So, a guy walks into a bar, and _________. While you can fill in the blank with any number of amnesiacs asking, “Do I come here often?” and baby seals ordering “anything but a Canadian Club,” perhaps only once has the punch-line been, “walks out with the bartender’s job.” Dave Machado gets to tell the joke. Beginning at the bottom more than twenty years and half as many restaurants ago, the chef and owner of Lauro and Vindahlo has an East Coast patois, a devilish sense of humor, and a bricks-and-mortar manner that seems to say, a man gets up, does his job, does it well, end of story. Over a cup of decaf, Machado, 51, talked about why politics and food make bad (if inevitable) bedfellows, why he doesn’t take reservations, and why bloggers may soon rule the reviewing roost.
Author’s note: Machado was so entertaining we spoke for two hours, which means, the interview will run in two parts. Part One is below.
When and why did you start cooking?
In the late 70s, I was a home-cook, cooking out of Bon Appetit and cookbooks. I lived in San Francisco. I mostly cooked for my friends; there were a lot of expatriates that had moved out from Massachusetts. Then I got married and was living a semi-normal life. I was a contractor at the time, in the California boom of the late 70s/early 80s, and then that marriage went bust, and so I was hanging out in a bar in the financial district of San Francisco and the bartender said, “I’m going to my next job, which is bartending at night, and I gotta take a vacation so I gotta train somebody,” and I was sitting there reading the newspaper and he said, “Why don’t you come to work with me and I’ll train you to be a bartender?” I was unemployed; it was wintertime and it was raining and there was no work, so I took him up on that.
So, you’re working as a bartender…
Yup, for three years, and then I started managing the restaurant, and then the reality of that life—being behind the bar, running a restaurant, being there late and everything else that goes along with it—led me to want to take a higher road! [Laughs.] So the California Culinary Academy had just announced that it was building a brand new school, and I said, this is something that I want to do, so, I left bartending and took a job as a prep cook and a brunch cook… When I’m doing this I’m twenty-eight, twenty-nine, and so I worked there and I end up being the weekend sous chef and then I have the chef write me a letter of recommendation and I apply to CCA and I go there. The first class in the new school—and it’s a fabulous time because all the of the instructors are young guys from Italy and France; it’s not the cooking school that people attend now, where the instructors are American or [these] old-line European cruise ship kind of things; these were young guys who would grab this job in San Francisco and within a year or two would all have their own restaurants. I got a unique education.
So, you’re there, and you realize, this is what I’m going to do; I’m going to be cooking professionally.
Absolutely. When I graduated I took a job in a Kimpton hotel, The Bedford, it was their first hotel; it was very old and shabby, and I cooked there for a year, and then I met another guy in a bar, and he had a nightclub/bar called Bottom of the Hill, which is a rock club now. He said, “I got this kitchen, and I got this dining room and they’re both closed,” he said, “If you want them you can come out and have them,” so I opened the restaurant there. This is 1987, ’88. That became a little bit of a cult restaurant, it was mostly employees from Postrio and Stars used to go there.
Then I went to work for a guy named Dan Rubenstein, he had a place in the Marina called Ruby’s Pizza, which was very famous. He wanted to open a restaurant, and he was eating at my place, and he offered me this job, and I went to work for him for two years. We had a great thing going. I had remarried when I was 30; I had my first child and knew that things were gonna change in terms of, we’re probably going to have more children. So we took two looksie trips, one to Seattle, one to Portland, and decided Portland was the only one we could afford; at the time I heard that Kimpton was going to open their first restaurant outside of Union Square, and it was going to be in Portland, so I contacted them, and I said, “I really want that job.”
I got here in the spring of ’91, and went downtown to Pazzo [located in Kimpton’s Hotel Vintage Plaza] and it was basically a construction site and I was charged with opening a restaurant; finding all the employees, finding the vendors, and it hit with… I’ve never seen a restaurant hit the way that restaurant hit.
Do you have any difficulty getting certain ingredients here in Portland?
I did when I moved here; there wasn’t much happening in ’91. I couldn’t buy a whole wheel of Parmesan; I couldn’t buy a whole prosciutto; there were many, many things that weren’t available and all the salespeople in those days said, “We can get that out of New York; I’ll order that.” It’d be two weeks. So there was not a lot of product in town, let’s say. I was buying olive oil in 55-gallon drums in those days; no one had ever seen that before. The lettuce mix that was coming; they were so expensive as to make me fall over, when I was buying the same mix in San Francisco just a month before for a third of the price. It was expensive because they were hobby farmers; farmers that were hanging out and growing a little bit of this and then delivering it and then saying, “This is the price.” They had no idea why that was the price… especially small growers who come to the door and knock and say, “This is what I’m doing.” I’ve over the years tried to change that relationship [to], “It’s nice that you’re telling me what you’re doing, but why don’t you ask me what we need, and then I can tell you.” Years ago, when you said things like, “potatoes,” they’d look at you like, how can I grow potatoes and make a living? If you grow these kinds of potatoes you can get these prices and I can get these prices on the menu. So, it’s been a long education.
I’ve seen a lot of growers go out of business; I’ve seen them decide to go with certain crops that I knew in my heart would be a tough sell; I’ve seen them make contracts with supermarkets and bigger restaurants and have those contracts broken and have the price dropped on them; I’ve seen a lot of heartache, and so, what’s been a really great thing in Portland has been this growing relationship with the fisherman-chef connection; the farmer-chef connection that’s done by the Chefs Collaborative, and every year they have their two big meetings that’s just basically networking, putting a guy that fishes or a guy that grows something in front of a restaurant owner or a chef and says, this is what I do, and they say, this is what I need.
Do you have a cooking philosophy?
Yeah, I have a prevailing cooking philosophy, and I think a lot of it now sounds like cliché, everybody boasts seasonality and local and a lot of these adjectives. I had the advantage of learning my trade in a big market that had an evolved growing situation; they were grabbing from Sonoma and Napa; they were grabbing from Salinas; and so, the best of the best… My basic food philosophy is and always has been, you buy food for what’s being sold in terms of quality, seasonality and price. You buy that; you put it in your walk-in. You buy it not for any particular reason; I don’t buy food to make recipes. My philosophy has been to buy food and you create the larder, and you have to have the talent and some training to go into threw with a piece of paper and say, “This is what we’re going to do today.” I think that makes food that’s immediate and that makes food that’s interesting.
If you could train under any chef living or deceased, who would it be?
Well, you know, when I was younger, I always thought that there was a secret in kitchens, and it was a secret like a medieval guild, some secret that the big guys had and knew; some technique, and then, over years, of doing guest chefs and fundraisers and going into people’s kitchens, in bigger cities, in Los Angeles and San Francisco and Seattle, I never found any secrets. Some kitchens were cleaner, some kitchens were chaotic; some kitchens had a screamer chef, whatever. I’ve been in Charlie Trotter’s kitchen. So as to a particular personality who could… I’m not sure that that really exists.
What aspect of your daily routine do you most enjoy?
Seeing that the restaurant’s full is probably the thing I enjoy the most, because it validates all the work.
Do you have a signature dish or something that customers perceive as a signature dish?
Oh, yeah, a lot of them. There’s the butternut squash ravioli; that dish I put on the Pazzo menu fifteen years ago. There’s the stuffed pork chop with agridulce [sweet-and-sour] sauce. The mussels and Portuguese sausage is one right now. I also believe a restaurant menu has to have—this is my peculiar philosophy—it has to have a kind of a best-of favorites, because I think what prompts you to go back to a restaurant is often a favorite dish. So you say, “I go to restaurant X because they have Y and I always get that when I go.” You’ll get other things and your tablemates will get other things. It’s an anchor.
Do you have favorite ingredients you like to work with?
Portland has three growing seasons: it has a tiny spring, four to six weeks. I particularly like that; I’ve always been drawn to a dish like halibut with fava beans or asparagus tips, peas, lemon oil—the food I like the best. Secondly, I like winter food; root vegetables and braised meats, and thirdly I’d say I like what is usually the easiest to deal with, which is summer produce, because it’s abundant and it’s colorful.
Are there any ingredients that are overused?
I think balsamic vinegar got overused for a period of time. Lamb shanks got overused for a period of time. There are certain things that everyone jumps on: fresh mozzarella.
How do you ensure quality control in your kitchen: are you a taskmaster, making sure every recipe is followed down the exact technique, or do you allow your chefs to riff?
I’m more of a taskmaster. I think the riffing part is what gets you an inconsistent product. The most deadly pitfall in any restaurant operation is to have an inconsistent product, so, the kitchens are very organized; they’re very clean; produce and all the deliveries are rotated and labeled, and we use recipe books. We do specials by intuition and by feel and we talk about them, but if it gets on the menu, it has to be written.
I had an incident a few months ago, the New York Times did a travel roundup of Portland, and they wrote about Lauro and said that, in the grilled radicchio, that the base of the anchovy sauce was insipid or flat and blah blah blah. It really bugged me because it’s such a robust sauce, so I went back to the gentleman who makes it and I tasted it and I said, “How have you been making this?” And he goes, “Just by memory; I’ve been doing it for two years now.” And I said, “Yeah? Let’s make a batch from the book and let’s taste it with your batch,” and they weren’t even the same sauce.
At Vindalho, every night before we open, there are certain things that we make that I have to taste, and I ask, “Make that, make that, make that; put it up, put it up, put it up, let me eat it right now,” because I have a great fear that something as simple as a samosa, maybe they didn’t put salt in the dough; maybe the potatoes are hard inside. I’m the last line between whether it’s a quality experience or not.
Do you cook at home and if so, what do you make? You’re married with two kids, yes?
Three kids. I cook on Sunday night and I cook on Monday night. Sunday night is usually a dinner of some sort; from now until October, most of those will be barbecues, they’ll be outside. They’re just normal things like pork tenderloin or roast chicken with mashed potatoes or a couple of steaks.
What is your most well worn cookbook?
Well, I think anything by Paula Wolfert. I don’t think that anyone has ever been better at writing a cookbook. Her recipes work dead-on for home, and she’s also one of the few cookbook writers that translate to restaurant recipes.
What restaurants do you eat at when you’re not eating at yours?
I haven’t been eating out a lot in the last year because of the opening of the new restaurant. I tend to eat at mid-level or lower restaurants, like a Pho Van or the new one, Autentica, Mexican restaurant up on Killingsworth. I eat at places I’m friends’ with the owners or the people that own it or work there, used to work for me.
Are there any local restaurants you’ve wanted to try but haven’t yet?
Yeah, there are two; one is Roux, and the other one is Fenouil. I’m interested in seeing what they’re doing at both those places… So often restaurants have more to do with scale than people think. What’s the scale? Do we want to do twenty-five dinners or do we want to do two hundred and fifty dinners? What’s your experience to execute that scale? That’s an issue that’s missed, I think, by the dining public and certainly the food critics.
How important do you think it is for you to know what’s going on in Portland, food-wise?
It’s a very small food community. I think that I generally do know what’s going on, what’s being cooked at places and who’s opening, and sometimes even who’s closing. I believe it’s very important to know your market. Everyone else who’s doing food, to my mind, is a competitor, so, if I think you must keep abreast of your own marketplace, and then you must travel periodically; every six months or every year you must travel to bigger markets… Europe and San Francisco and New York and Chicago… in those dining trips, you get to see what’s coming, you get to see the future, especially the future for Portland, because typically it has been behind most of those markets, three to five years. That is less so today than ever, because everybody travels today; everybody’s been to the same restaurant in Florence; everybody’s been to the same restaurant in Barcelona; the same restaurant in New York, and it’s great, it’s a wonderful thing, but that certainly wasn’t the case fifteen years ago.
Speaking of, how do feel Portland rates as a food town?
Well, there’s a lot of self-congratulation on the issue of Portland’s status or quality as a food city, and, it has improved so much in the fifteen years I’ve lived here… I think a lot of it has been the result of transplants that have taken ideas and training from another larger market and put them to practice here.
Let’s face it; the lower costs of living on the West coast; the ability to buy a home; the ability to put your children in public schools have been a constant draw for almost all the significant chefs that have relocated here, and those are great reasons to move here. As a food city, I would say, you need to high density and high competition to be great; when you lack that density; when you lack that competition, certain things end of passing for good that probably are not.
Coming up in Part Two: Machado takes on the critics, the bloggers, and butters up the interviewer.
Nancy Rommelmann writes the Food Chain column for the FOODday section fo the Oregonian; contributes to the Los Angeles Times Magazine and other publications, and is lead baker/bottlewasher for Ristretto Roasters, her husband’s coffee roastery and cafe in NE Portland.