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How Chef Rick Gencarelli Spun Portland Street Food Into Gold

Rick Gencarelli. Credit: David L. Reamer Photography

Rick Gencarelli. Credit: David L. Reamer Photography

What does it take for a well-established farm-to-table chef to make a name for himself in a hotbed of gastronomy like Portland, Ore.? If you ask Rick Gencarelli, it’s all about street cred.

His recognition came by way of the food cart called Lardo that he opened in September 2010. Slinging a porchetta sandwich with a side of hand-cut Parmesan-herb fries and homemade ketchup, Gencarelli instantly won the attention of the food-loving cognoscenti. “Who is this guy?” Portlanders began to ask.

Until then, restaurant developers wouldn’t even return his phone calls.

Gencarelli arrived in Portland from the East Coast with his family in 2009, ready to hit the ground running. He sported a stellar fine dining résumé with the requisite high points: an early start as a busboy in a Chinese restaurant, a degree from the Culinary Institute of America and involvement in award-winning restaurants from San Francisco to Boston. Most notably, Gencarelli launched several restaurants for celebrity chef Todd English before leading the kitchen at the Inn at Shelburne Farms, a landmark farmstead restaurant in Vermont. He even had a New York Times notable cookbook to his name.

Nonetheless, no one in Portland took notice until Gencarelli created Lardo in a charming blue cottage-style cart. His name value skyrocketed, capped off when Smithsonian magazine declared Lardo one of the top 20 foods trucks in the nation in 2012.

The new fine dining

In switching from four-star fare to street food, Gencarelli trailed Portland’s top chefs, including Tommy Habetz, a Mario Batali protegé who created Bunk Sandwiches, and Andy Ricker of Pok Pok restaurant fame, a 2011 James Beard Best Chef Northwest winner. His food was fitting, too, in a town that excels in raising lowbrow cuisine — including PB&Js and barbecue (locally sourced) — to new heights.

Lardo generated so much buzz, the community of chefs and restaurateurs opened up their arms to Gencarelli. “I give Portland all the credit,” he said. Soon, he was on the receiving end of phone calls, including an invitation from restaurant developer Kurt Huffman of Chefstable to give Lardo a real home.

On the day in June 2012 when Gencarelli locked up his food cart for the last time, he felt both relieved and anxious about the transition. “This was never a way to earn a living,” he acknowledged. Now that he was taking his food cart concept into the big time, he worried, “Will I still be able to make my own porchetta? My own ketchup?”

Food cart followers

Gencarelli did not predict the big welcome his brick-and-mortar Lardo would receive in its new Hawthorne Boulevard neighborhood.

A Lardo sandwich. Credit: David L. Reamer Photography

A Lardo sandwich. Credit: David L. Reamer Photography

On opening day that summer, 1,000 fans crowded the shop. “It was absolutely crazy,” Gencarelli remembered, “and we didn’t stop for three days.”

He felt relieved when demand rescinded to manageable levels, but the ball was already rolling with food pod fans ready to follow wherever Gencarelli went with his meaty, signature sandwiches.

Within six months, with Huffman’s backing, Gencarelli opened a second Lardo in downtown Portland. It was quickly followed by Grassa, his paean to pasta, in an adjoining space.

Lest anyone think Gencarelli the chef was going back to white tablecloth dining, Grassa has no waiters, no stemware, no linens in sight. Just generous $8-$12 bowls of homemade pasta served to a surging niche of diners who seek well-crafted, affordable food without the frills. Created in Portland, this is the next wave of fine dining.

Building the Lardo brand

With three new restaurants in operation within eight months, Gencarelli reflected on his quick ascent. He was happy to report he was still rolling his own porchetta, producing the pastrami, and forming banh mi meatballs by the hundreds of pounds. “The flavors of the cart live on,” he said, noting that the only sacrifice was replacing his homemade ketchup with Heinz.

Strangely enough, a business built on Lardo was never part of Gencarelli’s plan. At the first chance, he believed he’d distance himself from the food cart. “I never thought I’d stick with sandwiches. I’d do the cart for a little while and then do plated food again.” And he’d thought about being on the short list for a James Beard Award. “You have to let your ego go a little bit,” he confessed. Now, with his reputation solidly built on the tagline “bringing the fat back,” this ambitious chef was embracing a different career strategy while making real food for the people.

Might Gencarelli follow Ricker to New York, opening a Lardo in that proving ground where his career began?

“I plan on dying in Portland,” he quickly replied. True enough, the last word was that Gencarelli is planning his third Lardo location for Portland’s thriving Alberta neighborhood. It will open by the end of the year.

Top photo: Rick Gencarelli. Credit: David L. Reamer Photography



Zester Daily contributor Lynne Curry is an independent writer based in the mountains of eastern Oregon and the author of "Pure Beef: An Essential Guide to Artisan Beef with Recipes for Every Cut" (Running Press, 2012). She blogs at ruraleating.com

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