The Next Generation: Cory Schreiber, Portland, OR

By Kathleen Squires  |  December 6, 2013

Chef Cory Schreiber’s circle of life intertwines family and food, so much so, that he can connect the legacy of his ancestors to today’s agricultural movement in the Pacific Northwest, as well as to Portland’s current-day restaurant scene.

Schreiber founded Wildwood Restaurant, a pioneer in celebrating the bounty of the Pacific Northwest, in 1994 and was rewarded for his work by winning the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef Pacific Northwest in 1998. Though he still owns the restaurant, Schreiber left in 2007 to go work for Oregon’s Farm to School Program, which promotes serving farm-fresh meals in the cafeterias of K-12 students. Today, Schreiber is the Culinary Artist in Residence at the Art Institute of Portland, where he helped found the International Culinary School.

Here, Schreiber talks about his family's culinary legacy, which stretch back to his great-great grandfather and to Portland’s oldest family-run restaurant, the landmark Dan & Louis Oyster Bar.

  • The Family
    “My great-great grandfather, Meinert Wachsmuth, who was from Germany and was quite the sailor, had gone around South America about seven times. Eventually, he shipwrecked in Washington State,” Schreiber says. The spot where he landed looked an awful lot like the Island of Sylt in northern Germany, which was part of Denmark at the time, and from where the Wachsmuth family was from.

    Meinert noticed an abundance of native oysters there, in a town fittingly called Oysterville, in the 1860s. “He engaged in a business of shipping those oysters up and down the coast, because about that time, the Gold Rush was taking place in California and it was quite busy. And then, of course, once you start to take all the native oysters, you have to learn how to cultivate oysters, too.”

    The family eventually migrated south to Portland where they opened Louis’ Oyster Bar in 1907, which started as a seafood wholesaler then became a full-fledged restaurant when Louis, Schreiber’s great-grandfather, purchased land in order to cultivate oysters in 1921. The name “Dan” was added to the business in 1938, when Dan, who was Louis’s son, died tragically at 27 from a deadly strain of influenza. The busiest years for Dan & Louis Oyster Bar followed, during World War II, due to a rise in shipbuilding in Portland.

  • The Legacy
    “The story goes that my baby shower was held at Dan & Louis,” Schreiber, 52, says. “So I always joke that the decision was made for me to stay in the family business before I was even born.” By the time Schreiber really started working at Dan & Louis, when he was 11 years old in 1972, the restaurant was run by his grandfather. “I started bussing tables and washing dishes, and worked my way through the whole restaurant over a period of five years.”

    Schreiber, like most of his family, spent the summers in coastal oyster beds, shaking trays to get the winter mud out of the bivalves, then shucking and cleaning them before putting them on the truck to the restaurant. “I always saw that connection--the direct connection between the growers and the chefs. For me, it was just a natural progression, seeing what my great grandfather had decided back in 1920 was still going on 50 years later and I was part of it.”

  • At 16, Schreiber took a formal apprenticeship in a downtown hotel. “But it never left me that my family had a very strong regional American imprint of what they were doing at the restaurant. It was fish and chips, it was shrimp cocktail, it was clam chowder, it was oyster stew and things like that. So it is a legacy.”

    Antique menus from the 20s and 30s were a goldmine of inspiration to Schreiber. “My great uncle was the menu writer because he was the educated one - they had sent him to Stanford. He wrote these menus that spoke about regional food and spoke about where they were from, whether it was the bay shrimp or the lettuce or the crabs,” Schreiber says. “So when the whole trend and fad of talking about where food came from became mainstream media again, I saw through that and knew that it was already here.” Schreiber demures credit in pioneering such a resurgence in the regional movement, deferring instead to his family. “People will say, 'Oh, this is the guy that brought food back to Portland.' But I knew that my family had done that for decades. So it was quite fascinating to me just to have a connection to that generation. How they ran a business, even, is a strong part of my foundation.” Schreiber reveals that he actually tried to buy the Dan & Louis building in the early 90s. When that deal fell apart, he went off on his own to open Wildwood, which launched a new era in the cuisine of Pacific Northwest.

  • The Next Generation
    Schreiber likes to use the word “redefining” for what he did at Wildwood, and what the next generation of chefs that he mentored, including Jenn Louis (Lincoln, Sunshine Tavern) and Adam Sappington (The Country Cat), are doing today. “I think chefs today are making cuisine contemporary based on what's available now. Even when I was younger and I traveled the country and worked in other cities and then eventually, came back home, I knew that this area, still, was the premiere place for product. I knew that from a long-standing relationship here with my family,” Schreiber says.

    Schreiber has three children: a 24-year-old daughter who is in the Peace Corps in China; a 21-year-old son at the University of Montana; and a 4-year-old daughter. While they may or may not follow his path, Schreiber has blazed the trail for Portland’s top chefs today, with Wildwood remaining as one of the country’s most influential restaurants. He also shepherds a new crop of students from the International Culinary School each year. Dan & Louis, meanwhile, will celebrate its 107th birthday in 2014, and is still run by Schreiber’s cousins.

    Following in his ancestors’ footsteps was just a natural progression, Schreiber says. “I just loved cooking and the restaurant business so much there was nothing else to do. I was very lucky because I never had those blocks where you ask: ‘Why am I doing this?’ I never asked myself that question. I don’t think my ancestors did either.”