To hear what the Portland, Ore., food scene was like when chef Greg Higgins arrived in 1984 is to be reminded of all that eaters today take for granted.
Fresh, local fruits and vegetables?
Crusty loaves of artisan bread?
Gourmet cheeses? Grass-fed beef? How about a dinner reservation after 8 p.m.?
No, no, and never.
Five hundred miles south, Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ Berkeley, Calif., temple to regional ingredients, had been garnering national raves since the mid-1970s. But a decade later, the locavore revolution had not reached Portland or many other mid-sized and smaller cities.
Proprietors of Portland’s downtown Heathman Hotel wooed Higgins, then 26, down from Seattle. They took him to the city’s finest restaurants so he could check out the competition. The young chef thought to himself, “There’s got to be more here than this.”
Today, there is. A city used to playing third fiddle to San Francisco and Seattle has become a dining destination. Already celebrated for its wine, beer and coffee, Portland increasingly is known for its Northwest take on French, Indian, Thai and American cuisine (hamburgers being its latest obsession). Even its food carts get star billing on TV food shows and in magazines.
Discovering Portland’s bounty
To understand how Portland got here, you have to start with Higgins.
Born in upstate New York, he grew up amid vegetable fields and fruit orchards, harvesting and canning the bounty. Around age 7, he read Euell Gibbons’ classic “Stalking the Wild Asparagus” and became “obsessed with hunting and gathering,” he says. During high school, he worked for an artisan cheese-maker.
On a late-1970s trip to Europe, he found work on a farm in Alsace and was more or less adopted by the family that owned it. He was struck not just by the quality of the food but by a culture that still appreciated the farmers that produced it.
Higgins had majored in art in college and still thought of himself as a printmaker, not a cook. But the art school he’d planned to attend in Sun Valley, Idaho, folded soon after he got there. He stayed to ski and race bikes while working as a sous-chef. Then he followed a girlfriend to Seattle, and fell in love with the Northwest.
The seafood! The mushrooms! The berries! What had been a sidelight became a career.
The food scene in Seattle at that time was a little ahead of Portland, but not by much. It was dominated by corporate chains and old-school French restaurants. “People were inclined to pluck things out of the air and imitate,” Higgins says. “I wanted to create a dialogue with ingredients.”
What attracted him to Portland was its bounty. Located on the banks of the Willamette River, the city was on the edge of some of the country’s most fertile farm land. The Willamette Valley, he knew, was home to about 30 wineries (400 today). An adage holds that where there’s good wine, there’s good food. Plus the ocean, with its rich stores of oysters, Dungeness crab and razor clams, was an hour to the west; world-famous fruit orchards were less than an hour to the east.
“What sets it apart in so many ways is just remarkable ingredients,” he says. “Very, very seldom have I seen the scope and diversity.”
Northwest dives in to
sustainable, regional cuisine
Higgins was not the first to remark on the area’s treasures. Cookbook luminary James Beard, an Oregon native, considered the Northwest’s raw materials among the richest anywhere. After he made his name in New York City, he would return to teach cooking classes along the Oregon coast. But Beard, who was born in 1903 and died in 1985, grew up at a time when truck farmers still supplied cities’ food. When Higgins arrived in Portland, the truck farmers were long gone, and farmers markets had not yet enjoyed their renaissance. Farmers sold their produce on farm stands or to produce wholesalers, not to restaurants.
Higgins wanted his own suppliers. One by one, he found them.
At first, he approached the folks who tended the grounds at the Heathman, asking whether they grew anything at home. One woman said she had a rosemary bush. (She remains one of Higgins’ suppliers today, and now owns her own greenhouse.)
Often he’d just jump on his bicycle and pedal 20 minutes out of town to check out the farm stands. He bought rabbits from a guy who worked in a factory, mushrooms from a forest forager.
“The accounting department at the Heathman hated me,” he says. “They’d say, ‘Why can’t you find one supplier?'”
His customers loved it. Just as the markets were there, waiting to be tapped, so were the eaters. Oregonians aren’t afraid to try new things. And when they like something — be it good coffee, good beer or distinctly Northwest cooking — they become intensely loyal.
“We don’t stop halfway into something,” Higgins says. “We dive in.”
After leading the restaurant at the Heathman to widespread acclaim, Higgins left in 1994 to open his own restaurant down the street. In a town awash in new restaurants, Higgins Restaurant and Bar is an institution, known for such dishes as the “whole pig plate” with house-made fennel sausage, buckwheat crepes with artichoke and shiitake mushrooms as well as risotto of hazelnut-smoked Sockeye salmon.
A founder of the Portland chapter of the Farmer-Chef Connection, Higgins has helped other restaurateurs forge ties with local farmers, fishermen and foragers.
“When I first moved here, people thought we were off our bloody rocker when we went to a lender and said we were going to open a restaurant using local, sustainable food,” he says. “Now it’s the way people do it.”
Mary Engel, a former reporter and editorial writer for the Los Angeles Times, is a writer based in Portland, Ore.
Chef Greg Higgins, with an assist from James Melendez, spends every Wednesday morning butchering a single pig for use in many of the restaurant’s signature dishes.