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Christopher Israel

Chef Christopher Israel
Photo © Jonny Schultz

F&W Star Chef

Restaurant: Grüner (Portland, OR)

Experience: Zefiro, Saucebox, 23Hoyt (Portland)

Education: UC Berkeley

Who taught you how to cook? What is the most important thing you learned?
When I was a kid, my grandmother let me hang out in the kitchen to absorb what she was doing. She taught me that cooking could provide a sense of harking back, of upholding family traditions. She also taught me that food could be simple. Her potato soup was amazing: It didn’t seem like she did much beyond peel the potatoes and put them right in the pot. But that soup was the best thing in the whole world.

What’s a dish that defines your cooking style?
Something braised or slow-cooked. Right now it’s the short rib goulash. The recipe harks backward and looks forward to a more modern interpretation. It’s richer but less fatty, a bit more refined.

What was the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
Scrambled eggs. I put too much oil in the pan, so it was half eggs and half oil.

And what is the best dish for a neophyte cook to try?
Pasta carbonara. Everyone loves bacon and eggs. It’s a dish everyone should know.

Who is your food mentor? What is the most important thing you learned?
Joyce Goldstein. I cooked under her for four years when she was the chef at Square One in San Francisco. The most important thing I learned from Joyce is that there was so much I didn’t know. She connected food to so many other things. She helped me learn the classic dishes of regions of Europe.

What are your favorite cookbooks of all time?
Paula Wolfert’s World of Food and James Beard’s Menus for Entertaining. Everybody thinks what chefs today come up with is new, but these books are just as current. It’s only now that we have better access to the ingredients to make their recipes.

What's the most important skill you need to be a great cook?
Patience and curiosity. Listening is important, and learning from other people. Everybody has a trick or technique they can show you.

Is there a culinary skill or type of dish that you wish you were better at?
Pasta. I’m a disaster at it—I never make enough sauce. I always think it’s enough but the pasta is always dry.

What is your current food obsession?
Transylvania. Everybody in America thinks it only has vampires. But it’s a real place with an amazing food culture. There’s a cookbook on Transylvanian cuisine by Paul Kovi, one of the owners of the Four Seasons restaurant in the 1960s. I find the recipes fascinating.

Best bang-for-the-buck food trip: Where would you go, and why?
Italy. I’d start in Florence and then go north. I’d have some ravioli gnudi and tripe sandwiches, and then hot chocolate at Rivoire. And this restaurant isn’t bang-for-the-buck, but I’d definitely go to the back room at Cibrèo.

What is the most cherished souvenir you’ve brought back from a trip?
A vintage American model car from a flea market in Amsterdam. It’s in my man cave in my house.

What do you consider your other talent(s) besides cooking?
I’ve been a graphic designer at Vanity Fair, I’ve worked front of the house for a long time and I’m a good maître d’. I’m a good gardener. Everything in my garden has to be white and fragrant. I have magnolias trees and star jasmine and sweet woodruff, nicotiana, scented geraniums, gardenias and lily of the valley. I like to bring flowers to people’s homes.

If you could invent a restaurant for an imaginary project, what would it be?
A beer garden like in Berlin where you’re outside, it’s summer and it’s so easy. I like the idea of being outside. Portland’s so beautiful in the summertime. We’d serve sausages and a limited menu of salads.

If you were going to take Thomas Keller, Tony Bourdain or Mario Batali out to eat, where would it be?
I’d go with Mario to the Contramar seafood restaurant in Mexico City. It’s a cool place to sit outside and watch the world go by. Plus Mexico City’s so interesting and so huge.

If you were facing an emergency, and could take only one backpack of supplies, what would you bring, and what would you make?
Skippy creamy peanut butter, saltine crackers and Bonne Maman strawberry preserves, a Hershey’s Miniatures assortment and Oreos.

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years?
Some kind of root, like sassafras.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Vella Monterey Jack cheese.

What is your favorite snack?
The buttermilk bar from Annie’s Donuts. It’s short and fat and split like a loaf of bread.

Do you have any food superstitions, or pre- or post-shift rituals?
My one superstition, I rub the end of the cucumber with the end you slice off to remove the bitterness. Post-shift, I have a shot of Jägermeister.

2 recipes by Chef Christopher Israel
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