The film Pig might be about Nicolas Cage’s quest to find his missing truffle pig, but it was Cage’s pigeon-basting technique that most concerned Gabriel Rucker. One of Portland’s most prominent chefs, Rucker was a consultant on the film, which is set in both the Oregon wilderness and Portland’s high-end restaurants and filmed largely on location. Rucker recognized his own work at the groundbreaking Le Pigeon in the script: Cage, now a truffle forager, used to be a French chef whose work was considered avant-garde, off-the-cuff, and outside of the box.
The dish Rucker created and taught Cage to cook features pigeon breast, wild chanterelles, and huckleberries. The movie isn’t out till July 16, but the trailer shows that dish — the basting, the sprigs of thyme, the final plating. Rucker taught Cage the dish and the techniques in the Le Pigeon kitchen before shooting the scene on set. “He wasn’t too cool for school,” says Rucker of his student. “It’s nice when you meet someone famous and they’re not an asshole.” Read on for more about Rucker’s experiences working on the summer’s most important film.
Eater: How did you end up as consulting chef on this movie and what does a consulting chef do?
Gabriel Rucker: I have never done anything of this sort. But it was just an opportunity to do something cool. I grew up watching National Treasure and Raising Arizona and Con Air and The Rock and Nicolas Cage movies. I got an email from the director, and when that came across my desk I was like, “Yeah, of course I want to help.” I would be bummed out if this movie was shot and I didn’t get that call. Nic Cage is such a cultural icon.
I designed dishes for the movie, and we had the opportunity to have [Cage] come through the kitchen. He came in at like 7 in the morning and he looked like shit. Little did I know that that’s what he was supposed to look like for the role. I was like, Oh geez, he hasn’t been taking care of himself.
He just jumped right in and was super respectful. He was himself: his voice and his mannerisms, I mean. He’s acting but that’s also how he was. He’s just Nicolas fucking Cage.
What were your duties for the film?
So they told me the premise of the movie, gave me the script, and I talked to the director [Michael Sarnoski] a couple times about dishes [for the film]. We settled on pigeon with foraged chanterelle mushrooms and huckleberries. It’s a very Oregon-feeling dish.
[Cage’s character is] supposed to be this avant-garde French chef, kind of like what Le Pigeon is, actually. I thought about a dish that would use some fun techniques for the camera. So searing the pigeon breast in a cast iron pan and adding garlic and thyme, and basting it with bubbling butter which is a very French technique — that can be filmed in a romantic and stylized way. He was doing very romanticized cooking movements, so I thought that would be good for that.
Also cleaning and dealing with wild mushrooms. He’s a forager in this movie and so I had great chanterelle mushrooms around for him to tear and smell. He really romanticized the movements, so I just helped it to become more realistic. I butchered the pigeons. He’s really bloody in that scene that I helped out with, and then he’s breaking down and cutting out the backbone and pulling out the hearts and the liver, so it worked out well there.
Talk to me about your time on the set.
So he came here, I took him through the movements of cooking the dish, we talked, and he spent some time in the kitchen with me. And then when it was time, it was like their final big day of shooting. On set, I helped stage the kitchen, and helped him remember the movements. I also got to consult on the movements on camera, like Do this, turn this way with the pan, and do it like that. I got to be very involved, I felt, in that final shoot of him cooking the food. It was super fun to get to be able to do something like that out of my element.
Did you get any sense of what kind of eating was happening on set? Did you guys eat the pigeon that you cooked?
No, because everything in Hollywood and film is so union. They have food catering companies that come in to feed everybody and it’s mandatory breaks. There was taco salad that everyone was eating.
So no one got to try the pigeon?
I think that they ate it in the actual shoot.
You talked a little bit about the romanticized movement that you were looking for and also the idea of creating a very Oregon dish. Were there any other ways that you approached matching the food to the themes of the movie?
Honestly, I just thought about the kind of food I was cooking at Le Pigeon in 2006 and 2007 when we were just starting. When I was looking at what they were looking for — mushrooms, a great sauce — it seemed like that. It seems like Portland in the late ’90s, early 2000s is what these people were chasing after. And so I just thought about what I would cook back in 2006 or 2007.
You mentioned using chanterelles, did you also work with truffles on set?
You know, it’s funny because I asked them if they wanted me to do truffles in the dish, and they said, “Oh, that would be too cliche.”
So it’s explicit that he’s not actually cooking with truffles. Interesting.
I don’t know but I just asked if they wanted me to use truffles, and the director said he felt like that would be a little bit too hitting the nail on the head. To me it makes sense, personally, because this guy, his whole life he has dedicated to finding truffles and he loves his truffle pig so much. But I’m not the director. And I said, alright, well then, how about I use a different wild mushroom, and he said, “That sounds great.”
I guess it makes sense ... if that’s how he’s making his money maybe it’s a “don’t get high on your own supply” kind of thing?
Exactly. Could be.
Is there a lot of truffle foraging happening in the Pacific Northwest? Have you ever worked with a truffle pig?
Well, they don’t use pigs for foraging truffles anymore, they use dogs. But I didn’t bother explaining that to the director because the movie is called Pig. So I think that’d be too big of a rewrite. And there’s probably already a movie called Dog. At least I know there’s All Dogs Go To Heaven.
There’s tons of foraging going on in the Pacific Northwest. Oregon truffles are very popular. I don’t use them at the restaurant as much as I used to, mainly because I can afford to use the Périgord truffle and the Australian black truffle that we get in summer. They have a longer shelf life and a little bit more of a pungent aroma, and to my tastes, are a little bit better of a truffle.
There’s a huge foraging scene in the Pacific Northwest and there’s people that make a living out foraging for, among other things, Oregon truffles. That is very real. Also the way that Nicolas Cage looked, he’s very forager-y.
I’m curious: Was the pig real and did you meet the pig?
Didn’t meet the pig, no, but it looks real in the trailer.
From the trailer, the movie seems really interested in fine dining specifically, but I’ve always found Portland to be pretty low-key. Do the themes in the movie feel true to Portland to you?
You know, I haven’t seen the movie. With Hollywood, anytime they ever make a movie about the city you live in, a thing that you’re familiar with, you’re never like, “that’s exactly how it is,” because that’s not the job of a movie. So I hope they do a good job with Portland as a backdrop, but only time will tell.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.