When it comes to ingredients, John Gorham demands the same quality that most people reserve for their closest personal relationships: honesty. It’s the secret sauce in the dishes prepared at Portland’s Toro Bravo, Tasty n Sons and soon to be Tasty n Alder. It’s the plain and simple reason eaters brave long brunch waits, or why most everyone (including myself) demands multiple visits at Toro. Riding that bull once just isn’t enough.
With a tattoo for each restaurant he’s worked at and a house in the Mississippi area, Gorham may seem like a Portland lifer, but the D.C. native has been traveling for most of his life. He’s opened restaurants in West Africa, San Francisco, and Eugene, and is constantly roaming the Earth in search of honest food and local dishes that inspire the innovative fare for which he is known.
When he is in Portland, where he’s served exceptional meals for over a decade, he finds other ways to stay true. He created “Sunday Dinners”, an event that is simultaneously a casual dinner party at his house and a serious way to test out new dishes, both for his restaurants and for an upcoming cookbook for the American publishing house, McSweeney’s, slated to hit stores in 2013.
MARCO KAYE: How did you get your start in the restaurant industry?
JOHN GORHAM: My stepfather worked for Kroger, the supermarket chain, opening, remodeling and closing stores. We lived in twenty different houses all over the Southeast. Moving always meant eating out, and we lived in areas that had some pretty good restaurants. When I was fourteen, I walked into a Mexican place I liked and said, “I want to be a chef. I want to cook on the line.” So I got a job as a dishwasher. Towards the end of high school, we moved to the Newport News area. Lucky for me, the school had an off-campus culinary program. During that time, I was apprenticing at night with a chef involved in the American Culinary Federation. We were at restaurants that I’d never eat at unless it was some crazy special occasion. I finished culinary school when I was nineteen, and then started traveling.
MK: How has travel been important to you?
JG: Traveling is everything. If you can taste a cuisine in its native state, you have a much better idea of how to either restate it or get inspired by it. The last time I was in Sevilla, they were slicing lamb like Korean-style short ribs. Nobody was doing that in the States. That’s how we came up with whiskey lamb chops, one of our [Toro Bravo’s] mainstays.
MK: How do you set up a restaurant for success?
JG: First and foremost, it’s putting together the team. It’s like putting a band together. The number one thing I look for is someone genuinely stoked to be there. Your cooking skills don’t necessarily have to be the best, but if you have passion, we’ll teach you how to do what we do. The other part of it is the build out. That’s the next level. The restaurant is a machine. It comes down to knowing the movements of it. I love to eat out as much as I love to cook. I’ll go to New York for three days and eat at thirty restaurants. Not that I eat a meal at every single one, but I’ll sit down and study what is going on. Where are they keeping their busser trays? Where do they store their finishing salts? How much room do you give yourself to plate? I study all these things.
MK: What do your chefs need to know?
JG: The seasons, to start. But it goes beyond that. A strong chef knows the world’s trade routes. That stuff really influenced food. When the Moors came into Spain, when Marco Polo went from China to Europe, and the Spaniards went into the Philippines and then Hawaii. All those things changed food forever and led to classic pairings.
MK: Your upcoming cookbook, Toro Bravo Cookbook: The Making, Breaking and Riding of a Bull, is going to be published by McSweeney’s. What are some of the challenges of putting a cookbook together?
JG: Thinking like a chef is different than thinking like someone in a household kitchen. Trying to find ingredients available everywhere, for example. We have a rose petal harissa that is in a couple of our dishes. So how do you translate that recipe? You have to find something that can come close. If you were going to make our salt cod, it would take ten days. So I have to come up with a way to make it taste as close to what we do, but fast track it without losing the main essence that makes people say, “Wow.” I also created “Sunday Dinners.” It’s an open house dinner party where all my friends come, between fifteen and thirty people. We cook a new cuisine every Sunday. A lot of Tasty n Sons recipes came from that. For recipe testing, I’ll pick out one group of friends, and have them come over and test them. I have my friend and writer, Liz Crain, involved in the book, and if someone has a question, I’m answering, and Liz will write it down.
MK: How do you grow as a chef?
JG: I reflect on that every now and then. Building a restaurant and designing a menu is a one-time deal, and that’s when you really get to be an artist, but day-to-day, we’re craftsmen, replicating something over and over. If I were to open a Spanish restaurant again today, it wouldn’t turn out the same. I wouldn’t make the same decisions, but they were right for that time. When I need a kick-start, I’ll travel. The other thing is reading. I have a lot of cookbooks. I have a long dining room table, so I’ll open up ten or fifteen cookbooks at one time and get different ideas.
MK: Do you have any next ventures right now?
JG: I’m opening a second Tasty n Sons location called Tasty n Alder, in downtown Portland—it’s steakhouse influenced combined with a German beer program, inspired by my grandfather. After that, I’m not sure. Opening a restaurant is like getting a tattoo. You need to forget the pain before you get the next one.