Most 6th graders aren't reading The Making of a Chef. Most 15 year olds aren't working the line at their neighborhood restaurant. And most budding chefs don't apply for an externship before they've even gone to culinary school.
But Joel Stocks was not like most kids, and he's not like most chefs.
The 27-year-old, one half of the acclaimed Holdfast duo that's been energizing Portland's fine dining scene for the past two years, has been driven by an unwavering desire to cook since the tender age of 12, scaling every culinary Mount Everest he's set out to climb.
"I pretty much had a one-track mind," he says.
Stocks grew up in Portland, Oregon. His parents weren't chefs and he didn't have restaurant blood in his veins, but his best friend's dad owned JoPa, an Italian-influenced neighborhood restaurant a few blocks from his house, and that was the only opening he needed. "I'd just go to his restaurant and chop onions," says Stocks.
I pretty much had a one-track mind
When he turned 15, he and his friend joined the kitchen staff, working part time all through high school. "We split one real shift so we worked 20 hours a week and we'd finish at midnight," says Stocks. But his parents would only agree to the demanding job and late hours if he kept his grades up and took honors classes to boot. "I did all the AP classes — calculus, chemistry — so kitchen math was pretty easy."
In whatever free time he could scrape together, he would cook ambitious dishes at home. "I would make dishes out of The French Laundry cookbook and take pictures to document it. When I was a freshman in high school, for my sister's prom I did a sit-down dinner for 12 of her friends. And when my mom had her book group, she'd have me do a fancy meal for all of them. Now it's fun because they go into Holdfast."
He followed his junior high dreams and graduated from CIA Hyde Park in 2007, setting up his externship at The French Laundry before he was even accepted. "I told them there's a good chance I'll be attending the CIA. Can I extern there? The sous chef was like, ‘That's in two years!' But he saved a spot for me."
Stocks returned to Portland, cooking in a couple kitchens over the next few years (Noble Rot, 50 Plates) before leaving to stage at Arzak in Spain. From there he decided to reach out to Scott Dolich, chef-owner of Portland's acclaimed Park Kitchen. It turned out to be a pivotal moment in his career, as it was where he first met chef Will Preisch, who would later become his co-collaborator at Holdfast.
"When Scott was opening The Bent Brick, he didn't want anyone from Park Kitchen going over there besides Will, but we clicked really well so we did some teeth pulling and we coaxed Scott into letting us go together."
It was a 20-course blowout
At The Bent Brick they had free rein to explore modernist takes on tavern classics, but it was often a tough sell to diners who came in expecting burgers, not foams. After a year and a half, they decided to move on so Dolich could steer the menu toward more traditional territory. Preisch went to Europe, Stocks to Chicago, and they hosted a modernist pop up as a sendoff. "It was a 20-course blowout," says Stocks. "And it turned out to be kind of a lead-up to Holdfast."
They realized the intimate, dinner-party vibe — about a dozen guests, no tablecloths, no servers — paired with 20 courses of inventive, high-end modernist cuisine, was their calling, and they could pull it off by using the pop-up as a model, hosting one seating, with tickets sold in advance.
By 2014, both chefs were back in Portland and Holdfast was clicking into place. They rented the dining room at KitchenCru culinary incubator a couple nights a week, where the wrap-around counter, with the chefs plating and serving from the center, unintentionally set the format for all future dinners. "In all of our plans before, we were thinking more of a communal table or traditional dining room," says Stocks. "We didn't realize that the counter was going to be so fun. We're always going to have a counter now."
Being able to pop up at a regular time each week helped Holdfast build a following with minimal risk, but they knew they'd have to find more permanent digs if they wanted to expand their offerings and control things like lights and decor. They scouted out spots and, late last year, settled on a former restaurant attached to Fausse Piste urban winery. It not only had the all-important counter, it also brought Stocks full-circle. About the owner, he said, "Jesse Skiles and I went to high school together. We went to the CIA at the same time. We lived together for a couple years. I was his best man."
But the move goes beyond friendship into the realm of fate. "A few years ago, while working at The Bent Brick, the sous chef and I did a pop-up dinner there," he says. "It was a 12-course dinner for 14 guests, all during one seating. Can anything be more foreshadowing than that?"