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James Beard Award-winning chef likes his mix of family, food

by: TRIBUNE PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Gabriel Rucker, nationally acclaimed chef and co-owner of Le Pigeon and Little Bird Bistro, looks forward to the birth of his second child, a new book and The Bite of Oregon this weekend.He won the prestigious James Beard Awards “Best Chef Northwest” this year, which means Gabriel Rucker, chef at Le Pigeon and co-owner of Le Pigeon and Little Bird Bistro, has risen to the top of his profession.

Yet, Rucker won’t toot his own horn in the wake of the James Beard award, which comes two years after being named James Beard “Rising Star.” It just means he has to keep up his reputation.

“It’s exciting,” says Rucker, a native of Napa, Calif. “The thing you don’t want to do is let it go to your head. Keep doing what got you there. Don’t change.

“Just keep getting better, so the quality of the experience that guests have is the same. People coming in knowing you won the award are saying, ‘OK, what’s so special about this guy?’ You want them walking out saying, ‘Oh, I get it, that’s what’s so special about him.’ ”

It’s a good year for Rucker, and it’ll only get better by year’s end, as he and wife Hana Kaufman — named for Hanalei Bay, Kauai — will welcome their second child, joining 2-year-old son Augustus. And, Rucker’s first cookbook, “Le Pigeon: Cooking at the Dirty Bird,” comes out in September.

Rucker, known for his edgy, original and recipe-free masterpieces, evocative French bistro signatures and classic American fare, will be appearing at The Bite of Oregon about 3:30 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 11, demonstrating his considerable culinary skills.

Rucker sat down with the Tribune and shared thoughts galore:

Portland Tribune: It was quite a surprise to win “Best Chef Northwest” ... have you seen benefits to winning it?

Rucker: Yes, it definitely helps business. That’s the biggest benefit of having the award on my shelf. Everyone who runs a business, what do they want? They want people to come into their business. That’s what I’m hoping the cookbook does.

Tribune: Tell me about the cookbook.

Rucker: It’s the story of the first five years of Le Pigeon. A lot of it ties into Portland itself, the city. It’s definitely a cookbook, with a little bit of letting people get to know Portland through food. It’s my first book, and probably my last (chuckling), it’s a lot of work, man. It was myself and co-author Meredith Erickson. (Le Pigeon co-owner) Andy Fortgang wrote the beverage part, his wife Lauren did the pastries.

Tribune: What brought you to Portland?

Rucker: I’ve been here 10 years. I was living in Santa Cruz, and the food scene wasn’t exploding down there. I was really starting to get into it, wanting to make it my career. I wanted to move to San Francisco, but couldn’t afford to live in San Francisco. My buddy said Portland was a cool city — I had never been here — so we came up here.

Tribune: You had worked at a bagel shop in Napa, dropped out of junior college (in Santa Rosa, Calif.) and wanted to be in the food business. What’s your backstory as a chef?

Rucker: My first job, seriously in the kitchen, was at Silverado Country Club in Napa; I got the job because an old school friend of mine’s dad was the general manager. I was doing banquets, salads and meat trays. I was a sponge, tried to soak in everything, just a skinny kid wearing really starched pants. I was 19. I liked it, but I was more into drinking beer and listening to techno music. As I matured, my love for the job grew. I worked at a bistro in Santa Cruz. I moved up here and worked at Paley’s Place (Northwest 21st Avenue/Northrup Street) for two years, learned a lot there, (Vitaly Paley) was a great mentor and teacher, good guy. I went to the Gotham Building Tavern for a year, while it was open. Then I got the job at Le Pigeon, which was called Colleen’s then, seven years ago.

Tribune: The rest is history. Clearly, you like birds?

Rucker: (Showing his “Le Pigeon” tattoo). I had this tattoo. We couldn’t come up with a better name for it. It needed a name. Obviously, it couldn’t be “Colleen’s.” My friend said, “You got a good name on your arm.” Here (at Little Bird), I dunno. It’s ironic. It’s a bigger restaurant, but we called it “Little Bird.” It’s been open 2 1/2 years (with Erik Van Kley, executive chef).

Tribune: Sounds like you don’t watch many TV shows about chefs, but what do you think about their rock-star status? You’re kind of a rock star, now ...

Rucker: Oh man, that’s a weird thought. ... If you’re given the choice, you can go down that path and try to go on “Top Chef” or “Iron Chef” or you could say, “I’m just really happy in my kitchens.” I have a family, a 2-year-old, got one on the way, we got two restaurants ... people like to have a ton of balls in the air, do all that stuff, but I don’t want to give up the time. It takes a lot of time to run restaurants and I don’t wanna give up the time I spend with my family when I’m not in the restaurants to do TV. I do a lot of stuff already; we travel.

Tribune: What else do you like to do?

Rucker: If I can, obviously, watch baseball. I like the (San Francisco) Giants. I like to have people over and make dinner and drink wine, eat dinner with a couple nice bottles of wine in the backyard. If I can get away, I play golf. That’s slowed down a lot when I had kids.

Tribune: What do you cook for guests?

Rucker: Different stuff, usually simple stuff. Probably my favorite is baking salmon, the whole side of salmon, putting a bunch of onions and herbs and stuff on top and baking it in the oven. Serve it with marinaded tomatoes and avocados. That’s dinner for me.

Tribune: Favorite restaurant meal?

Rucker: We’re kind of known for our foie gras (fattened duck liver). It’s one of my favorite ingredients.

Tribune: You’ve been around the country? What’s your take on Portland’s food scene?

Rucker: Scene’s great. It’s definitely more casual in the type of meal. It’s great. We support each other in this town, for the most part. ... I love going out. I always want to go out and support a new restaurant, or whatever’s in my neighborhood (Montavilla). All the time go out, it’s what we do. It’s hard to go out with a 2-year-old. A newborn’s easy, because they just sleep in the car carrier.

Tribune: What are your future plans, a new restaurant, perhaps?

Rucker: No plans for another restaurant. Talking about the “rock-star chef” thing, there’s always this need in this business for people to open more, open more. Then you stretch yourself too thin. I already feel like I’m stretched too thin, doing what I’m doing. ... Portland already has enough restaurants, why not make the ones we have as good as we can?

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