To appreciate the names of Gabriel Rucker’s two Portland restaurants, Le Pigeon and Little Bird, you’ve got to go back to the chef’s first kitchen job at a country club in Sonoma County. It was there that he met an older cook who had a penchant for sneaking into the walk-in to devour quails whole, picking the bones out of his mouth as he intoned, in a thick Brooklyn accent, his lusty appreciation for the little birds. Rucker decided the man was onto something and followed suit, and he hasn’t looked back from there.
Today, he still loves cooking small-boned fowl at the acclaimed chef’s table at Le Pigeon, as well as the more casual Little Bird. But fortunately, he hasn’t, um, pigeonholed himself—his constantly evolving mashups of classic French gastronomy and untamed creativity have helped make him one of the breakout stars of the PDX’s thriving restaurant scene. In 2011, Rucker was named Rising Star Chef by the James Beard Foundation (an award given to chefs under 30), and just last week, he was nominated as a finalist for Best Chef in the Northwest 2013.
These accolades are all the more impressive when you consider that not so long ago, the young chef was just a kid from Napa who liked to party a bit too hard, thought sweetbreads were a bakery item, and a didn’t have the attention span to sit through a math class. At age 20, he dropped out of junior college to start that fateful cooking gig at the country club, then eventually headed north to Portland to cook under local trailblazers like Vitaly Paley at Paley’s Place, and Tommy Habetz and Naomi Pomeroy at Gotham Building Tavern. He was only 25 when he launched the chef’s counter at Le Pigeon.
Even as he’s moved onto cooking dishes like pigeon tart flanked by the bird’s crisped limbs, and foie gras ice cream with profiteroles, Rucker has remained grounded in an unpretentious approach to food, formed when he was an eight-year-old heating up Budget Gourmet TV dinners. When reflecting on the meals that have shaped his haute-comfort philosophy, he’s just as likely to rave about a burrito in Santa Cruz as a meal at the French Laundry. And don’t even get him started on In-N-Out: “If I had the opportunity to open up an In-N-Out in Portland, I would definitely cash in everything else and go for that.”
Here, Rucker breaks down the ten dishes that shaped his career so far, from those impromptu quail feasts in the walk-in to a memorable meal of tuna spine and cod sperm with mom.
This interview has been edited and condensed.