Gabriel Rucker at Le Pigeon in Portland, Oregon. [Photo: Dina Avila]
Portland chef Gabriel Rucker set out to write his first cookbook two years ago after winning the James Beard award for Rising Star Chef. It's fitting, then, that the release of Le Pigeon: Cooking at the Dirty Bird coincides with his second Beard win, this time for Best Chef Northwest. Below, Rucker talks to Eater about recreating the first five years of Le Pigeon, cookbooks with a sense of place, collaborating with a co-author (in this case, Meredith Erickson), and what recipe from the cookbook he'd eat straight out of the pot. Le Pigeon is out now from Ten Speed (order on Amazon); check out a preview of the cookbook here.
Why was it important to you to do a cookbook?
We decided to do it over two years ago — because that's how long it took — and we had just won the James Beard Rising Star Award. It had been in our minds before. Aaron [Wehner, publisher] at Ten Speed had even talked to us about doing it, and it had just seemed like too much, or maybe it wasn't the right time. After winning that award and getting thrust into the national spotlight, it was kind of like well, now is the right time to do it if we're going to do it.
I thought it would be fun. It'd be nice to have. It's a lot of work to do a restaurant, and it'd be nice to have forever. Something concrete to hold on to that's not just memories. I'm not that sentimental of a person, I don't hold on to a lot of stuff. But I thought it would be a nice thing to have. It was so much work. It was more work than I thought it would be. But now that it's over, it's super rewarding. Well worth it.
What was the process of writing the book like for you?
The book is the first five years of Le Pigeon's existence, but that being said, we didn't really have any recipes saved. So it was kind of fun because I got to take a walk down memory lane to reinvent all these recipes we cooked in the first five years. I talked with my sous chefs and cooks: Do you remember this? Go through old menus and ask how did we do that? Do you remember? Oh, I thought we did it this way. So a really nice walk down memory lane.
I got to build some new friendships. The photographer we worked [David L. Reamer] with is actually one of my best friends that I moved to Portland with and used to cook with. So we strengthened our friendship and had a good experience. Working with Meredith Erickson, she's great. She knows what's going on. She's right about a lot of things, even if at the time it doesn't make sense. She's got her finger on the pulse and it was really nice working with her.
How did you decide to work with Erickson on the book?
We have the same literary agent, Kim Witherspoon at Inkwell. We were talking to other writers, but I don't think this book would have been what it was at all without Meredith. We were in the middle of the interviews with writers, and then Meredith came into the office one morning at Le Pigeon — she was in Portland — and met me and it was like, yeah. You know in life when you just know something's right? I just knew within five minutes of meeting her. Yep! And then she came in and ate at Le Pigeon and was like, yep!
The book has a lot of cultural history of the restaurant and atmospheric essays, like the one on Plymouth Valiants. Why include these in addition to the recipes?
Well, that would be a lot of Meredith's influence there. She did the Joe Beef book, which was really popular, and they included a lot of Canada and Montreal. She came to Portland and she was like, there's so much going on here. Portland is such a hot spot for food, people come here from New York all the time. People come here to eat and be part of the food culture. We wanted to include that. What makes this place great? Why do we want to be here? I grew up in Napa, in California. Why don't I cook there? Why do I have a restaurant here? We wanted people to see what's going on here. What makes it special, what makes it funky.
You mention a couple of times in the book that other cookbooks that have influenced your cooking. How and when do you use cookbooks, and how did they influence this book?
I will say this: when I was writing the cookbook, I was totally not looking at cookbooks. Which is probably not smart, I probably should have been looking at tons of cookbooks. I go through phases. I'm not a huge cookbook nerd, I don't have shelves and shelves of cookbooks in the house. But when I find the right one that inspires me, I get really excited. You pick and choose techniques or ingredients or ideas out of there.
And that's how I want people to use this book. You don't have to cook a whole recipe out of it. You can, they all work, some of them are really long but you can get inspired by a part of the recipe or an ingredient or a technique and plug that in somewhere else. Oh, there's duck nuggets with a plum mustard sauce. I bet that plum mustard sauce would be good on this pork loin I'm making tonight. I'll do that. That's what would really excite me. The reader can think outside the box. They can make the recipes, or they can make some of the sub-recipes and just plug them into their dinners elsewhere. Get inspired, get creative, you know. We shrimp crust this halibut, I wonder if the shrimp crust would be good by itself with the gribiche sauce from the tete de veau. It would! So that idea of mixing and matching and playing, just using the book to inspire you to cook. If you buy the book and it gets you in the kitchen, we did our job. Whether you make the food that's in the book or inspired by a recipe, we've succeeded.
Say someone buys the cookbook who has never been to the restaurant. What are you hoping they learn about Le Pigeon from it?
That food should be fun. What we do as chefs is hard work, but food should be a fun thing. I have fun, I would say, 75 to 90% of the time when I'm working. It can't always be fun, it's a business. But it should lead you to sitting around with your friends and family, drinking a bottle of wine, and eating something delicious.
When you set out to write the cookbook, was there anything you definitely did not want it to end up being?
I didn't want to — this is kind of cliche — I didn't want the book to come off as fake or contrived. I didn't want to end up with a book where I was like, that's not what Le Pigeon is all about. You never know. When you're writing a book there's always so many millions of emails going back and forth. Meredith lives in London, you're seeing emails, you're not seeing the whole thing. And then when you get the whole thing, was I going to be happy with it? Was it going to feel like the restaurant? Are my peers going to respect it? I think we succeeded. I'm really happy with it, I think it's beautiful, it's the kind of book where if I didn't work there, I would pick it up.
Obviously you want home cooks to use your cookbook, but sometimes in the pursuit of making recipes accessible, they end up so dumbed down that the restaurant isn't recognizable in the dish anymore. How do you decide where to draw the line?
That was a big back and forth between myself and Meredith and the editors and everyone. It was like: this is too hard, this is too hard, this is too hard. It's not too hard, it takes time. I'm writing a restaurant book. I want people to make it, but I refuse to water it down. I watered some stuff down, because you have to. It's like you're walking a tight rope: you want to find balance.
People need to be able to cook stuff, but like you said you don't want to make it so vanilla that it's like, "Cool, grilled pork and sauteed kale. I've never seen that before. This guy talks about how great the farm is where he gets the kale from, that's awesome. But I live in New York and the farm is in Portland so I'm not going to be having any of that kale so, who cares."
You can see that in the book, like there's a recipe for elk tongue stroganoff that also gives instructions for how to make it with beef tongue, which is much easier to source.
Right. This is how we do it, here's how you could do it if you can't do it our way. You can go down to the Mexican market and get a beef tongue, and you might have a little leftover because the beef tongue is bigger than the elk tongue, but oh well. You can still make it and it'll still be delicious.
Which recipe from the book would you make...
...if old friends were coming over for dinner? The hanger steak with oyster mayo and broccolini (page 212).
...when you have a three day weekend and you want a project to dive into? The smoked rabbit pie (page 102).
...for yourself to eat straight out of the pot and not share with anybody? The tripe and chorizo stew (page 209).