Photo courtesy of Thistle

Eric Bechard

F&W Star Chef

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Restaurants: Thistle (McMinnville, OR), the Kingdom of Roosevelt (Portland, OR)

Education: California Culinary Academy, externship at Acquerello (San Francisco)

Who taught you to cook? What is the most important thing you learned?
Suzette Gresham at Acquerello. She introduced me to the techniques of fine dining and the importance of good product.

What is your favorite cookbook of all time?
The Silver Spoon. I liked the idea of this gift that Italian mothers-in-law gave their new daughters-in-law. It gives 300 ingredients and has three or four recipes per ingredient. Like lamb: It gives an overview with the cuts, then several recipes on how to use a braising cut, a roasting cut, a grilling cut. Same thing with vegetables—four recipes on how to use eggplant in its various forms. I got it when I was a young cook, and it also helped me think about different approaches to the same ingredient.

What is the best dish for a neophyte home cook to try?
Any one-pot dish, like a pot roast or a rice dish. If you start taking on too many pans it can get overwhelming. One pot means less cleanup, and it’s easier to learn how to adjust flavors when everything is cooking together. Put a bunch of meat in, throw some liquid over it and let it simmer for a couple of hours. It’s pretty hard to screw that up.

What was the first dish you ever cooked by yourself?
As weird as it is, I think it was quiche. My dad is from Montreal, and I was born there. Food was really important to him. My mom was from Detroit, where food wasn’t nearly as big a deal. We moved around a lot, and lived for a time in Alaska [when I was a kid], where we did a lot of fishing and hunting. We were eating moose and deer and caribou, and that inspired her to get more creative. She got into using our outdoor smoker. So one day I made quiche with salmon that we’d smoked. I’m sure it was slightly trashy quiche, with a premade shell. But I remember because she made a big deal about it after I went to culinary school. She’d say, “That was the first thing you ever made on your own!”

At the Kingdom of Roosevelt you focus on wild game. Did your time in Alaska partly inspire that?
For sure. I lived there in fifth grade. We’d go fishing for salmon and halibut, and hunting for deer. I figured out food is not just from a truck or a grocery store. Before that I didn’t really pay attention to anything I ate. Once I was catching it or killing it, I paid much closer attention. Now, as a chef I’ve also been working with farmers for a long time to find ingredients outside the basics. At Roosevelt and Thistle, we’re working with farmers to raise game for us, because in the US you can’t sell true wild animals. We started with heritage-breed pork and beef and lamb, and that’s turned into getting them excited about other animals.

What dish are you best known for?
We work seasonally, so we change the menu regularly. We work with a lot of offal because we deal with whole animals. We do what we call a parfait of duck, pigeon, chicken or rabbit liver, shallots, some fortified wine—usually sherry or Madeira—some butter, and a little bit of cream. Everything’s blended and set. Then we make a jelly out of the same fortified wine to top it.

What’s one technique everyone should know?
Searing and braising, those two techniques will get you far. Knowing how to use the oven and the stove to maximize a dish—understanding temperature, and what low temperature, long cooking will do versus high temperature, short cooking.

What is your current food obsession?
Birch syrup. There are a couple of companies producing it like maple syrup in Wasilla, Alaska. It’s super-tart, with high acid and high sugar. It almost has a balsamic quality to it, except it’s much more interesting, more herbaceous. I found a producer who could sell it to me in five-gallon buckets. Lately, we’ve been putting it into a braised elk shoulder. It only takes a small amount to make a really interesting flavor: not necessarily sweet but kind of a sweet-tart background. The acid is more acetic than citric, more like a vinegar than lemon juice.

What are your talents besides cooking?
When I have time? Fishing is one. I love old cars, both refurbishing and tooling around in them. I love skiing, too, although I haven’t been able to do much lately.

What is the best-bang-for-the-buck ingredient and how would you use it?
Onions! You’ve got shallots, garlic, spring onions, there are so many kinds, and they’re each so versatile. In the spring and summer we do dishes using seven different kinds—buds, blossoms, pickled, roasted. Onions are underappreciated.

Name a secret-weapon ingredient.
Raw wild mushrooms. We’ll take matsutake or porcini and shave them raw like truffles over a dish. They add such an unexpected flavor because people are used to having them roasted or pickled. They have a toothsome texture, too, almost like al dente pasta.

What ingredient will people be talking about in five years? Why?
Farm-raised game. I think it’s on an upswing. I hope it becomes more common in restaurant kitchens. Especially rabbit. They reproduce … like rabbits, obviously. They have a high food to protein ratio, so they’re very sustainable. We work mostly with the American Blue breed. They have firmer meat, and the flavor is more rounded and a little gamier than a lot of the California cross rabbits, which are kind of neutral, even generic in flavor and texture.

What’s the best house cocktail, wine or beer, and why?
I’m a huge fan of Alsace varietals, like Riesling and Pinot Blanc, but I don’t like the off-dry or demi-sec versions. I definitely have a specific palate. I like that minerally tartness. It works best with food.

I’m also a huge fan of sparkling ciders. I’m really into a French method or méthode champenoise cider from E.Z. Orchards, here in Oregon. They just do one type of cider, which is pretty amazing. It’s funky, minerally, deep, but with a light body, nicely carbonated and high acid.

I do prefer the funkier ciders. I like Brett (Brettanomyces—a type of wild yeast used in some ciders and beers, delivering a characteristically funky flavor). Our whole list at Roosevelt, we have a lot of wine, but everything else is sour beer, wild yeast beer and cider. With our game focus, those flavors work really well. I think sour beers are coming on in terms of a trend. I certainly hope so. Hops can be very tiring on our palate! After two pints of a really hoppy beer, I’m ready for bed.

If you were facing an emergency, and could take only one backpack of supplies, what would you bring?
A sharp knife first and foremost. From there, I’d probably bring a cured piece of fish or meat, some cheese, and some dried ingredients like legumes or wheat berries or rye berries. And then one good pan or pot, something cast iron.

What’s your favorite food letter of the alphabet?
P, for pickled.

What do you eat straight out of the fridge, standing up?
Pickles. Like by the gallon! I just love straight cucumber pickles. And bread-and-butter pickles—I can eat those—I really do eat those by the gallon. I have a very acidulated palate.

If you were going to take your chef idol out to eat, whom would you take and where would you go?
I’d take Marco Pierre White to a dirty dive bar, and eat a good plate of fried chips and just shoot the shit. And probably get very drunk.

Best-bang-for-the-buck food trip—where would you go and why?
I would say Portland. I know it’s slightly self-promoting, but I don’t think there’s a better city to eat. You can find some great bargains, especially in ethnic food.

1. There’s a place on Alberta Street called the Bollywood Theater. They focus on basic Indian dishes that aren’t what you get at the normal Indian restaurant, and they do them well.

2. We have a decent amount of Lebanese and Middle Eastern restaurants. Nicholas is solid and inexpensive.

3. Chiang Mai is a Thai restaurant that does pretty amazing northern Thai.

If you could invent a restaurant for an imaginary project, what would it be?
Maybe a restaurant that works with one animal each week, and builds the entire menu around that one animal. So this week it could be duck, and eating all the parts of the duck. It would serve a prix fixe menu of seven courses, every course a different part—breast, neck, heart, sausage. Next week it could be pork, then beef, every animal under the sun.

Name two or three dishes that define who you are.
1. When I was at the Heathman in Portland, under Philippe Boulot, the first time I worked with a whole animal, a carcass that came with the heart, liver, kidney, that’s when I truly realized what food was. I don’t remember one specific dish, though. We probably made something like cassoulet, where we made the sausage and everything else out of all of the parts.

2. The first time that a forager walked in and had seven different types of wild mushrooms available on the truck, that opened my eyes to the amount of product out there that we don’t even know about. There were five mushrooms I’d never heard of. It also taught me to go straight to the source, and skip the farmers’ markets. At the markets, farmers sell what they think people will buy. Now we go to farmers and say, “We will buy all of this if you grow it for us.” It’s hard for a farmer to argue with that.