I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Gregory Gourdet.
Chef Gregory Gourdet is the culinary mastermind from Portland, OR, most recently ending a 10 year run as the Executive Chef and Culinary Director for Departure Restaurant + Lounge, where he paired local ingredients with the bold flavors and traditions of Japan, China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Korea to create modern Asian fare. A James Beard Award nominee and native New Yorker from Queens, Gourdet honed his culinary skills within celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s restaurant dynasty. Gourdet’s extensive global travels to research and understand other cultures allow him to see Oregon’s lush bounty through a global lens, producing a constantly evolving seasonal menu inspired by cooking methods and ingredients he has encountered during continuous trips to Asia, Europe and the Caribbean. He recently returned to Haiti for the first time in 20 years to reconnect with his cultural heritage, a trip that inspired Haitian cuisine to become a special part of his culinary repertoire.
A self proclaimed health freak and avid runner, Gourdet views food as nourishment, finding creative ways to mitigate food waste and utilize ingredients fully from root to stem. His mindful life approach shines through in his cooking, as he offers diners dishes that allow freshness, seasonality, and bold, alternative ingredients to star on the plate. Gourdet grew up enjoying ethnic cuisine, especially traditional Haitian dishes emphasizing fish, rice and beans, roasted meats, pickled chilies, coconut, and plenty of herbs. He graduated from the prestigious Culinary Institute of America in 2000. He landed a highly coveted internship with Vongerichten immediately after, whom he trained under for close to seven years at three of his New York City properties. In 2008, Gourdet arrived in Portland. In 2010, he took the reins at Departure, quickly gaining praise for his innovative dishes. In 2013, Gourdet was named Chef of the Year by the Oregon Department of Agriculture. He was dubbed Eater Portland’s Chef of the Year in 2014. In 2015, his fame skyrocketed as he earned runner up in Bravo’s Top Chef Season 12, the same year he was first named a semifinalist by the James Beard Foundation for Best Chef: Northwest. Gourdet has played an integral role in Portland’s culinary boom over the past decade. After much acclaim, he went on to open the second location of Departure in Denver in the summer of 2016. In 2018, he was again named a semifinalist by the James Beard Foundation for Best Chef: Northwest. The same year, Gourdet appeared on Food Network’s Iron Chef Showdown. In 2020 he competed on Bravo’s Top Chef All Star Season 17, again ending as a finalist. The same year he received his first James Beard nomination for Best Chef Northwest & Pacific.
Chef Gregory officially calls Oregon home now and loves living in the food obsessed state. He has spent the last decade redefining Portland dining. Having served over 1.4 million guests at Departure Restaurant and having traveled the world representing the city and state, he is a household name. His signature flavors are adored for their seasonality, boldness, complexity and spice. Gourdet is a global chef that finds inspiration from every culture he has been touched by. He is most recently inspired by his Haitian heritage and looks forward to bringing Haitian cuisine into the American spotlight at his developing wood fired concept Kann Restaurant which is slated to open summer 2021. The restaurant will be Haitian cuisine focused but also honor the seasons, local ingredients and other global POC cuisines in a healthy and sustainable way.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to ‘get to know’ you a bit. Can you share with our readers a story about what inspired you to become a restauranteur or chef?
I didn’t grow up cooking and eventually started cooking for myself in college — we would host lavish dinner parties and potlucks, and it was during those meals I realized people enjoyed eating my food. This was before I even decided to go to culinary school.
Do you have a specific type of food that you focus on? What was it that first drew you to cooking that type of food? Can you share a story about that with us?
I find inspiration from every culture that I have been touched by. Most recently, I’ve been inspired by my Haitian heritage and look forward to bringing Haitian cuisine into the American spotlight at my new restaurant, Kann, which will open after the pandemic and I can focus on a full-time restaurant. The restaurant will be focused on Haitian cuisine but also honor the seasons, local ingredients and other global POC cuisines in a healthy and sustainable way. I am just finishing up a 5-month Kann pop up in Portland which was great.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you became a chef or restauranteur? What was the lesson or take away you took out of that story?
On Valentine’s Day in 2009, I was working at the first restaurant I ever worked at in Portland, an Asian-inspired cafe, Sauce Box. It was the busiest day I’ve ever experienced, and I was completely under prepared. Valentine’s Day is always a bit of a challenge — it’s all two tops and there are always high expectations. The tickets were actually printing out so fast that they were trailing on the floor like a wedding dress train, and we were running out of food. We essentially ran out of every single option to the point where we were serving french fries as the potato by the end of service. That day probably goes down in history as my worst service ever, but I’ve definitely learned a lot and come a long way.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? How did you overcome this obstacle?
The above was probably one of the hardest days of my career but it’s so nice to be able to grow from an experience like that (and laugh about it now!).
In your experience, what is the key to creating a dish that customers are crazy about?
It is all about the ingredients and the season. Whenever I’m doing a menu change or creating a new dish, that’s the first place I look — an ingredient that’s coming into season, like asparagus or halibut, right now. One of my favorite places in Portland is West African restaurant Akadi, and they create this beautiful ginger drink that’s very popular in West Africa. We’re actually creating a drink for our menu that’s inspired by that. And before I started making it, I dove into the history of that drink, what the name means, and reached out to my West African friends to learn even more. Overall, these bigger cultural elements inspire me the most and connect us all.
Personally, what is the ‘perfect meal for you’?
For me personally, I can go a few different ways here but obviously something my mother makes with my family. We live across the country from each other and this past year or so with the pandemic has made that very challenging. I’m focused on being able to share meals and spend as much time as I can with my sister and her family, and my parents because they’re getting older. It can be hard but I’m very much looking forward to our next meal together — hopefully that can happen soon as my family gets vaccinated, and I wrap up this pop-up project.
Where does your inspiration for creating come from? Is there something that you turn to for a daily creativity boost?
My food is very much inspired by the music I listen to. Music is a huge part of my life and definitely brings back memories of life-defining moments, which is why I’m so happy to team up with Mark Levinson. They’re really focused on the positive impact and lasting impression music can have, particularly during challenging times like these.
Are you working on any new or exciting projects now? What impact do you think this will have?
I’m really excited about my new partnership with Mark Levinson, a brand that is synonymous with quality and gives music lovers a deeper passion and enjoyment for what they love. I have always strived to be the best I can be, in the kitchen and in life, and to pursue my passion for cooking. With cooking, it is all about the finishing touches that elevate a dish, and likewise Mark Levinson unlocks the details, nuances, and intricacies of sound that elevate music to a new level.
Additionally, my first cookbook, Everyone’s Table: Global Recipes for Modern Health, is now available for pre-sale. It took three years to make and is designed for home cooks looking to make healthy, globally inspired dishes. The recipes include a combination of accessible, year-round ingredients and some seasonal ingredients, along with some really beautiful spices and aromatics. While the ingredients are from all around the world, you can find them at your local Asian or Caribbean store or grocery store like Whole Foods.
What advice would you give to other chefs or restauranteurs to thrive and avoid burnout?
It takes great persistence but together we can overcome anything. Everything happens for a reason even though sometimes we don’t understand why.
Thank you for all that. Now we are ready for the main question of the interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Started as a Chef” and why? Please share a story or an example for each.
Teaching me that food is a lot more than cooking. Working in the restaurant business, cooking is a very small percentage of what you’re going to do. Managing people is probably the most challenging element of this business. Learning how to take criticism and feedback really well, and keeping at it. And lastly, staying inspired by everything — being connected to land, being connected to each as people and as a team, and not being scared to work really hard, are all important parts of cooking. While there is a lot of truth to chefs and restaurateurs overworking, having been overworked myself is something that keeps me driven and allows me to keep moving forward.
What’s the one dish people have to try if they visit your establishment?
Since so many of us are remote right now, I would recommend the coconut-creamed collards from my new cookbook. I adore long-cooked collard greens, but I also love simply wilting them, especially in this luscious sauce of coconut milk cooked with ginger and garlic until it thickens.