knowledge; and it’s not whoever your chef is. It’s your name.”
Can your style of cooking be attributed to a specific individual or restaurant?
I think people would say my style entirely comes out of being at Chez Panisse, which I’m sure is very true. But I think there’s also a reason you end up at Chez Panisse, which is, that style already fits the bill for you.
Did you ever see someone come into that kitchen that was clearly wrong?
Oh, yeah; all the time. We only had to fill maybe one or two positions a year; there was very little turnover. That’s with a staff 16 or 17 cooks. To fill one position sometimes we’d have to try out 20 people. The problem that most people had was, it’s one of the few places where the cook is able to take it from the conception of the dish all the way to the end product, and be on the line with it. The idea is very big, and you have to flesh that out—and also be able do that for 70 a night. That’s a very broad skill set that’s difficult for a lot of people. People would come in and be great at the prep end, and then get to the line and fall apart, or vice versa.
Do you have a cooking philosophy?
I suppose it would be farm-driven. I want my food to be based on the truth of where we are, what the season is. I want to kind of celebrate the people that did the first four steps along the way. When the product gets to the door, a lot of things have happened to get it to this point.
When I interviewed you for “Last Supper” (Portland Monthly, March 2007), we discussed how Family Supper also had given you a chance to really work with farmers, and how that was great, though you were not fond of Michael Hebberoy bragging about this intimacy to the press. The direct quote:
[Michael] came across as passionate about food, at first, because he understood that that was something that people would latch onto. He could blather endlessly about how he wanted to look the pig in the eye. He could care less about a pig. It’s just that he knows that if he says, ‘I’m going to look a pig in the eye,’ that people will latch on to that. I think that Michael is very good at making these statements that the public latched on to; that his staff was going, ‘Nuh uh. You don’t believe that. Or, we don’t believe that. Or, we never actually did that.’ When you read in an article that the staff all milked cows, and no one on the staff has, it makes you think, what else are you lying about?”
Did this sour the situation at Family Supper?
I don’t see the point in embellishing upon what you do, if you’re doing the right things. I don’t need to tell people I’m doing more than what I’m doing, and I’m proud of what I’m doing. I don’t need to rewrite the story later on. And sadly, that restaurant, there were enough good things and enough good people that it should have been left at that. I think what we also talked about [in that interview] was, as long as the story was moving forward in some way—always something new, always something new—no one was going to stop and necessarily look at what the reality of it was.
What aspect of your day do you most enjoy? Least enjoy?
I enjoy all of it. I think my favorite part of the day is, I tend to do most of the prep work, and the part of the day when I’m here by myself and can go through everything; that’s when my brain can mull over ideas and problems; I rather enjoy that creative time. But then I also really like being on the line with everybody, too.
As far as least enjoy, I’m one of those lucky people who enjoys most of it. I once had lunch with Charlie Trotter and a couple of other chefs. He said he knew how good a cook somebody was by how much they enjoyed sweeping the floors. There was this thought process that he had, which is, if you love what you do, you’re going to follow that through in every aspect. I hate chopping parsley; that’s probably the closest I get.
Do you have favorite ingredients you keep going back to?
Anything that comes from a pig is going to be good.
What ingredients do you think are most overused?
I don’t think it’s the ingredients that I would blame; it’s the lack of understanding on the parts of cooks or chefs. I think there’s this big push in our industry, and I think it’s too bad, to do things that are avant-garde, different, and strange, for the sake of. There are people who do it and it’s great; Gabe [Rucker, chef at Le Pigeon] does a great job at the Pigeon because he’s a good cook and he tastes everything. But there are a lot of people doing those things not from that same place; they’re doing it to be different and you see these foods that are just so ill conceived. They’re putting things together that should not be put together.
We used to play this great game on the line at Chez. Everybody came up with a dish; you wouldn’t make it but you’d describe it. It was a points game, where you got three points for how original the dish was, three points for how it would taste. We’re all experienced enough cooks that we could say what the dish is and kind of know what it was. Three points; no problem. Spaghetti and meatballs, three points; not original, but tastes great. Or, wasabi granita; that would be three points [for originality] but it would taste terrible. Four points, you could get. Five points was really hard, and no one ever got six points. Because, if it’s great, it’s been done.
Is there is a dish around these days that you think should be blasted into space?
Very often for me, it’s not the dish; it’s how they’re pulled off. Right now, the trend is aioli; everybody is putting all this crazy stuff in aioli, calling it aioli. Aioli, the word comes from garlic; it’s a garlic mayonnaise, and if you’re adding all this stuff to it, it’s not an aioli any more; it’s a flavored mayo.
How do you ensure quality control in your kitchen? Are you a taskmaster, or do you allow your cooks to riff?
I would say at this point, they would probably consider me a taskmaster. I have a pretty clear, concise idea of what I want things to be. Not to say that I’m tied to any one thing; I don’t have recipes; I don’t write anything down. But we’re at a point where we’re very steep on the learning curve, and trying to get the cooks to understand that is a very difficult thing. Right now, it’s a lot of me tasting and saying, ‘This could be better.” I think this comes from my having more understanding perhaps of how to make something taste a certain way. I try to always explain the reasons behind it and the whys, and hopefully, they’ll learn. Right now, it’s very much, I do most of the prep work, and most of the flavor on the menu is coming out of the prep as opposed to not. That will obviously change as the season changes and we get into summer, and tastes are much more immediate. My goal is, by then, we’ll have a lot more understanding in the kitchen.
Which part of your body hurts the most after a shift?
Do you cook at home, and if so, what do you make?
I don’t cook at home very much. I do cook a lot of Vietnamese food outside of the restaurant, because it’s so different from what I do here.
Where and what do you eat when you’re not working?
I probably eat at Por Que No? the most because it’s close and it’s one of my best friend’s places. I did food for his wedding so, I’m working my way through a nice little account there. I eat at Simpatica whenever I can because I love those guys. Probably my favorite place to go out that’s kind of special is Carafe, because I love Pascal and his food is right up my alley; he’s not showing off, he’s making really good food.
What local restaurants have you wanted to try but you haven’t gotten to yet?
I want to go to 23Hoyt just to check it out, because I used to work with Chris [Israel]. I was [at Saucebox] for four months. More out of curiosity factor, perhaps. I think his food is somewhat similar to ours. I’ve been wanting to go to Malay Satay Hut on 82nd.
How important is it for you to know what’s going on, food-wise, in Portland?
I think it’s pretty important. I think the food that I tend to do is not really one based on trends, so I don’t know that it’s necessarily important for me to know what’s going on trend-wise, but I get very inspired going out. It’s very rare that I don’t go out to a restaurant where I don’t get some idea sparked in my head and steal parts of something for something else. I love restaurants. I love the mystery of them. Sadly, being a chef, a lot of that’s gone. At this point, you know what’s going on. But I love going out to places and being kind of surprised.
The best dining surprise I had in Portland last year was at Le Pigeon. I had no idea what to expect, and it was just so original, not just the food—though that, too—but the whole feeling of the place. It just clicks.
I’m very proud of Gabe; he’s a hard working guy and deserves everything that he’s getting. He was the sous chef downstairs [at Gotham Building Tavern]. Funny thing. Very shortly after I started at Family Supper, maybe my second week there, they had hired Gabe for the Tavern. He was not hired as sous chef; he was hired as a cook. He came and met me; he was this very eager kid, he wanted come work with me for a night. He shows up, and we’re working, and everything’s great. I didn’t know any of the farms, and I was kind of feeling through some stuff, something with carrots, and I remember Gabe saying, “These are good, but you know what I would do,” and he starts going on and on, and I’m thinking, who is this punk kid? But I have more respect for him than anyone that came out of that restaurant, because he was actually the one person in that restaurant that would taste my food and want to talk about it. All of his statements started, “It’s really great, but I would…”
Do you have a favorite food memory?
I would say most of my favorite memories have to do with people and places, rather than the food. Eating at a food stand in Thailand, or the first time I had a fish taco in Ensenada—I hated fish up to that day, or so I thought.
Do you have any well-worn and well-loved cookbooks?
I have a lot of them. All the Chez books I go to a lot, because it’s real shorthand for me. I tend to like these cookbooks that are not written, “This is a recipe and you have to follow it,” but written more as theory, so I love the Zuni cookbook, and Paul Bertolli’s books, or any of Richard Olney and Elizabeth David’s books.
Did you intentionally choose to be a chef in Portland and, if so, why?
Yes. I was in the Bay Area, I’d been at Chez for four years, and I was starting to feel like it was time to leave there. Reason being is, there’s a period that happens there when you go from being someone who’s learning all the time—not to say you ever stop learning at that restaurant; I could have stayed the rest of my life—to someone who is applying it in equal amount. It was that time when, you’re becoming as much a teacher for the new cooks as you are being able to learn. And also, there’s a period of time there when you start to think, why would you cook any other way? I think that’s a dangerous place to get. I knew I could always go back there; that place is family. I was starting to feel like it was time for me to go, and it was very difficult; that’s leaving the mother ship, my protective food-land, and I knew, I would never another food experience like that. There will never be another restaurant, like that. The economics of it, you couldn’t do it, nowadays.
I just read Jeremiah Tower’s California Dish…
He tears [Alice Waters] up in that one. She put every bad quote on the board at Chez; she doesn’t have much she’s afraid of; she’d rather have it out there.
Anyway, it started to feel like it was time to go—and where do you go? I didn’t want to stay in the Bay Area. I met Tommy [Habetz, then chef at Family Supper] at a wedding in New York, and he was telling me about this restaurant he was working at, Ripe—it was called Ripe at the time—and what it broke down to was, there’s a farmer, there’s me, and there’s a customer—period. Three hands on the food from start to finish. That idea was really special to me. A few months went by. I was at the airport to go [back] to New York and I decided not to go, and rented a car and just started driving. The idea was, I was going to go to Seattle and visit my friend, and called Tommy from Eugene and said, “I’m coming through,” and ended up staying for four days, and loved Portland. They’d started the Tavern and were looking for a cook [for Family Supper], and kind of unbeknownst to me, they started putting the hard sell on me from the start. It was, an unbelievable dinner at Clarklewis; the best dinner I’ve had in Portland to date. Farmer’s Market, in October; I’ve never seen a pile of chanterelles like that. All these food experiences, I was just, whoo! Went back to California, and Michael [Hebberoy] called me and I ended up taking the job. I started Valentine’s Day , so, two years ago. In most ways, it turned out to be that exact great experience, where it was the farm, me and the customer; it was a really positive, good experience; I really enjoyed it, for the most part.
Are there any ingredients you have trouble getting in Portland?
I’m used to California, and the farms in California are generally year-round. Because of that, they tend to grow things that work well in the winter. Here, they end sooner.
What about fish? I have a hard time finding good fish, unless I drive out to Uwajimaya.
Fish is a little bit tricky here. It’s interesting. What is here is great, but there are not that many varieties. I would love to have sand dabs but it’s really hard; they come in, but they don’t really try to catch them… One thing that actually sold me on Ripe was that Morgan [Brownlow, former chef at Family Kitchen; founding chef at Clarklewis] hooked them up with Monterey Fish, which is down in Berkeley, which was Chez Panisse’s fish purveyor. We had everything shipped up on Southwest Airlines, and I think it was an extra $1 a pound to do that, so it was very reasonable and we were getting great things. The hassle became, driving out to the airport everyday.
How do you think Portland rates as a food town?
I think it’s really good and I think it’s getting better. I think the label of “food town” is more farm driven than chef driven, perhaps. The Farmers’ Market is so good here, you can put something on the menu and people have some understanding of what that is. Hopefully, it will become year-round at a certain point.
Do you have farmers growing things for you?
I just met with Meridian Farms a couple of weeks ago, and we went through seed catalogs for two hours. We probably pick out 30 things that they haven’t grown before that I’d used before, so, I’m really looking forward to that.
My first year here, I went to this farmer-chef collaborative, and I met this farmer, and he said, “What do you want me to grow?” I said, “Shell beans.” He said, “Great.” One day he calls me up and says, “I got your shell beans; I got 240 pounds.” [Laughs.] Here I got this 40-seat restaurant. We put them in everything for a month. It was pretty fun, actually.
Are there any dishes you’d love to serve, but you suspect the locals would not order them?
I’m feeling it out still, as far as what our clientele is and pushing the boundaries a little bit. Hopefully, what happens as time goes on is, they come along with you and trust you. Which was the advantage we had at Chez; we could feed them anything and they would think it was the best thing they ever ate. Literally, we could do Kraft Macaroni & Cheese out of a box and they’d probably think it was the best thing they ever ate. The other side of that is, they came in expecting miracles, and it’s not; it’s food. I wrote a menu recently that had some of my favorite things on it, [one of which] was milk-braised pork. It didn’t sell very well, at all; people didn’t get it, and were somewhat offended that their food was—I think it was described as “curdled” on several occasions. So, there is a little bit of a learning curve there. But they also surprise me. I have an arugula salad with some beets and a chicken liver crostini with it, and it’s flying out the door.
If you could make one request of the average Portland diner, what would it be?
Maybe leave your preconceived notions at the door and come in for the experience of it, and have a little more faith in the kitchen.
Every chef has said the same thing: Trust me.
My favorite thing about Family Supper—and I get a little bit of it here, but I got it all the time there—was hearing, “I never liked lamb until tonight.” Well, you didn’t like it how it was prepared before; now you’re having it, hopefully, done well. I love that. I love, “I would have never ordered blah blah blah but I had to have it, and oh my god, I’m going to have it again, and can I have the recipe?” I love that experience.
What is your dream restaurant?
My dream restaurant, I used to work at. Two dream restaurants, actually. Family Supper was very much a dream restaurant in how small the situation is, and so few steps. And Chez Panisse in the sense that the crew was 18 people who can just flat out cook. That was fun. We sat down for meals, every shift; have a glass of wine and eat what you’re serving customers; the menu changes every day, and you talked about the food. You’re just enjoying yourself, and the ideas that come into that restaurant, every day. “I ate at so-and-so last night; I had this dish.” That’s what our mornings were like, every day. We were kind of a bunch of food nerds. It was a very cultured, very well educated [group]; there were more masters degrees in that kitchen probably than any kitchen in the country; in the world. I miss that.
Do you have a dream customer?
I would love it if my mom came more often. [She lives in San Diego.] I love when friends come in, and when cooks that I respect come in and just hang out, and I just send out whatever I feel like doing. I love that Portland has this really great young group of cooks that all really respect each other, and that are all pretty close, and do food for the right reasons, for the most part. These are the people you love to come in.
Running your own kitchen means long hard hours; sweating profusely, and dealing with petty bickering amongst your employees. Is it worth it?
Yes. That’s all true, but I feel that I’m blessed in the sense that, I have a career where every day, I get to get up and go do what I love to do. I think it’s the opposite for some people; they work for their day off. Very often on my days off, I spend the whole day reading books and thinking up ideas.
What advice can you offer anyone considering a career as a chef or cook?
Spend time in kitchens before you go off to figure it out entirely. The other thing is, at a very early point, decide what kind of cook you want to be. Are you in it for money? God, I hope not, because you’re going to have a rough go. [Decide] what kind of food you love to do, and then align yourself with places that are doing that. A lot of people waste a lot of time, working in these places where it’s, okay! I’m going to move up and be sous chef, or chef, in this period of time, and they never learn to cook; they never get into food for the right reasons; they’re going to make crappy bad food for the rest of their life, and they’re going to end up as executive chef at a Marriott somewhere. If that’s what you want to do, then great. But it’s not making the world a better place. For me, it’s a fairly difficult job; you better really love it, so figure out what you love about it and have that as your goal and tackle that early on; go into those kitchens where they’re doing the right things.
Do you have any humbling or humorous anecdotes to share in regard to your cooking career?
There’s this idea that, in order to get a name for yourself—and sadly, it’s very true—you need to do things that are “out there”; that the customer come in and say, “Oh, I’ve never seen that before.” Well, yeah. I made a mistake when I was in cooking school. I was kind of throwing together a tomato sauce, and sadly, it was for a pizza party for the president of the school’s daughter. I made this horrible mistake where I put cloves in the tomato sauce. I’m an idiot. We got a call from the president of the school, “What happened to the tomato sauce?” The chef walked over to me and said, “If tomato sauce was good with cloves, don’t you think the Italians would have figured it out by now?”