This is a three-part interview. Part One and Part Two are also available.
Fred Eliot didn't intend to cook for a living. Growing up in France, he learned plenty of useful kitchen skills from his grandmother and mother, but his English Literature studies led him away from food. A move to Iowa and then Ohio with his first wife took him even further from food culture, surrounding him with fast food chains. The shock this caused was enough to get him "cooking more" at home again, which ultimately convinced Eliot he needed to stand in front of stove rather than sit in front of a computer. An education at New York's French Culinary Institute allowed him to stage in Michelin-starred kitchens, and he worked in New York City for 5 years: At Le Cirque, The Oak Room, and Prune. But big city living wore him down.
Four years ago, Eliot moved with his family to Portland, beginning in fellow New York chef Eric Simeon's kitchen at Grace. Last fall, he left failed restaurant Spread to take charge of the kitchen at Petite Jacqueline, where he has garnered accolades. It seems like an appropriate twist of fate that the American-trained French chef is now cooking French comfort food in a bistro setting. In the third and final part of a longer interview, Eliot reveals which Portland restaurants he enjoys; which restaurants he's dying to try; why he doesn't often dine at Fore St. or Hugo's; and even the similarities between Japanese and French cuisines. It's a comfort thing.
Where do you go out to eat in Portland?
I like Pai Men Miyake because I really love ramen noodles. I think it's a comfort food thing. It's a different culture but it's still the same result, you have this really rich broth and this starch, and it's very similar. You take a pot-au-feu, you take a ramen noodle: To me it's the same thing, just different cultures. It accomplishes the same result, makes you feel warm inside. I really like ramen noodles and I think Pai Men has probably the best in the city. It's not the same though; I go to NY and I go to Momofuku and Ippudo and all these other places, and it's different. It's good. The pasta does the job at Pai Men, the broth is emulsified, it's tasty.
I like Lolita a lot. I live nearby. I had the bone marrow, a few of the appetizers. For me it's about execution. Is it well seasoned? Is it well executed? And if it is I'm happy. I had an awesome bone marrow there, and sardine rillettes and other things, and I thought everything was good. Very good. I wanna try their [three pound] porterhouse steak. When you have a porterhouse, it's thin, it cooks very fast, so I think it needs to be big. I did a dinner for a bunch of friends once, I did a 64-oz porterhouse which was awesome, but you have to be careful how you cook it. One part will cook faster than the other. I really like the fact that's it's a smaller restaurant, it's manageable. They make good food, the cocktails are good.
I don't like frou frou places. Recently I went to dinner at Hugo's. Nothing against fine dining, but it's not my style. I don't feel relaxed in those environments. You know what I mean? I don't feel myself. So it was great, service was excellent, food was excellent, environment's beautiful, leather chairs, it's gorgeous. But special occasion definitely, you know?
I like this Italian joint, Paciarino. It's very simple, super laid back, they make all their pasta in house, and it's very casual. Everything I've had there was good. No fuss, no muss, unpretentious. I like that. Good Italian food like pasta. I like that place a lot.
If I'm really craving nasty Chinese food, I'll go to Zen Bistro. When I say "nasty," it's like New York-style Chinese food like sesame chicken and kung pao and lo mein. Not real Chinese, totally American. When I was in Brooklyn, there was a Chinese restaurant across the street that was like that, on my weekends or late at night I'd stop by and get sesame chicken, deep-fried chicken coated in corn starch…. It's like fast food, hits the spot.
I know people talk a lot of trash about it, but I feel like Elevation Burger's alright. It's a diner burger. It's a well-done patty with yellow cheese. The kind of stuff you'd get at Shake Shack, In and Out, stuff like that. All their burgers are basically medium-well because they're so thin. Everyone's like, "It's disgusting." I don't know, it's just a diner burger. It's not high end, it's not elevated. What do you expect? I like that place too.
Where did I used to go a lot? I went to Fore St. several times when I first got here, and it's good, but it's not my style. I don't want to wait, come in and need a reservation. Whenever I go to NY I never have reservations. I mean obviously some places you have to, but not the places I want to go to. I want to eat comfort food. It's funny. I never needed a reservation in New York, ever.
I like Boda too. They're small plates, I like that concept. I did go to Central Provisions like two or three times: Solid food. The raw fish, sashimi or whatever, is really good. Room temperature like it should be, super fresh, well executed. Good stuff. Chris is a talented guy.
I have yet to try Slab, I really want to. I liked the pizza before when Miccuci's sold it. I want to try Ribollita, I want to try Caiola's, just haven't had the time. There are a lot of places I want to go to and I just don't have the time. I'd like to go to Blue Spoon.
I wanna go to Vinland. I wanna check it out, 'cause I respect the fact that he's doing 100% local stuff. It's a challenge. You need to be pretty talented to pull that off. A lot of people talk trash but I can't form an opinion until I eat there. When I eat there, then we can talk trash.
Something I don't like sometimes about Portland, people talk so much crap. He got so much crap for wanting to open an all-local restaurant. It's an interesting concept. These people at NOMA did it. You can't quite compare it because [chef Magnus Nilsson] at Fäviken worked at all these places for like 10 years, so he was seriously, seriously trained, so the level of talent we're dealing with there…that's the only thing I can say about David: Does he have enough experience to pull it off? Maybe he does, who knows.
Like I said, I'm not going to form an opinion until I eat there. It's doable. You just have to be smart about it. You have to have a good canning program. You look at Fäviken, they conserve carrots and root veggies in the dirt in the basement, they're dry aging stuff like that, so it's interesting. It's a different approach, and it works for them. So before you talk trash, try it, keep an open mind. Vinland is gluten free, right? That should make some people happy.
Fred Eliot of Petite Jacqueline Interview Part One and Part Two [-EME-]
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