Plate Magazine is one of my favorite clients to write for. Being an industry rag, they focus purely on what chefs are doing, exploring with incredible depth and covering a wide gamut of food, culture and lifestyle topics. For them, I get to do what I love the most — have conversations with incredibly talented people in the food world. I don’t have to zone in on some trendy angle or make a singular recipe the focus. Instead, I get to explore who the person on the other side of the table (or, more often since this is an international magazine, the phone) is at heart: what their unique passions, frustrations, anxieties or triumphs are.
The September/October “30 Chefs to Watch” issue marks one year of my writing for the magazine. For it, I featured chef Ryan Roadhouse of Nodoguru in Portland, and chef Alex Chang of Vagabond in Miami. The questions for the interview portion of the features were set by the editors. Though the questions listed were the same for both, I marveled at how different the two chefs’ answers were. Additionally, having a healthy word count for their introductions meant that I could conduct interviews of my own, picking their brains for things I’d wanted to know about them and couldn’t find in my research.
That secondary interview with Ryan is below. Tune in next Monday for the same with Alex.
Chef Ryan Roadhouse of Nodoguro
You seem to be pushing our preconceived notions of what certain kinds of Japanese dishes / flavors / combinations should be. But are there rules or a framework you employ to help keep your personal goals clear?
We do a tasting menu format, so people come for 9-12 courses. In terms of the kaiseki tradition or blending that with washoku dishes, there are certain kinds of dishes I want on the menu at all times: there will certainly be a sashimi course, I definitely want a rice course, I’ll always have a high-acid course I’ll refer to as the sunomono course [traditionally a seafood salad in vinegar, or cucumber]. There’s a certain format of things I want to see, but done in totally different forms. So, yeah, that’s kind of how I restrain myself. I want it to feel like a Japanese menu, a kaiseki menu, but I don’t want it to be constrained to that; I think that’s loaded with expectations and, sometimes, confusion.
Japanese kaiseki has definitely been my inspiration and obsession over the last ten or fifteen years, but for the last few years I realized if I were going to push in that direction I’d be doing adequate reproductions of dishes that were to be done in a certain time and place, during a certain time of the year. Spending time in Portland, there’s so much going on in food here with a more casual feel. So being here shaped my mentality a bit, and I threw away rules to find other kinds of limitations to shape me and keep me in line.
In what way do you let yourself play?
I’ve been cooking Japanese food since I was 17. I’ve changed a lot in terms of my perspective but, technique-wise, I don’t know anything else but Japanese food. So I’m not likely to stray too far away from it. So anything I’m going to do, not matter how far away, is going to come back to that base level.
I guess the best example of playing on that was a recent Twin Peaks theme. Another constrain has been that I let other people pick the theme – I crowd source it – rather than stick with things that would be really easy for me to do, so a lot of menus have been really difficult. So for the Twin Peaks menu we had doughnuts; we had a porridge that was like a risotto. I guess I just approach ingredients and ideas with a Japanese cooking skillset. In that way, I can try anything.
Are there particular ingredients or flavor combos that you weren’t sure if your diners would be brave in accepting, or be able to understand within the confines of your restaurant?
Yeah, we have those concerns all the time. That being said, Japanese food has sort of a fear factor aspect to it, from the Western mindset. About ten years ago, I was helping a friend with a French-Vietnamese fusion dinner, and he asked the dining group what the first thing they thought about Japanese food, and they said, “Ooh, it’s scary.” I think they were referring to things like fermented guts or cheek meat. And, yes, those are obscure and can be scary. But I want things to be fun, and tasty, so I don’t do much of that.
That said, we did a combo of sea urchin and espresso, again for the Twin Peaks menu. I wasn’t sure how well that would go over. Sea urchin to me is not a big deal, but some people that came to dinner were a little put off. There’s a Japanese herb called benitade – water pepper – which is really expensive in Japan and my farmer here in Portland grows it for me. But it’s a really bitter, kind of sharp micro green. They’re really pretty – bright red – and years ago I started thinking it went great with sea urchin. So the bitterness worked well with the espresso spray, and I think it was a great dish. Most people loved it.
We took other sea urchin and made it into a butter with some cheese and soy sauce, so that was the biggest sea urchin component, and the butter bolstered the creaminess that people love about sea urchin. We also did a soba ice cream with cinnamon doughnuts – that was different but worked pretty seamlessly.
Do you feel like it’s a good time to push boundaries? On the whole, people are now into more fermented foods, off cuts of meat, parts of fish etc. Could you be doing what you’re doing ten years ago?
That’s hard to say. I feel like now is a wonderful time to be cooking in Portland. But I guess I’m always kind of living in the present, and thinking that ten years ago I wasn’t ready to do something like this. The other major contribution is that Japan is being a bit demystified. People are traveling there more, Japanese people are coming here; it’s not such a foreign planet anymore. People understanding the cuisine better. And the Michelin guide helped. Before people would have conveyor belt sushi and feel like they came back understanding Japanese cuisine. Now, we go to a Japanese restaurant and you expect more: sushi, tempura, noodle bowls… everything under one roof. I think travel and timing are a huge part of being able to do these things now.
What are your thoughts regarding fish and sustainability? How can we be smart and responsible consumers of fish and how do you strive to be so in your position?
I came to Portland having working in extravagant Japanese cuisine, which I feel is not the future. Bamboo Sushi brought me out here; the first certified sustainable restaurant in the United States. Back then they had this really hot concept, since sustainability was a new idea. I came out to work with them more on the cuisine side, so I only ended up working with them for a short time, but I was really influenced by them. They work with the Monterey Aquarium and their partners, and part of their employee training is learning what’s good and bad, what items are red-listed at any given time, and how volatile and changeable really quickly.
In terms of buzzwords or trends, I think sustainability is losing its luster in terms of a marketing term, but I think that’s good, because that means sustainability is now part of the ethos of cooking for chefs. On our menu we never have any red-listed items. It’s fun, because people don’t come in with the expectations of seeing blue-fin tuna. It works great with our concept; we can use local fish, and since I’m using a small amount of each for a certain amount of people, I know where it’s caught and who it’s coming from. I hope this is going to be the future of the system, and the way chefs operate; it’s about the conscious of the chefs.
Our cities are regularly more progressive and attune to those kind of issues. Is there a resource or, even from a deeper or more philosophical level, that has become a mantra you can pass on?
It goes this way with every ingredient, I think. It’s a daily practice, but in terms of where to start: start with your ingredients. Have a connection with each one. Know what they are and where they come from. When you order something from Cisco or one of the big food distributors, meat is meat and vegetable is vegetable; it just comes in. So trying to know the source of each ingredient you use, especially seafood, is a good start. And learn how things are caught, like the long-lining and the bottom-scraping to scoop everything up.