Portland-style dining interview with Bruce Carey
Mention the name Zefiro (1990–2000) to anyone who’s paid a fancy to Portland’s dining scene for the past 25 years and you’re bound to hear swoons. With Bruce Carey managing the front of the house and chefs Chris Israel (presently of Grüner, Kask, and the about-to-open Corazon) and Monique Siu (Castagna and Café Castagna), Zefiro sounded the bell for Portland’s restaurant renaissance.
Portland restaurants today represent “that funky, earthy, homemade, vintage-collection, found-object, patina’d, pickled, mismatched aesthetic, or they can aspire to something more professional,” says the older, wiser, ever dapper restaurateur Bruce Carey (Bluehour, Clarklewis, 23Hoyt, Saucebox, and most recently, Via Tribunali). “I am feeling like now that this Portland-style has reached its apex, and we have to think about what’s next. ‘Artisan’ implies a hand-made quality, but I wish it wasn’t so messy, as it is with so many iterations in the Portland food scene.”
Three things about Portland that make you want to eat/drink here?
1) Even if I was from California (I’m not), or from SW France (I wish I was), I think I would still prefer Pinot Noir to anything else. I grew up in the restaurant business spoiled by this particularly delicious aspect of living here.
2) I moved to Portland because of the high cost of living in San Francisco. I guess the same thing holds true for so many others migrating here from other food capital cities. It’s the people—the talent, not just the climate—that makes this such a great place to eat.
3) Portland casualness, which often is taken too far, is also the thing that makes eating well an everyday occasion. So matter of fact, and so easily taken for granted.
Who is/are the Portland culinarian(s) that you admire/respect the most and why?
Even though we have evolved separately, my partners from Zefiro: Monique Siu and Chris Israel remain my most trusted friends and advisors in the business. Prior to that, credit must be given to Stephanie Pearl Kimmel who—while I was at University of Oregon, waiting tables at her Excelsior Cafe—demonstrated how integrity, zeal, and good taste applied to a restaurant setting creates a deeply gratifying life that goes beyond the usual rewards of hard work.
What are the three things you’d like to change about Portland’s food scene?
What is coming out of the kitchen is indeed the most important aspect of a restaurant, but too many times a multitude of sins are forgiven, or over-looked when the food gets the full focus. Three things?: 1) More prideful, professional service, 2) better environments (lighting, furniture, sound), and 3) more chef talent applied to ethnic integrity—so we can travel more, without leaving Portland.
How do you think your restaurants have changed Portland?
It’s hard to talk about what’s mine, but I do think while each of the restaurants maintain an individual identity, they might also represent different aspects of an aspiring Portland, a pushing of the envelope, and a reference to how this place is not an island but part of a national scene.
What design style do you most identify with?
Right now it’s all about the “eclectic”—a terrible word that means nothing to me, such as when people describe their menu as eclectic … mmm, I love eclectic food, delicious … That is the fashion for mixing things up, such as modern spare spaces featuring a few vintage pieces to give a curated, personal feel. Also de rigueur is some emphasis on materiality, often in the creative reuse of a found material such as wood salvaged from an old building, or a table top with edges left rough hewn. But now that Starbucks is enlisting that aesthetic exactly, in all their new stores across the country, I fear the trend has jumped the shark. Personally I am in the mood for clean lines again. Enough clutter already!
Drink/cocktail of choice?
…as mentioned above: it’s Pinot Noir with food—always, but, call me 90’s-old-fashioned, I still crave a creative sweet/tart/boozy cocktail that will pique my interest and my palate before dinner. And this is not an intentional plug for Saucebox, btw…
What is the best thing about your work?
Cliché as it may sound, it’s the amazingly talented, gracious, and beautiful people I get to work with. There is a particular style and elegance in true restaurant professionals that is simply part of their character. I think it stems from being most energized by creating life-defining dining experiences for others—every damn night.
What is the worst thing about your work?
The worst thing about this business is how our hard work rarely seems to accumulate benefit. In other words we may give our heart, soul, blood, sweat and tears to making tonight’s customers happy, but all that has little or no effect on the people that are coming in tomorrow night. For them, we start all over again.
Is the dream of the ’90s still alive in Portland?
Our collective inspiration for Zefiro came from our bohemian-style travels of Europe, and from our work and dining experiences in the Bay Area. Most of the resumes I get for the recent several years are people coming from exactly that same experience and background. In that way alone, it might as well be 1990.