Reposted from 2006, an interview with Scott Dolich of Park Kitchen and the Bent Brick, by Nancy Rommelmann.
Scott Dolich, owner/chef of Park Kitchen, sits in his private office, i.e., a park bench across from the restaurant, within feet of two middle-aged dudes playing a loose game of pick-up basketball. It’s warm and windy, Portland’s first true spring day of 2006. Does Dolich think the weather will hold?
“It might,” says the 37-year-old, who, in cargo shorts and a t-shirt, looks more as though he runs a bike shop than what many think of as the best restaurant in the city. “Or it could get cold again tomorrow.” Both sentiments spoken with wry equanimity, giving the impression that, whatever the climate, he will get up tomorrow and get to work because there is always work to be done, including the expansion of the restaurant. Between lunch and dinner, Dolich takes an hour to talk about what he loves (pickling and fava beans), what he loathes (most balsamic vinegars) and why, if he has anything to do with it, we’ll all be eating eel on the sly.
When and why did you start cooking?
I started cooking seriously when I was in college, in North Carolina; I went to Duke University. [I was] living off-campus, my roommate and I were both interested in cooking; he did a lot of cakes and pastries, I did a lot of the savory stuff. I was working as a butcher at the time to help pay my way through school… I had lots of access to fish, meat; I had access to vegetables. We had raw ingredients, we had time, it was cheaper to cook than to be on the meal-plan, so we started cooking for ourselves, and then our next door neighbors took notice of it so they started coming over, and they would help us pay for ingredients and it kind of evolved into having ten people over: they would pay, we would cook, it was great.
How did that segue into thinking, I’m going to do this professionally. What were you going to school for?
I thought that I was going to be a doctor; I was a pre-med major; had applied to medical school and wasn’t really sure that I wanted to go and I wanted to take some time off, so I ended up driving out to Colorado, to Aspen, to fuck around, basically, and ended up staying with some friends, worked in a restaurant, so I just kind of fell into it from there.
How long were you cooking professionally before you felt ready to be the chef?
Whew. [Chuckles.] I’m still not really sure if I’m ready. I started cooking in 1990, basically, and opened up Park Kitchen in 2003, so, I’d been cooking professionally for thirteen years… One of the chefs I was working with [in Colorado] said, ‘You need to go to cooking,’ so I went to cooking school, to the Culinary Institute in New York. After CIA, as part of my externship in CIA, I moved to San Francisco and worked at the Lark Creek Inn for six months, and then after that I moved to Portland.
Why did you come to Portland?
I didn’t want to be in San Francisco, and I had friends who lived here in Portland and I was planning on just kind of stopping through, do a little bit of traveling around the Northwest and then I was hoping to go to Spain or France and cook there for a few years, but I fell in love with Portland and I had a really good job
Where were you working?
When I first came here I was working in two restaurants: Zefiro and Pazzo.
From what I understand, Zefiro was the place that put Portland on the nation’s food map.
Zefiro was the place. When I got here in 1992, there were a couple of restaurants that all the cooks were working [in], Zefiro, Pazzo and the Heathman. Every cook that’s been here since then, who’s worth his weight in salt, has been in one of those three restaurants. That’s why Portland is still so incestuous, because it hasn’t been that far from 1992 or 1993 when those restaurants were [around], and everybody knew each other. I was working on the line at Pazzo with Ben Gonzales from Nuestra Cocina; Ben was probably the best cook I have ever seen in my life. Mark Hosack, who’s now the chef and owner of Hudson’s up near Vancouver; and at Zefiro I was working with Joe Guth, who’s the owner of Provvista. Basically everyone paraded through Zefiro; that was the place where everybody worked. It was kind of a cool time.
Then Corey Schreiber opened up Wildwood. I worked with Corey for two years, and then went back down to San Francisco with my future wife, and worked with Loretta Keller at Bizou; I worked at Acqua for a little while, and then came back up here… I worked with Greg Higgins for two years, became his sous chef; left Higgins to help Ricardo Segura out with Tapeo; he now owns Pata Negra. I was his chef for a year, and then I found this space.
You found the space in 2002, which from what I understand was a fairly depressed time for restaurants in Portland.
Yeah, it was a really awkward time; it was an interesting time. Nothing new had opened up in a couple years; nothing new of note. People were still scared from the 9/11 thing, and that definitely influenced my decision on what to open. I wanted to keep it small and manageable, affordable; I didn’t want it to be pretentious; I wanted it to be a neighborhood place. And that’s why this area appealed to me, because I saw the buildings going up and knew that it would be a neighborhood eventually.
Can your style of cooking be attributed to any specific individual or restaurant?
It’s definitely bits and pieces taken from everywhere. It’s a lot of reading, a lot of what I liked to eat when I was a kid.
Was your mom a cook?
She was a great cook.
Are any recipes at Park Kitchen attributable to her?
Yeah. The one that was actually hers was, her French toast; Carol’s French Toast was on the [brunch] menu. But unfortunately, brunch is going bye-bye.
If you could train under any chef, living or deceased, who would it be?
It would certainly be neat to train under one of the new Spanish-style chefs who are doing experimental cuisine. To go to El Bulli would be great. I certainly think that Wiley DuFresne, as far as domestic cooks, is one of the more avant-garde chefs. That would be the one element I would try to add to my training.
What aspect of your daily routine do you most enjoy?
By far, far and away, it’s working with people. I’ve kind of gone from a craftsman to a manager. I think that’s the unforeseen nature of what I did when I opened up Park Kitchen. Where I was spending ten to twelve hours a day cooking before this, now I’m spending ten to twelve hours a day managing people. It took a couple of years for me to adjust to that, and I think there are parts of that that I really regret, because I don’t get to work with food as much as I’d like to, but I do get to work with great people. I try to surround myself with the best people I can get, because that’s what I do now; I watch [Chef de Cuisine] David Padberg cook and butcher. Though tonight, I expedite for four hours—that’s great.
What does that mean, expedite?
I have to organize the kitchen, so at five o’clock David Padberg takes off to see his girlfriend and I run the kitchen. All the prep that gets done, I get to do some of that… When I first opened Park Kitchen, I thought I was going to have five people there; myself and five people, total. And now I’ve got fifteen, and it’s the best part of my business.
What is your least favorite part of your routine?
[Pause] Not getting to cook as much as I want.
Do you have something people consider your signature dish?
I’d say those salt cod fritters are definitely on there, and the flank steak for lunch. We tried to take it off and… can’t do it.
Do you have any favorite ingredients you like to work with?
I’d have to say that fava beans are kind of… they just signify spring for me, and it’s like sliding into easy street for a while, because you know once the fava beans are around, you’re going to get this slew of great summer vegetables. It’s like the starting bell; ding! Spring’s here! [And] I’m an acid freak; I love using vinegar and citrus.
Are there any ingredients you think are overused?
Overused… well, you can say olive oil. Everybody’s gaga over olive oil. I love olive oil; I buy it in twenty-five liter tins; I use it quite a bit. But I do think it’s over-utilized. I think people just dump it into salad dressings, and it’s a strong flavor; it’s a flavor that I think some people underestimate. It’s like good balsamic vinegar.
Actually, that’s one thing I would put above olive oil: balsamic vinegar. There’s so much shitty balsamic vinegar that’s put out; it’s like caramel-colored red wine vinegar, it just sucks. As opposed to the real deal, which is an amazing product, but most people don’t have the money to afford, and so people are just dumping balsamic into vinaigrettes and doing all sorts of crap with balsamic, which is kind of an overly sweet, shitty product. I like to use a lot of sherry vinegar; that’s kind of my de facto vinegar, because I think it has a better flavor, a little bit more neutral than balsamic, not as sweet.
How do you ensure quality control in your kitchen; are you a taskmaster, ensuring every recipe is followed, or do you allow your chefs to riff?
I ensure quality in that I expedite. Every meal period, I kind of plant myself in front of that window… every plate that comes out, I’m either dipping a spoon into or arranging; I see it, I feel it, I touch it, I taste it.
As far as what my individual cooks do back there, we have recipes every Wednesday; David Padberg and myself, we powwow, we come up with what we’re going to change that week, and all the cooks are there, and we show them exactly what we want, and they do it. We’ve been very rigorous lately about writing down recipes, whereas before it was just kind of, shoot from the hip, and this is the way it needs to taste; one way or the other we make it happen. That meant either myself or David were doing the high-level things, but now we’re trying to equip our cooks to be able to do all of that stuff, because they want to learn it; they want to learn the technique, they want to make the recipes. So that entailed us taking the time and writing it down and saying, this is what you need to do. We always taste the end product so we know that it tastes the same.
Do you think having a pastry chef separate from yourself is important?
Yes, I do. Pastry chefs are an interesting thing, because it’s hard for any restaurant to make money on a pastry chef, but I think that [dessert’s] such an integral part to the meal as a whole, that I think that you need one, unless you’re really willing, as a chef, to dedicate yourself to making those pastries, which… I don’t really know too many people who do both. So many people give that short change and it shows; you get a really great meal and comes the end of the meal, you get your choice of a crème brûlée, a brownie and…
Yeah, and I just think you’re giving that whole sweet side of your palate short shrift.
If think of the meal like music, like an opera, then you need to have the high and the low and the drama and dessert.
Precisely. It’s your last impression. [And] I think you do need someone doing it; it’s a lot of work to be inventive and take the time. Unless, of course, you’re one of those rare chefs that really has a palate and a penchant to do great desserts—and the time for it. So yeah, I definitely think it’s important; the trick is making it work financially.
Do you have a pastry chef?
I do, Tara Tully, she’s great, she young, she’s got a really adventurous palate, and she and I work very closely. Her desserts are not necessarily sweet, they’re kind of surprising in that they’re not loaded with sugar; a lot of them have some savory elements, spices; cheeses. And the flip side of that coin is, I’ve started to incorporate some sweet elements, particularly in my salads, so like what you were saying, you can kind of get a little bit of a roller-coaster, if you can get four courses, you can get some savory, some sweet and it doesn’t necessarily end on a sugar bomb, but you do get some sweet stuff in there.
Do you cook at home, and if so, what do you make?
I used to do a lot; I used to do all of [the cooking], but ever since we had kids [ages two and four], Mary, my wife, definitely took the bull by the horns because she knew I couldn’t be home at five o’clock, so she bought a couple of books and just started doing it. She doesn’t really learn that well from me. [Laughs] So, I’m fine with that. I do enough teaching here so I satisfy my craving for that. And she doesn’t need to be taught; she’s got the books, and said, ‘I’m going to cook,’ and now she’s a great cook.
Where and what do you eat when you’re not at the restaurant?
With kids, mostly we eat at home, but we do a lot of dim sum; we go out to Beavo town and go to Jin Wah a lot, because it’s perfect with the kids… we go there I’d say three, four times a month. The kids love it; they love to watch the crabs. Where else do I go? As far as eating out here, I love BeWon; we go out to BeWon at least once a month. I think they do a really good job there… We had a really nice meal over at Alberta Street [Oyster Bar and Grill]. It’s really nice; you should go there. It’s really good.
How important do you think it is to know what else is going on in this town, food-wise?
It’s very important. I always like to think that, the more talent you have in town, the better the food scene as a whole is going to be. So, as much as I like to think I cook for myself and we come up with our ideas here at Park Kitchen based upon our experiences and my experiences, I think it’s also important to go out and experiment and see what other people are doing. I don’t think anybody can really operate in a vacuum; I don’t think that that’s possible. As far as every day, when we come up with dishes and what we do in the kitchen, it’s self-motivated, but as far as putting yourself in a context, I think you need to go out and check out what’s there.
You have seven people in the kitchen. It must be interesting to have them talk about what they’ve eaten elsewhere, to have someone say, ‘Oh, man, I tried this incredible monkfish.’
I actually give those guys an allowance, and if they want to go out to wherever, whether it’s pizza or to a nice restaurant; I encourage them to go out.
What is your most well worn cookbook?
I’d have to say it’s my pickle book. Yeah, it’s our pickle book, The Joy of Pickling. It’s a really solid book as far as getting base recipes, the mechanics for a recipe. We’ve got the book in the kitchen and if we’ve got extra… parsnips, I’ll go through and say, ‘Hey, go into the Joy of Pickling and pick out a parsnip recipe and pickle it.’ So, that’s definitely the one that gets the most abuse.
Are there ay ingredients you have difficulty getting in Portland?
Fish. Without a doubt. For a lot of reasons. That’s going to be the next frontier, I hope. We’ve seen the vegetable frontier come around in the past dozen years, and right now I think the protein frontier is happening; there are a lot of people doing great things with pork, and lamb and beef and rabbits. And we’ve got a lot of nice local suppliers for that. But fish is always been a difficult thing. After salmon and halibut and oysters, you’re fucked. And everybody knows it, and it’s just hard. There’s a system that’s in place and all these great fish are getting shipped off to Japan and we’re not getting what we should be getting.
And it’s hard for the fishmongers, too, because it entails a drastic change in people’s palates. When you think about it, people are accustomed to eating salmon and halibut, and for us to even offer sardines, anchovies, octopus, squid; eel. When we put these things on our menu, we have to fuck around with how we word it to make sure that people eat it, because otherwise it sits, and as you know, fish is the most perishable item. So, purveyors don’t want to have it because they don’t want to get caught sitting on it, and if we’re saying, ‘Hey, we want some different fish; we want black cod, we want octopus,’ they’ll say, ‘Tell me you’re going to order X amount and we’ll get it for you.’ And it’s kind of hard to say we’re going to get fifteen pounds this week and ten pounds next.
Are there dishes you’d love to serve but suspect the locals won’t order them?
Yeah. We put eel on the menu; we kind of hid it in a dish. It’s fantastic, it’s so great; [but] if we called it eel it would have gone bad.
What did you call it?
We hid it with some clams and some chorizo and called it Catalan stew.
And did it move?
People loved it. So, the seafood thing, I would love to be able to branch out, but that’s a tough thing, when people’s palates are conservative.
If you could make one request of the average Portland diner, what would it be?
Trust your cook. Go someplace where you’re going to trust the people serving you food and say, ‘Hook me up with four courses.’ We do a tasting menu, and it’s starting to become really popular. It’s four courses, we hook you up with two appetizers, and entrée and a dessert, and we’ve never had anybody complain about it.
How do you think Portland rates as a food and restaurant town?
Really high. I’d say there are a couple of towns right now I’d probably rate above Portland, maybe… four. New York, San Francisco, Chicago, maybe Miami. I would rate Portland in the top five cities in the nation.
Product, first and foremost. We’ve got so much available to use that so many people don’t, and we’re taking advantage of it. There are a ton of local farmers; and there’s a great demand for it. That’s the second thing I would say: we’ve got some pretty savvy diners here that are really willing to experiment with vegetables and aware of seasonality, which is pretty important… And I think that there’s a lot of talent being pulled up here. For better for worse, people think, ‘Oh, Portland; it’s going to be a great place to live, it’s cheap’—which is obviously bullshit now, but we get a lot of cooks moving out from New York, from California, so, there’s a lot of talent that’s coming up here, [and] I think primarily what drives it is the produce.
What is your dream restaurant, and are you running it now?
Right now, I think I’m running it. Park Kitchen’s a great place. It’s small, it’s manageable; the setting kind of allows us to do different things that really excite me; I’ve got a great staff. I guess ideally it would be a little bit bigger.
But you’re doing that.
We are doing that. Right now for what I’m doing, Park Kitchen… I don’t know if I would change anything.
Who’s your dream customer?
Someone who doesn’t mind getting involved with the food that they eat. I guess that would be my main parameter. I like people who appreciate what the food is and how it’s prepared.
Do you have any advice to someone considering a career as a cook or a chef?
Consider the fact that you’re not going to make money. You’ve got to do it as a labor of love. There are so many people who come in and say, ‘Well, you know, I want to be a sous chef after two years of cooking.’ It’s kind of an old-school profession where, no matter what, you’ve got to put in your time; there’s nobody that’s really able to escape that training. Plan on spending a lot of time not making a lot of money. Living a pretty cool life, but not making a lot of money.
Do you have any humbling or humorous stories from the kitchen?
Gosh, I’m sure I’ve got quite a few. [Pause] I have to decide whom I want to indict. [Laughs] I don’t know if I can name names on this one, but, I was working down at a restaurant in the Bay Area, for a very well-known and prestigious chef; it was a restaurant where we served tons of oysters, and he was training a new pantry cook on the station, who had just gotten a bunch of orders to open up fresh oysters, and this person was just swamped, going too slow, and the chef came over and said, ‘I need you to go faster! I need you to shuck oysters! This is how you shuck an oyster!’ He grabbed the knife and without hesitation, proceeded to put the knife right through his hand—literally, right through his hand. And of course the sous chef came over and was laughing hysterically, because he watched the whole thing happen. He took the knife, pulled it right out of [the chef’s] hand, and said, ‘And that’s how you pull the knife out of somebody’s hand!’