Emmanuel Laroche boasts over two decades of marketing experience in the restaurant industry. In his podcast "Flavors Unknown," he engages in conversations with trending chefs and bartenders, exploring how their personal backgrounds have influenced their culinary journeys. Laroche recently attended Portland, Oregon’s StarChefs award ceremony, which recognized the city's top culinary and beverage professionals for their technical skills and leadership. Subsequently, he engaged in a podcast discussion with select nominees and award winners from the event.


The discussion panel consisted of accomplished chefs, pastry chefs, and mixologists who are some of the front runners shaping culinary trends in Portland and the broader Pacific Northwest. Among the notable participants was Matthew Mayer, the chef de cuisine at Heavenly Creatures, 2022’s recipient of Eater Portland's "Best New Bar" award. Also present were “Rising Star Chef” Kyle Christy, and “Rising Star Sommelier” Jessie Manning, both from Street Disco; as well as Bonnie Morales, the executive chef and owner of Kachka, after which she named her award-winning cookbook.


Representing pastry chefs and bakers was Submarine Hospitality's Tara Lewis, who develops pastries and desserts for Tusk, Cicoria, and Ava Gene's — establishments under the Submarine umbrella. Providing insights into bar programs and cocktails, Katsumi Manabe of Scotch Lodge was a welcome addition. While named for its whiskey, Scotch Lodge predominantly operates as a cocktail bar, with Manabe overseeing its bar program and helping to expand the overall depth and variety of its offerings.


The initial discussion prompted each participant to describe their journey into the culinary world. Their stories offered a rich spectrum of experiences, spanning diverse cultural and economic backgrounds. Mayer and Morales initially embarked on career paths in healthcare and industrial design, only to find themselves completely captivated by cooking. “Instead of working, I would go to the farmer's market and then cook all day,” said Morales. “Then I quit my job and went to culinary school.” 


In contrast, Manabe and Lewis followed more direct routes into the industry. Manabe shifted from chain restaurant management to a culinary career due to a bartender’s suggestion. Lewis started as a prep cook when she was 15 and never looked back. “I decided I really liked it,” she said. “I didn’t really enjoy cutting onions, though, so I decided to switch to pastry.”


The dialogue shifted toward the present as the guests reflected on why they decided to move to, or remain in, Portland. Morales provided a one-word explanation: "The strawberries," she said, emphasizing her attraction to Portland’s quality produce and its emphasis on seasonality. This sentiment resonated across the room as the chefs shared their local sources of inspiration, with items like fig leaves and blackberries acquiring new significance. The variety and accessibility of local produce emerged as the main catalyst for creativity and self-expression. “Anything can be turned into something else,” offered Mayer.


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The limited availability of fresh, in-season produce inspires the chefs to incorporate a variety of conservation techniques as the food nears spoilage. Mayer shared insights on preserving tomatoes at their peak freshness for off-season use. Christy highlighted his wife’s employer Teardrop’s practice of preserving batches of brandied cherries during the peak of the cherry season, ensuring year-round access to their vibrant flavor.


Moving forward, the conversation turned toward each chef’s current approach to culinary decisions. While all drew from their immediate environments, the specifics of their creative processes varied. Christy and Mayer had notably different approaches. Christy emphasized complete spontaneity, developed over years of running pop-up restaurants with ever-changing conditions. “Yes, we have a bit of a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants [mentality] over at Street Disco,” he said. Mayer’s more rigorous development approach often involves weeks of recipe testing before he introduces an item to the menu. “Pop-ups drive me crazy,” he said. “I'm way more regimented. I don't put it on until I'm sure it's exactly what I want.”


Morales’s strongest inspirations spring from the regional influences of her native country, Belarus. Her cuisine at Kachka is a balance of tradition and innovation, which often evokes an emotional response from patrons reminiscing about their own connection to her food and to the world it represents. Morales embraced recent experiences and available produce to evolve her cuisine naturally. “Ultimately,” she said, “especially since the war in Ukraine started, I had to think a lot about what is important to me in the food that I cook and what I can be proud of.”


At this point, the conversation expanded, with participants detailing exotic ingredient combinations like ice cream made of goat cheese, mayonnaise, habanero, and berries, basil chia seed oil and caramel, and dubious additions to dishes such as Nilla wafers, sriracha, “Even bugs!” injected Lewis. “Grasshoppers are always a fun addition to things.” 


Additionally, sources of non-food-related inspiration segued through Morales’s childhood recollection of farmer’s market witch doctors and their medicinal plants, and Mayer’s tendency to use the structure of music as a template for many aspects of his business plan, including menu design.


The StarChefs panel provided an enlightening glimpse into the mindsets of some of Portland’s rising culinary leaders. From diverse backgrounds and using a myriad of techniques and approaches, two common threads emerged: each participant’s personal history played a huge role in determining their ultimate career path, with each narrative serving as the cornerstone of their culinary empires. Regardless of their differences, these chefs are bound by a commitment to their crafts and to one another. “Everyone really wants to share and help each other,” said Morales. “And that's not just about ingredients, it's a general sense of, ‘We're all in this together.’”


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