By Catherine Cole
Alyssa Gregg is one of our town’s charming and reserved chefs. She has been quietly creating culinary magic at Castagna, and now is the head chef at The Teardrop Lounge in the Pearl. She’s also spent time in commercial kitchens throughout San Diego and San Francisco. Alyssa graciously allowed us to pick her brain about food, the industry, and about hunting.
Where are you from originally?
Alyssa Gregg: Born in Minneapolis, but I was raised here in Portland.
How long have you worked in commercial kitchens?
AG: Since 2001
What’s your food philosophy? Or what’s your attraction to it as a career?
AG: My food philosophy is basically that I love the look on a person’s face when they put something really good in their mouth. It makes me the happiest seeing their reaction.
What’s your opinion about culinary school?
AG: Culinary schools have recently gotten to a point where there is little reason for them to create any restrictions on whom they accept. There is always financial aid, and then there are the people who believe that cooking will turn them into Emeril. But the brutal truth is that these people will be paid $8-$9 an hour for the first four years of service, and they will have a severe amount of debt. If you can afford it, do it; but otherwise get a job that can teach you what you need to know. Most chefs steer clear of hiring culinary grads anyway.
Who are your food heroes (or sheroes)?
AG: My mom and my grandmom. She’s always creating aromas of sherry wine reducing (my favorite smell).
What’s there to love and hate about working in the Pearl District?
AG: The Pearl draws people in, which causes us to have very few slow nights, which is great. On the other hand, the Pearl people always eat and drink with their eyes; which causes a domino effect of selling the same drink or food dish all night sometimes.
Do you have dreams of running your own place one day?
AG: I do want my own place, and I haven’t committed entirely to any ideas per se. Cooking is sort of like fashion; it changes very quickly, so my plans change as fast as flavors and such change.
You’ve been known to host some pretty impressive dinner parties-what was your most ambitious menu? Any coming up?
AG: I have most recently invested in a professional-grade smoker. Most of my dinners are over the top, so I don’t know how to choose. My last party was meat-focused; we smoked a four-rib beef roast, four racks of pork spare ribs, and four whole trout. I love smoked rib roast! With fresh horseradish, of course.
As a dog owner, do you think you could ever eat dog–if you traveled to Asia, for example?
AG: NOOO! Not only because I love dogs, but any animal that uses their muscles a whole lot like a dog or horse, is probably going to be extremely tough.
What kind of animals have you killed? (Because I know you have!)
AG: I have killed many a fish. I usually go hunting once a year with my dad for chukar, quail, and pheasant. The first time was tough, but it’s sort of like seeing a bullfight. There is something in the air.
What’s your favorite restaurant right now?
AG: Three way tie: Mille Fleurs in Rancho Santa Fe, CA.; Giorgio’s in the Pearl; and this little hole in the wall sushi place in NY that I can’t remember the name of, but I could find on a map. All the best sushi places are like that.
What’s your most loved cookbook? What’s your take on cookbooks?
AG: For the most part, I don’t use cookbooks–but there is one I use and that’s The Joy of Cooking. It’s really hit or miss, so I use it more as a reference point. If someone says, what’s in mulligatawny–it’s in there.
So how’d you learn how to cook?
AG: Well… I went to culinary school in San Francisco; but (laughs) I don’t think that taught me how to cook. It’s not like it was a bad experience, but it’s not like learning to read or something. It’s all food development… how food affects your palate.
Do you taste everything that goes out?
AG: Yeah. Foods can develop as they’ve been made; so if I make a batch of soup, I’ll taste it when I make it, then three hours later I’ll have to taste it again.
What about your bottom line. How do you watch that?
AG: Basically, I write the menu up, then try to keep the plate-costs around $10-$12 level. When it comes to putting a dish on a plate, that’s when I really think about food costs. Thirty percent is a good goal.
Making 30 percent, so 70 percent mark-up?
AG: Right. Then you’ve got loss, labor… so then you’re looking at 40 percent profit. Then consider operations, and (laughs) yeah, you’re basically looking at two percent.
With all the talk about rising food costs, what are you worried about?
AG: It’s just a matter of knowing your products. I’m not going to put salmon on the menu this year. It’s all about knowing what’s local. Historically, ‘poor-man’s dishes’ are pretty good. There’s a lot of good cheaper meat, and if you know how to cook ’em, then it turns out to be a really great dish. I mean, around Portland it’s really popular to do braised pork belly. Yeah, the cuts may be fattier, but when they’re cooked right, they can taste really good.
Are there any ingredients that you’d like to get a hold of that you can’t get here?
AG: I want crosnes.
What is that?
AG: They are Chinese artichokes. It sort of looks like ginger, but tastes like a cross between an artichoke and a water chestnut. They’re really cool looking, so… I got a crosne plant. But I don’t really know if I’ll be able to produce crosnes. I don’t know if they do start to grow in my yard, if I’ll be able to control the crosne growth. I’ve never had one, but I’ve seen them on a menu up in Vancouver, B.C.
So you grow food?
AG: Yeah–I’ve got artichokes, broccoli, cauliflower, leeks, edible geraniums, persimmon tree, Asian pear tree and a fig tree.
And this is all possible to see here on the menu at Teardrop?
AG: Yeah, it just depends on how green my thumb is.
Since you cook for work–but have to continue doing it even when you’re not working–do you ever get sick of it?
AG: This job is a lot more enjoyable as far as creativity-wise. One of the first things I realized when I first went into cooking was that I had to have a creative outlet. If I was sitting at a desk, I think I would’ve been committed to an institution by my mid-thirties. I have to be moving around all the time. I don’t know if I have restless-leg syndrome, but think I might.
Can you go out without analyzing a dish to death?
AG: If I go out with other foodies… other chefs, it is kind of a race to see who can find the typo in the menu. But it doesn’t take the enjoyment out of eating out, because when you do find that perfect place, you almost glorify it.
What about any terrifying cooking stories?
AG: I was cooking in San Diego in a place called Pample Moose and we had to make 50 lbs. of mashed potatoes a day. We’d have a huge vat boiling and you’d pick it up, take it over to the sink and strain it out. The other guy that was working during my days off, took the big pot, poured it in the sink, but poured it way too fast and the water splashed up and went into his clogs. It was boiling water, just sitting in his shoes. He kicked his shoes off, but made the mistake of ripping his socks off; he ripped off all the skin on his feet. When I came back to work the next day everyone’s like, “Be careful when you strain the potatoes…”
You said something really cool about people in the Pearl eating with their eyes. Did you mean that people see what others are eating and just want that?
AG: Yeah, that’s exactly what I meant. Sometimes you’ll send something out with a lot of presentation value and they’ll just point and say, “That!” I remember this one time someone had allergies or something and she asked me to plate up just 10 shrimp. Just lightly salted with a little bit of olive oil. I sent it out and four more plates sold right away. Whatever floats your boat, I guess.
Catherine Cole wants to try this chocolate-covered bacon she keeps hearing all about. In the meantime, her writing has appeared in The Portland Mercury and PortlandPicks.com. She’s also been a copywriter for various local businesses, and has a blog at: ccole.info/aflyonthewall.