Feast Portland Q & A: Gabriel Rucker of LePigeon

By Kathleen Squires  |  September 20, 2013

Gabriel Rucker is a little nervous. It’s not because he’s anticipating Feast Portland, the three-day food festival that kicked off yesterday. And it’s not because his first cookbook, Le Pigeon: Cooking at the Dirty Bird, literally just hit the shelves. It’s because Rucker’s wife is expecting to deliver a baby any day. Turns out the two-time James Beard Foundation Award winner, and chef-owner of the acclaimed restaurants LePigeon and Little Bird, had good reason to be a bit on edge: his wife went into labor just after this interview. Here’s what the chef had to say, just before he became a new daddy.

Zagat: Congratulations on the new cookbook. What surprised you about the whole process of writing it?

Gabriel Rucker: It took two years and it was a lot harder than I thought. I was surprised that I had to write recipes for people who might have never picked up a knife before. And then I had to do that consistently with the same verbiage throughout. The book is a collection of recipes from the first five years of Little Pigeon. We didn't have any of those written down, so I had to go through and re-create everything, and start from scratch. Everything that's on those pages is very personal, though, and it's also a story of the five years, and me remembering through recooking those dishes. So hopefully, that comes through.

Zagat: What is the one thing that you want people who use the cookbook to come away with?

GR: To just have fun cooking from this book. It's a guideline. It's like these recipes are all building blocks. Don't be afraid to mix-and-match them and see where they plug in. They can be fun. If someone buys this book and it gets them into the kitchen and they have a good time cooking, then we did our job. But still, when professionals look at cookbooks, we might say, "Oh, that's a cool technique,: and then all of the sudden, your mind gets to work and you think about using that technique to do something else. But we would never just make someone else's recipe. So hopefully, it's a guideline and an inspiration too.

Zagat: What inspired you to go the route of high-low cuisine when you opened Le Pigeon?

GR: It was never a thought. To develop a style of something takes time. To develop your own style takes more time. We started out just not having money to buy a lot of things, so the offal and the off-cuts were what was prevalent on the menu. And then you also have to follow trends. We got a little bit more popular and more people started coming. When you get more popular, you want to cook for yourself, but you also cook for your audience. So things got a little more accessible.

Zagat: Has your upbringing influenced your cooking style?

GR: I grew up in Napa - I guess there was the high - I was exposed to it but my parents didn't cook really. They cook now. But I didn’t grow up eating a home-cooked meal every night. There was always dinner, but I was a latchkey kid, so I was eating microwaved dinners, or I was making myself PB&J sandwiches. And my parents also were the type of parents that would take me to Taco Bell for a treat or something. So I grew up having some fun with food. It wasn't always a home-cooked meal, but I do remember some good dinners. My mom would go out of town and my dad would get a pack of frozen breaded shrimp and fry those up. And we would watch an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie. Those are fond memories, my food memories. Even though I grew up in Napa, food to me wasn't so overly precious. I still have no problem on a fun day of going and getting a milkshake and a cheeseburger with my son at McDonalds or something. It's kind of uncouth in Portland to say that. But those are my childhood memories, and those junk foods are there to have fun with and not to be abused.

Zagat: Tom Colicchio says in the introduction of the cookbook that everything changes for a chef once he starts getting the accolades. What’s changed for you?

GR: My goal is having things come off like they haven't changed. I've been really blessed. And so, I feel like since I've been so blessed, I don't need to show off. Let the cooking do the talking. There’s something to be said about being gracious and humble about what you've got. Of course, things change. I mean, I'm sitting here talking to you. So, if I hadn't have won the Food & Wine Best New Chef Award, would I have won a James Beard Award? If I didn't win a James Beard Award, would I have sold a cookbook? I wasn't expecting for us to win another Beard Award right before our book came out, though.

Zagat: How has the dining scene in Portland changed since you arrived, and do you feel that you had a hand in changing it?

GR: I couldn't say that I hand in changing the food scene. And because I'm so ensconced in the food scene, it’s hard for me to tell how it’s changed. As a diner, I notice more tourists in the restaurants, and that's a good thing for the business because there are way too many restaurants opening up. So there are higher expectations, and chefs are having to bring their A game. And their A game has got to have a capital "A" now.

As far as the level of service, Portland is still not ready for over-the-top service. You have to walk a fine line because locals won't go to your restaurant if they feel like it's stuffy. They'll say, “That's pretentious bullshit.” But out-of-towners who are spending money on restaurants want a little bit more. So it's a balancing act.

Zagat: Can we look forward to a Little Bird Bistro cookbook soon?

GR: No, not right now.

Zagat: Any other projects on the horizon?

GR: We kind of had something in the works that we decided to put on hold. Plus, I have a project in my wife's stomach coming out any day. I mean, literally any day. That's the big project right now.