The real life of a restaurant extends far beyond a line cook’s shenanigans or the number of covers turned each night. It’s the happily tipsy regulars, the vivacious playlist, the backstory of the iconic dish. We're looking at the big picture — and the small ones: minute by minute, dollar by dollar, vodka shot by vodka shot. Welcome to One Night at Kachka.
On May 7, 2015 — a sunny evening when President Obama happened to be in town, leading to a citywide buzz surrounding presidential street closures and inevitable traffic — Kachka's owners Bonnie and Israel Morales invited Eater inside to document everything that goes on in their restaurant, Kachka.
Bonnie and her husband Israel swung open Kachka's doors in April of 2014, promising the city of Portland, Oregon, access to the kind of Eastern European hospitality that Bonnie's family enjoyed for generations in Belarus. Kachka's menu delivers on what they describe as the “Ruskie zakuski experience”: a parade of mostly cold appetizers, smoked and pickled all manner of ways, plus classics like pelmeni and vareniki dumplings, and other former-Soviet culinary icons, all washed down with plenty of vodka.
Co-owner, expediter, badass. Married to Israel.
Co-owner, general manager. Married to Bonnie.
Bartender. Serves between 50-200 vodka shots per night.
Server. Originally from New Hampshire
Garde/cold plate chef. Landed this job three days after moving to Portland
Lead prep cook. Moved to Portland “to be able to live as a cook”
Chef de cuisine. Started as sous chef and worked her way up.
Sous chef. Previously worked at Portland’s St. Jack restaurant
Dishwasher/prep. Grew up in Mexico, has lived in the U.S. for seven years
Lead prep cook Nick Jones arrives at 9 a.m. for the first of the restaurant's three prep shifts, followed closely by owners Bonnie and Israel, who come in after dropping off their son at school. The second prep shift arrives at 11, while the kitchen manager on duty — usually Olga or Neal — shows up at noon. Line cooks arrive at 1 p.m. to set up the kitchen for service, and the third and final prep shift shows up at 3, with servers' arrivals staggered from 3 to 5:30.
In the moments before opening, Israel checks the books: 50 covers are scheduled via OpenTable’s SeatMe service, with what he describes as "no big parties on the books.” He estimates they’ll do 120 covers during the night — as long as any Obama-related traffic doesn't keep potential diners at home.
The team filters through the restaurant's basement prep kitchen to eat a meal before the busy dinner service kicks off — "we always try to have something balanced and varied so people don’t get too bored," Israel says. Nick usually orchestrates each day's menu, with both the daytime prep cooks and incoming line cooks contributing to the meal.
The restaurant opens at exactly four o'clock.
After the ticket hits the kitchen, the team springs into motion: firing, searing, plating. Regardless of who cooked what, the last step for every plate of food happens at Bonnie’s expediting station, a small table just inside the dining room. She’s visible to everyone — diners and cooks — as she calls out orders, wrangles servers, and applies all final touches to dishes before they head into the dining room. Fifteen minutes after the ticket went in, the buckwheat blinis and radishes head out to that first two-top.
There’s already a big pile of dishes in the sink. “He’s 34 minutes late,” Israel says. He mutters something into his walkie talkie, which he and Bonnie use to communicate with the downstairs prep staff.
Bonnie garnishes the fish with dill fronds, and says “Nice work, lady” to Nina, who cooked it. Nina replies, “I remembered, from all the screaming last year.”
Bonnie explains the dish to the gathered waitstaff, while Israel articulates that it needs to be served French service style. He demonstrates the technique, involving two spoons held in one hand, then drops a spoon. “If you can’t hold two spoons, how are we going to be able to?” Aislinn laments.
“She was like Cher, Linda Rondstat, and Madonna rolled into one,” Israel says of Russian singer Alla Pugacheva, as the strains of one of her most famous songs begins to fill the restaurant. Kachka's soundtrack is just as heavily influenced by Eastern European culture as its menu. “70 percent of the music we play here is ripped from my father-in-law’s CDs,” says Israel.
The 4:02 two-top is ready for dessert — they've asked for the plombir ice cream sandwiches, which are served rolled in hazelnuts. When it prints out in the kitchen, the ticket says the table has a nut allergy. “I love finding out about nut allergies at dessert,” Bonnie sighs.
1. Plombir (ice cream rolled in wafers) 2. “Herring in a fur coat” (layered salad of herring, potato, beet, and egg) 3. Rabbit in a clay pot 4. Golubtsi (cabbage rolls) 5. Whole grilled trout 6. Lemon-chiffon cake 7. Pelmeni (dumplings stuffed with beef, pork, and veal) 8. Taranka (fish jerky) 9. Buckwheat blini and radishes 10. Oreshki (cookies) 11. Tvorog vareniki (dumplings stuffed with farmer’s cheese) 12. Sour cherry vareniki 13. Smoked trout salad 14. Bird’s milk cake (chocolate-glazed sponge cake)
1. Borscht 2. Khachapuri (dough stuffed with sulguni cheese) 3. Sweet cheese blinchiki 4. Meat and cheese board 5. Fish board, featuring cod liver spread, mackerel, and beet-cured cod 6. Bread plate 7. Brindza pashtet (cheese and paprika spread)
1. Beef tongue 2. Tabaka (pounded and pressed chicken) 3. Assorted pickles 4. Lamb kebab 5. Salo (cured fatback) 6. Baltic sprat buterbrodi 7. Pkhali (chard, walnut, and smoked mushrooms atop shaved beets)
At the dumpling station, Kachka’s stage Cole is watching prep cook Jon running dough through the vertical dough roller. He then hunches over the trays and pipes meat filling into each indentation. When he’s done, he lays a sheet of dough on top. Cole tries his hand for a while; Jon inspects Cole's work and completes the dumplings as Cole heads upstairs to chat with Olga about his background and his future. Cole, a Wisconsin native, is a student at Le Cordon Bleu and already has a job at a local brewery, but hopes to be hired on at Kachka.
Back downstairs, Jon seals the dumplings and cuts their edges, then shakes the tray to release them. He arranges Cole’s work in neat rows on the sheet, removing any that look overfilled or broken, placing them in a pile. The pile is bigger than he'd like it to be. “That’s what happens with a new guy,” he says. “They get a little overzealous.” The restaurant will use the imperfect dumplings for staff meal.
Cole will check in a half-hour later to see how the dumplings turned out (“One tray was too big, but other than that…” Jon trails off), then sits down at the Kachka bar with prep cook Neal, who’s talking him through the extensive menu. Cole orders a Moscow Mule as Neal describes the differences between the two salo options, then decides on an order that functions as a light snack: salo and pashtet.
Israel delightedly passes on some intel to Bonnie: She’s from Belarus, and plans to return to the restaurant again next week, with a larger party.
The first ticket for a zakuski hits the kitchen. A cornerstone of the restaurant's identity, the not-really-a-tasting-menu experience was inspired by Bonnie’s memories of family dinner parties, during which the entire tablecloth would be covered, barely an inch left empty, with endless appetizers and snacks. Diners who order the zakuski at Kachka get a feast featuring, among other things, pickles, buckwheat blinis, roe, smoked Baltic sprats on toast, cured fish, and the seven-layer “Herring Under a Fur Coat.”
He's outside the kitchen, standing at the window where servers pass the dirty dishes through to him. One of the cooks looks at him from inside the kitchen: “What’s your deal dude?” Roger silently points to a big clear plastic bin with a big bowl inside that’s high on a shelf above the sink — he's not tall enough to get it himself. She gets it down and passes it through the window to him, and he takes it downstairs to the prep kitchen.
Bonnie stands at her station, under a vintage portrait of a stern-looking Lenin. An orange gooseneck lamp hangs below, shining on her table: a squeeze bottle of oil, a jar of broken vinaigrette made with beet pickling juice, and a collection of small tins that hold gauze, everclear (which she uses with the gauze to clean smudges from the plates because “vinegar leaves an aroma”), lemon slices, salt, dill pollen, and chive blossoms. There’s also a lineup of small plastic tubs filled with garnishes she commands like a maestro: dill; cilantro, mint and basil; cilantro and basil; chives; fines herbs; and scallions.
Bonnie is serene and poised, like a zen master. She's exacting about each dish; readjusting already meticulously placed lines of coriander or tops off plates with the final garnish. No plate goes into the dining room without her go-ahead — everyone is armed with spoons at every station, tasting as they go, and Neal even periodically tastes the water the dumplings are boiled in — but over the course of the evening, Bonnie will send back to the kitchen:
In most kitchens, the garde manger is an entry-level position, but at Kachka, where most of the menu is cold, it’s the station that sees the most action and requires the most speed and skill. On some evenings, Nina (who runs the station) is responsible for rapidly plating as many as 60 zakuski experiences. Nina notes that her timed herring plating is, for her, on the slower side.
He muses, “I wonder if I should do this with a credit card instead.”
“I don’t think a sous chef should make that joke," replies Nina.
Israel announces: “It’s time to start thinking about candles.”
It's a Rosavaya, the restaurant's signature cocktail, made with vodka, aquavit, yellow chartreuse, and grenadine. The guest would like it to be “a touch sweeter.” Banks tops it up with simple syrup.
“Please don’t burn my elbows,” Nina says. “At least, not my right one, the left one you can do what you want with.”
“It’s the calm before the storm” says Bonnie. There’s just one ticket up.
Neal grabs a bucket to catch the flow. Bonnie explains, “We have a little plumbing situation. It’s being fixed tomorrow.” They also have an issue with the temperature alarm on the freezers: when the defrost cycle goes on, it causes the alarm to go off, usually at 4 in the morning. Israel drives in every time it happens, to make sure it's not a real emergency. He'd just had to make that trip the night before. For nothing.
She removes them; they were supposed to be left behind in the pickling brine. She calls Neal over.
“Neal, can you stop trying to kill people with allspice berries?” she says. They're not actually toxic, but the flavor can be overwhelming.
“I didn’t know what those were,” he replies.
Diners are happily eating. Servers are keeping them happy. The kitchen has a chance to get ahead for the rest of the night — Neal makes more buckwheat blinis.
A restaurant doesn’t run on food inventory alone. Kachka’s remarkably neat basement office is lined with charts on clipboards, a business-card wall, and organized office supplies: Batteries (used and new), envelopes, endorsement stamps, and assorted papers. Also in the office closet: Tupperware containers of Kachka-branded t-shirts, a stray extra apron, first-aid kits, and Russian cookbooks.
Nina passes Bonnie a plated meat board with crumbs on the bottom, which get all over Bonnie’s immaculate station.
Kachka honors the long tradition of restaurants providing its staff with a complimentary drink at the end of their shift. Tonight, Olga is the first to sit down for hers. As each staffer gradually wraps up for the evening and gravitates toward the bar, here’s what everyone orders:
Olga: “Whatever whiskey and beer back Banks poured me.” It's a Buffalo Trace and a Heater Allen
Bonnie: Cocchi Americano Rosso with soda
Patrick: Buffalo Trace and Heater Allen
Israel: Half a glass of vodka
Jon: Buffalo Trace and Heater Allen
Robert: 60g of Portland 88 vodka and a shot of olive juice
Ashley: a Rosavaya cocktail
Nina: Buffalo Trace and Heater Allen
A song by Russian musician Professor Lebedinsky comes on — one of many that plays that night. Professor Lebedinsky was huge in the 90s, known for his pounding, techno covers of Russian pop songs. According to Israel, he and Bonnie found the mix CD that introduced them to the artist at a flea market in Minsk. “These flea markets have everything: fabric softener, CDs, military uniforms, AK47s, and I bought this thing for 87 cents,” Israel says. “It has 100 tracks on it. It’s amazing.”
At 10 p.m., Kachka's menu changes over to a daily late-night happy hour, with a limited eight-item offering of primarily dumplings and pickles. Bonnie packs up her garnishes and wipes down the pass. From here on out, servers will expedite their own orders. Most late-night diners order verenki.
Israel calls Yuri Shatunov's '80s hit the “unofficial theme song” of the restaurant. “When we won [Willamette Week's] Restaurant of the Year, we had a huge party and just played this song all night.”
“Just wanted to give a toast to everyone at this bar and everyone not at this bar.”
As most of the staff is as the bar enjoying their shift drinks, Neal has put beef tongue and duck legs on the stove to confit overnight, a process the restaurant does once or twice a week. Finally, the last table — a group of three sitting in the lounge — heads out the door. Immediately the staff springs into action, blowing out and collecting candles, and collecting and stacking chairs.