Why Portland won the last 4 of 6 F&W Best New Chef awards

Uncategorized — By KF Louis on October 12, 2010 at 5:46 pm

I’m so very proud of my hometown’s ascension to the national food scene over the past few years.  The latest news:  that Castagna chef Matt Lightner picked up a 2010 Best New Chef Award in NYC from Food and Wine magazine.

Is it uncanny that four of the past six awards have gone to Portland chefs?

I say no.  The promise has always been there, but historically, it lacked a few catalysts that the bigger cities had.  When I left the Pacific Northwest in 1997, the food scene was emerging — but slowly at best.  Frisco, L.A. and Manhattan were so far ahead.  And Portland was a waifish sibling to Seattle.

So what changed?  I think there are three big catalysts:

1) The big-city-to-PDX diaspora. Since the late 1990s, big city kids have been coming to Portland in droves in search of a higher-quality lifestyle.   If they hung tight through the first gloomy winter, they found it.  And they formed a dining critical mass that Portland historically lacked.

2) Portland became known as a spot for low-cost restaurant innovation. The rosy American dream of “opening up a restaurant” is so much more possible in Portland than it is in New York.  In Portland, a mid-level big-city chef can open their own shops earlier in their career.  If the can’t do it on credit cards, Portland’s wealthy doesn’t need a venture capital partner to bankroll the next Pok Pok.

3) Local sourcing came back en vogue. It’s well known that some of the world’s best dirt and water is within 200 miles of Portland.  But this didn’t matter much between 1950-1990.  During this time,  the supermarket and corporate farm concepts ruled, so uniformed-sized pink tomatoes and iceberg lettuce from Albertson’s were the norm.  In the summer time, we shopped at roadside stands in Northeast Portland because the produce was flush.  I remember working on a Willamette Valley farm in 1980, where I was harvesting gorgeous tomatoes (think heirloom)

But today the Rose City is bustling with food.  So much that I have only dined at four of Eater’s 38 top restaurants.

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