On Tuesday, April 17, 2017, Symrise led a private roundtable discussion in Portland, Oregon with a select group of 2018 StarChefs Portland Rising Stars. Symrise’s VP of Marketing, Emmanuel Laroche, led the session, asking the panel a variety of questions that resulted in a convivial discussion on a variety of issues and topics. The panel consisted of big names in Portland food: Chef Justin Woodward of Castagna; Chef Bonnie Morales of Kachka; Mixologist Angel Teta of Ataula; Pastry Chef Maya Erickson of Langbaan; and Chef and Co-Owner Earl Ninsom of Hat Yai and PaaDee.

The topic of innovation started off the conversation, and we learned that the chefs pull from a broad range of sources that propel them into new ways of thinking about and reimagining food, though at times just making slight changes to a familiar dish can result in something that feels fresh and new. “My creative process when I do anything is to go back to food that I grew up eating,” explained Ninsom. “How to make it different, but at the same time when you eat it you know what it is. You have to remember what you had, first.”

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The topic of social media came up and while the panel has mixed feelings about it they acknowledge that, whether you like it or not, it does have some influence. Teta remarked that when it comes to her cocktails she “wants them to be pretty” and will even employ vintage glassware in some of Ataula’s cocktail photos. Morales admitted that because of Instagram, she is more aware of the lighting in Kachka’s new space, since higher quality lighting gives photos a better chance of looking good, which favors her food.

The importance of travel also came up and the panel agreed that it’s helpful for them and their staff to see the ingredients and products that they use on a regular basis in their home regions. In June 2017 Morales took her entire staff to Russia and consequently they all gained a deeper understanding of the dishes in their native context. Case in point is sunflower oil — the varieties that are available at local markets in Russia are “mindblowing.” Ninsom remarked that getting to know the food on the menu made in Thailand and Malaysia made his staff more confident and gave them more context in understanding the cuisine. “There’s only so much you can learn in a book,” added Erickson. As a result of her travels she now believes she makes a better product.

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After a spirited discussion of shio koji — a spore that when mixed with water makes a salty liquid that brings out the natural flavors of food — the panel ended with a discussion of accommodation of special diets and lifestyle trends. The general sense was that while they are sympathetic to special needs, they will not sacrifice certain ingredients and taste if the alternative is not up to snuff. Morales says, “I don’t believe in making a modification for the sake of that modification when the original ingredient is better; there must be a bigger reason to do so.” Erickson stated, “I’ll make something that’s gluten-free or dairy-free but that’s because it’s naturally that way. But I won’t make a dish that is inferior to accommodate alternatives.” This goes back to respect and reverence for the dish.

That said, they recognize that wellness is huge in the eyes of their customers but also know that some folks come into their restaurants ready to indulge. Teta is on board with making beautiful and delicious mocktails; Woodward cooks healthy yet indulgent food, and his restaurant will try to accommodate special diets without sacrificing quality. Teta adds, “gluten-free spirits are not a thing.” And Morales recounted a story where a vegan customer came in one day and declared that they were not going to limit their eating to just the vegan dishes (her restaurant offers a number of dishes that are naturally vegan), but to anything they fancied on the menu.

Overall it was a very interesting and engaging afternoon, and everyone left the session having learned something new. At the core of their work, these chefs want their food to be inspiring, meaningful, pleasurable, and authentic. This is yet more proof as to why Portland’s culinary scene is one of the best in the U.S.

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