There are chefs who present their craft as precious and arcane as a Faberge egg. There are steady-eyed technicians who get the job done, hold the romance. And there’s an amalgam of the two, the gourmand who craves wild striped bass but whose inner pragmatist knows he must serve rockfish, the culinary general who steadily leads the troops through truffles that won’t sell and ventilators that don’t work. Ladies and gentlemen, meet Philippe Boulot, executive chef of the Heathman, who when asked the least favorite part of his day, a day that can include breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner for 1800, makes a moue characteristic to the French and says, “Nothing.”
When and why did you start cooking?
I started to cook when I was a kid. My mom was a hairdresser, and my dad worked long hours, so I had to feed my [two little] brothers. One of my grandmas owned a huge farm, and during the summer we fed the workers, and my other grandma had a huge garden, in Normandy. In my family, for the weekend, you wake up late on Sunday morning, you go to the market; you start cooking and you cook all day long until it’s time to go to bed.
At what age did you start cooking professionally?
I started to work in a kitchen when I was fourteen years old. So, I worked during my weekends and holidays. After that, I went to cooking school in Paris; it’s called Rue Mederic. I went for a three-year degree after high school. [Then] I went to the army for two years, in South Pacific, in New Caledonia; that was the only way I could do the army. I was a maitre‘d, in charge of the officers’ quarters, so, I did lots of cooking.
Were you exposed to many different ingredients there?
Totally. Some flat oysters; coconut crab; the wild pig. The best food that I had there is called a bougna. You smoke the coconut leaves on the fire, and you put wild pig, taro and yams, wild onions, lobster, crab, fish and chicken and coconut milk, and you close it, and you have the lava rocks in the fire, and you cover your big paupiette with the rocks, cover with dirt, and then it cook until it’s just warm, maybe seven hours, and you open it on the table and everybody eats from it.
When you got out of the army, did you know you were going to be a chef?
No, I didn’t know that. I was a bartender, on the coast in Normandy, for a couple of years. I took my first job with Joel Robuchon, at Hotel Nikko in Paris.
A good person to learn from…
Yeah. And still the best chef in the world right now. I was an apprentice, one year, and after I opened one of his hotels in Paris. He jumped the boat and opened Chez Jamin, and I was the chef saucier there, and after that, he sent me to L’Archestrate, 3-star Michelin. [Later], I went to Maxim’s; I needed to make money. Maxim’s wasn’t considered anything good for food, but the scene was incredible, and the ingredients were unbelievable: 150-pound langoustine; two-kilos of truffle at a time; maximum of extremely good ingredients; fast-paced restaurant, huge, side-table service, Art Deco.
So, I spend one year there, and I met my wife [Suzanne]; she was pastry chef at L’Archestrate, and she wanted to go back to the States—she lived in Portland. Came to Portland, met Suzanne’s family; they authorized me to marry her; went back to France with her, then I got a job in London, at the Four Seasons.
That’s quite a jump, from small restaurant to big hotel.
You know what’s happening with a small restaurant? You have a menu; you can afford to do only five or six entrees, and every day you cook those six entrees. And every season you change them, and people come for that. [Shrugs his shoulders in a way that indicates, how boring.] It lacks interest. It’s like a very small town, every day, every day, every day. I got sick of it… I found out that being chef of a small restaurant was cute, but the executive chef had plenty of time off and vacation and he was making twice more money than me, so after a while I said, to heck with a small restaurant; better learn how to be an executive chef.
What exactly does “executive chef” mean?
It’s semantic, but normally it’s a guy who organizes the creative process and manages it. Some chefs have different strategies; they use some good assistants, some who are good in finance and ordering and organization, and they focus on food. Or, they focus on directing and hire good technicians. An executive needs a good team and the resources to make it work.
When did you come to Portland?
I came thirteen years ago… I could not understand why a big operation could not do good food. I could not understand why a chef could not be in charge, instead the food and beverage manager, those nasty little guys that are completely clueless in the world, and they tell the chef how to cook. Me, I wanted to be a chef, and a food and beverage manager as well. So, I needed a place big enough and small enough to do this, and the Heathman is perfect. I have a concierge manager, and a partner in the business. I have a team that helps me to cook. I have somebody in the front of the house, but I still control the concept.
How many people do you have working under you?
In December, about a hundred and fifty people; a hundred of them are under the supervision of the restaurant manager; he focuses on that. Me, I focus on the back of the house, so, it’s fifty cooks in the busy season… Managing human resources is the most difficult thing; it’s a huge skill. I’ve always struggled with it and keep learning. People—and the way you treat people—is changing faster than I can comprehend. And I don’t have a human resources director, so I do all the hiring, all the paperwork, coaching, mentoring…
You shouldn’t ever have to do any firing. Never, if you do counseling, coaching. The best skill you have, when you have a lot of people, is to hire the right person. If you hire the right person, you’re going to minimize your issues.
Do you have a cooking philosophy?
Well, it changes. Where I am now in my life, I’m cooking for the customer at work, for what they want, what they expect. If I want to please myself, I cook for my friends, or I make small parties where I just satisfy my ego. But at work, I run it like a business.
What part of your day do you enjoy the most?
I enjoy the most when I do service, when I go cooking; it’s relaxing for me to cook. A day for me would be ten [a.m.] to when it’s over, nine or ten [p.m.]. When I arrive, I check the food, make sure the menus are all right, brief the service staff, and I do [lunch] service. When service is over, I have five hours in the afternoon where I do paperwork or whatever, and when five o’clock arrives, I do the same thing: check the menu, coach the staff, and I do service until things are moving, and if everybody has a good feel to it, I just leave.
What is your least favorite part of the day?
Least favorite, hmm… nothing. You have good days and bad days, but in general, I manage to make my life quite nice.
Do you have a signature dish?
I don’t think so. I am cooking too wide. Imagine, I am cooking lunch; afternoon tea; dinner; catering, banquet, wine dinner, parties.
Do you have any favorite ingredients?
I love wild mushrooms; I love potatoes, as a vegetable. As protein, my favorite is pork. I love pork.
How do you ensure quality control in your kitchen? Are you a taskmaster, or do you let your chefs riff?
When you have such a big business, you can’t micromanage it; you have to let them have freedom. Buy good ingredients—that’s fifty percent of the battle. After, instead of controlling exactly how it is cooked, you have to control how people cook. How do you teach somebody to taste his food? How do you teach somebody to care? If you just try to tell a guy, okay, you do it like that, and you forget to make him believe; if you forget to make him taste; if he have no patience, no good techniques, no good movement, you turn your back and something is not going to be right.
But how do you teach someone to care?
It’s wild. And you get in trouble, because it’s very difficult to make somebody care. They think they do, but they don’t. They care at what level? They care “comfortable,” or “hard,” or “passionately.” When you push passion, you get into some serious issues. Because people have no idea what it takes just to do something well. And it’s extremely hard. And nobody’s willing to be in an uncomfortable spot. Also this city—our schooling, our education—doesn’t teach people how to be passionate. So, when they come and say, oh, yeah, we are very passionate, I believe them, and they come [to work] and then they are crying, and… it’s a rough world.
Do you think having a pastry chef separate from yourself is important?
Yes and no. I like to be pastry chef, and my wife used to be the pastry chef. Dessert in a restaurant is a very expensive proposition. Being pastry chef is a very difficult skill, and it’s not very rewarding in Portland, in general. I would say fifty percent of the people don’t eat dessert, maybe more than that. The skill of making very competitive desserts is very difficult; you have to be precise, knowledgeable; it’s complex. It takes equipment; it takes space. In this market in Portland, [where] people don’t care about pastry, having pastry in a business is a financial burden. I wish people could care, but they don’t.
Do you cook at home, and if you do, what do you make?
My wife is an excellent cook, so she cooks most of the time, but if I cook, I go to Uwajimaya and see some fish that inspires me. Or last Sunday, I made a pot au feu with oxtail and cabbage and root vegetables.
What restaurants do you eat in when you’re not working?
I eat at small restaurants, and I don’t like to stand for hours in a restaurant. If it doesn’t come right then, you’ve lost me. I go to Nuestra Cucina, to have a good margaritas and some little Mexican stuff, spicy; I like that.
Do you think it’s important to keep on top of what’s going on in Portland, food-wise?
Yes, definitely. You owe the market to stay in touch and in support of other people. I stay in touch with my customers, and I cook at their house. I stay in touch with my network by inviting all the chefs, like my friends Pascal [Sauton, of Carafe] and Vitaly [Paley, of Paley’s Place], but I like to talk to Corey [Schreiber, of Wildwood], also; I like to talk to Morgan [Brownlaw] at Clarklewis. I like to do all the big fundraising, like the Pinot Noir Festival… I went to France and visited winemakers in Burgundy; went to restaurants in Paris, to talk about Portland. I went on radio two times in Normandy to promote Oregon.
When I came in town thirteen years ago, you had Genoa and Zefiro and L’Auberge; those were the three restaurants, that’s it. I took the Heathman; a year later, Corey Schreiber came in town, and a year later, Vitaly, and we were the three pioneers. And Greg Higgins, too; definitely. So there were just four people in Portland doing something nationally, going to New York, San Francisco, L.A. After you have a second group of people, like Pascal. And now you have Morgan and ripe and all that stuff. [Pauses.] It’s different lately.
Do you like the changes?
It’s interesting. It’s more trendy and flashy, less substance, I think. You can’t put just a grilled steak with a piece of broccoli and call it great food; I’m sorry.
Are there any ingredients you have trouble getting in Portland?
You can get a lot of interesting stuff [but] it’s extremely seasonal. So, if you want to go the next step, it’s very expensive. Like, if you want to have wild striped bass from the East Coast, very expensive, people are not going to pay for it here. True red snapper; stone crab claw or lump crabmeat or turbot or Dover sole: you can have access to anything in Portland, but the market cannot bear it… It’s the same price as what you’d pay [wholesale] in New York; maybe it’s cheaper here, because you don’t have sales tax. When I was in New York at the Mark Hotel, if I buy turbot, I would buy it for the same price as I would buy it in Portland.
But what can you charge in New York and what can you charge in Portland?
Exactly. I would serve an entrée [in New York] at $45; people would not blink. When you pass a cap of $30 in Portland, people will say, “Wah…” But people from Portland will go to Las Vegas and have a dinner for $600 and not think twice about it. My customers are the terrible ones, because my customers who go to France, to Las Vegas and to New York on a weekly basis; they come to have a sandwich and a Caesar salad in my restaurant, and they say, “You know, Philippe, six dollars for your soup; it’s expensive. Oh, by the way, I had soup at twenty-five dollar [in New York]; it was so good; why don’t you do that?” I’m like, “Do you realize what you’re saying? You’re bashing me for having something exceptional for six dollars, but you enjoy something that’s three times more expensive and you are telling me I’m the best qualified guy to do it, but you don’t want to come and eat it in my restaurant?” Horrible.
It always surprises me when the restaurant reviewers here say something along the lines of, “Well, I really liked the lamb, but at $22?”
Since when do reviewers judge the financials of a restaurant? What’s their problem? Judging the ambiance, the food, their experience, okay; but why would they put those financial boundaries? You know what? The group of restaurant reviewers; they are self-righteous and they think they know better than anybody; it’s absolutely terrible; they have barely enough food experience to eat in a diner, but they are opinionated. It just drives me crazy. And the pricing issue is terrible. You buy [the meal] or you don’t! It’s extremely frustrating. And it limits what we do. So, I mean, how much chicken can you do?
Do you think this is poised to change?
It’s been like that, all the time. I thought it was going to change, but it never changes. In December, I had so much business, I took liberties to bring spiny lobster and wild striped bass; I bought some unbelievable stuff. And I charge way below what I should have made for my business, so I was taking a bath, but very few people went for it; very few.
Are there dishes you’d love to serve but you suspect the locals will not order them?
Oh, yeah. Totally. Example: wild striped bass. You eat the rockfish—they call bass here; it’s okay but it’s mushy. You eat the wild striped bass, with the crispy skin on, that’s been fished by a small fisherman, flown over just the same night; you don’t need to do a lot with that, just very delicate, it’s unbelievable. People won’t buy it.
Two-part question: how do you think Portland rates as a food town, and how do you think Portland is as a restaurant town?
The restaurants that succeed and survive are the restaurants that are comfortable and homey and very accessible. But all the restaurants that try to push the limits of their trade, they never succeeded. Like Georgio’s, bringing chef from Per Se; those kids beat their heads on the wall, and they burn out and they leave.
I used to do for example New Year’s Eve. Six-course truffle degustation, truffles from France, Italy black and white, Oregon black and white, Chinese, to compare, so you have six different kind of truffles—simple, beautiful dishes, prix fixe menu, charge it below cost; it would be $100; you do ninety covers. I don’t do that anymore; I do regular menu, lots of steak, salad, even burger, kind of bastardize it but make it very accessible: I do six hundred covers. So you push the limit of your trade, you take a bath financially. And if you make it cozy and comfortable; [put] not a lot of culinary skill into it, but there’s a lot of style and there’s a buzz and keep a couple of things to interest the public, you’ll make a bundle of money.
If you could make one request of the average Portland diner, what would it be?
Portland is very limited, and I don’t know why people limit their market here. It seems to me the same thing for investment or whatever; people have a lot of money, but they don’t seem to invest in Oregon. They love Oregon, but they are not doing anything for the state. For the food, it’s the same thing. You have a great talent [here], but you’re going to spend your money in Las Vegas in a cheesy fricking restaurant where the chef is never there? It doesn’t make sense.
If you could make one request of the reviewers in this town, what would it be?
When you do a review, bring a chef with you. Because they don’t know what food is all about… [Also], forget about rating A, B, C, D or whatever. Just write a story about how you feel about the whole thing and stop grading people. I mean truly, restaurants and how to relate to them is so subjective, so, don’t put yourself in a situation where you have to judge and categorize somebody; write your story. Write your opinion but don’t grade us.
What is your dream restaurant and are you running it now?
Somehow, yes. I have my dream restaurant.
Do you have any advice to people considering a career as a chef?
[Laughs] To be a chef, you have to first of all, you don’t learn the trade in a school; you learn it by working with good restaurants. When you are young, stay in a restaurant only one year, and move on, and keep trying, until you have enough experience that you can make your own experience. That’s it.
Do you have any funny or scary story to tell from your years in the kitchen?
Perfect story. Thanksgiving, last year; eighteen hundred covers booked… plus we have breakfast and dinner after that, and room service. Eight o’clock [in the morning], my sous chef in total panic call me, say, ‘Chef, kitchen stove, gas, shut down completely.’ My hood system shut down, completely. I come in the restaurant; we can’t use the oven, we can’t use the stove, nothing. You are talking about forty turkeys, twenty prime ribs; it takes hours of cooking. No ventilation; no heat; nothing. What do you do? I get on the phone with our C.O. and say, “I’m sorry, but I am going to have to shut down the restaurant.” The guy is in bed, he’s like, “What are you talking about?!” I call electrician; I’m on the phone all morning; meanwhile, I’m trying to figure out how to call all the reservations to tell them not to bother to come in. We are still doing breakfast, but it’s starting to be warm [in the kitchen], so to get some air we open the doors to create an air flow; and we fire two ovens. I say, “Okay, guys, start to cook some turkeys,” and we can see [the gas] is starting to be heavy; everybody’s having a headache, from the fumes. And you have to make a decision, and you just can’t believe you’re going to have to make that decision, and everybody’s panicking; major fricking panic. And I’m the one at the top; I need to make a decision, and suddenly we call an electrician, and the guy says, “Well, let me go and look in Sandy, there’s a buddy of mine, he’s closed but he might have an engine.” And the guy called me and said. “I found you an engine!” And I’m like, “Ooh yea!” Brings the engine right out, half-an-hour before we open the restaurant. And it worked. And we were set for Thanksgiving; we were late, things were disorganized, but we pulled it out, and nobody saw anything. And it’s a $35,000 day, in revenue.
Nancy Rommelmann is a frequent contributor to the Los Angeles Times Magazine and Bon Appetit; lead baker/bottlewasher for Ristretto Roasters, her husband’s coffee roastery and cafe in NE Portland.