Sexiness is not a word generally associated with the Portland dining scene. The town privileges a certain homegrown ruggedness, and it has largely stripped restaurant design down to DIY essentials. But on the top floor of The Nines, a sleek luxury hotel in the heart of downtown, Departure Restaurant + Lounge shows a different side of PDX. In simple terms, it’s the polar opposite of Andy Ricker’s famed Pok Pok across the river. One replicates a no-frills street scene from Chiang Mai; the other could be easily transported to Dubai, Singapore, or any other global center.
Looks aren’t everything, though. While Departure may seem at odds with Portland’s modest aesthetics, executive chef Gregory Gourdet ensures that the food has a clear sense of place. With his signature faux-hawk and Supra sneakers, he’s found a way to bring a little Queens-bred swagger to PDX’s conscientious, locally focused cooking.
Gourdet developed the chops to pull off this tight-rope act as a cook in Jean-Georges Vongerichten’s New York empire, learning to handle fish in the star chef’s kitchen and mastering Asian flavors at his now-shuttered modern Chinese restaurant, 66. But New York took its toll. “I was looking for a lifestyle change,” Gourdet said. “In NYC, I was partying way too hard. I loved electronic music. I loved going out.”
Now, after six years in Portland, he’s energized by the city’s active, health-conscious scene—he’s gluten-free and mostly pescatarian, and he’s become an ultra runner. “I learned time management at Jean-Georges,” Gourdet says. “There you are given the standard and you have to get to that standard on your own; I believe that is the same with ultra marathoning.”
Gourdet also relishes the challenge of anchoring a 500-cover restaurant to the core of Portland’s typically intimate dining culture. “I found it important to, right away, to connect with local purveyors. Those are the things that fuel this town. Supporting the farmers and the local economy.”
Gourdet’s down-to-earth cosmopolitanism is reflected in the foods that have shaped his perspective in the kitchen, from his mom’s Haitian cooking to JGV’s iconic egg caviar.
When I was a child, I lived in Haiti for a few years. My sister and I would also spend time there visiting with our grandparents through our adolescence. I remember being a kid and eating Scotch Bonnet peppers from the plants my grandparents grew. My cousin and I would see who could eat the biggest pieces and then run and scrape the fires on our tongues with scraps of fabric from under my grandfathers sewing machine. He was a tailor. Haitian pickled Scotch Bonnet peppers, or pikliz, is a very traditional Haitian dish and is found on every Haitian table. The vinegary mix of crunchy cabbage and carrots laced with hot, fruity heat from the chilies awakens any dish—especially my mother’s traditional Haitian cooking. (Photo: cookinginsens.wordpress.com)
Egg Caviar at Jean-Georges (NYC)
This is a very classic dish, with historical references to France. It was one of the dishes that I saw and just wanted to make. I worked in the café at Jean-Georges for about a year and a half before I moved into the main dining room, and it was the dish you worked on. Everyone who worked the hot app station had to make it at a certain point. It is about getting your eggs perfect—you want a runny, buttery consistency—and cracking the shell perfectly round. And, finally, that perfect, stiff whipped cream. This was before the use of stabilizers, so it was extremely important. [The dish] influenced all the little things we do. It was the first dish where all those things came together—prep, luxury ingredients, and plating. (Photo: Francesco Tonelli)
Brussels Sprouts Chili, Lime, Mint at Departure (Portland, OR)
This is a dish we do here. It is a nod to health-focused food that I appreciate. It is a simple preparation of Brussels sprouts charred with mint and lime juice. I remember having a dish with similar flavors at Momofuku Ssäm Bar, and it was one of the first times that I had fish sauce, lime, and mint together. I came up with our dish two years ago, it is one of our signatures now. It is a popular combination, but a lot of people deep fry their Brussels sprouts. We wanted to wok fry them. It is a lot lighter. We physically pull apart all the leaves and char them. (Photo: Depature)
Scallop Handroll at Sushi Seki (NYC)
Sushi Seki is on the Upper East Side. It was the sushi spot we all rushed to after dinner service. It was one of those situations where we would all hang out, and now all of us are now all around the country. I remember that warm scallop handroll being one of the most amazing things. The sushi chef was behind the counter, we were all just hanging out, and we spent many evenings there bonding and talking shop. (Photo: feistyfoodie.com)
Lemon Bar at Pure Food & Wine (NYC)
People ask me where I like to eat because they think I go to crazy restaurants. But really, I go to Pure Food & Wine, which is a completely raw vegan restaurant. The lemon bar there is amazing. It has opened me up to alternative baking and not relying on dairy and gluten for flavor. It represents where food is going—trying to use more health-focused ingredients to get the same flavors and textures out of things. This bar was one of the first items that made me think, “Wow, how did they make this?” I want to look at food differently, but not with a modernist approach—just using basic ingredients and getting what is expected. You don’t see a lot of raw desserts, and I think it is cool. (Photo: http://jlgoesvegan.com)
Oregon Chinook Salmon
Growing up on the East Coast, I was used to farm-raised salmon. I did not enjoy it. I remember we’d get this amazing King Salmon at Jean-Georges during wild salmon season, but throughout my career on the East Coast, I really didn’t enjoy the fish. Since moving west, I’ve fallen in love with it. I’ve worked with the Oregon Salmon Commission on a few projects. I won the Great American Seafood Cookoff with Chinook Salmon. The contest is funny; it’s like a very big deal in the seafood industry. It is a national thing. I personally think it was easy…I work with amazing product. My win was a testament to the amazing power of product from the state of Oregon. We cooked the fish sous-vide and made the skin crispy, then we served it with candied sea lettuce. We also smoked some butter clams, which only come from here. It was really cool how everything came together on the plate. It is an awesome nod to Oregon. That award helped me get Chef of the Year from the Department of Agriculture. (Photo: portlandsocietypage.com)
Coconut milk is one of my most heavily used ingredients, from curries to desserts—it replaces cream for me and serves as the base for a lot of things. We did an ice cream with Salt & Straw, and it was their first dairy free offering. It was a coconut milk ice cream with Thai chili and cashew brittle and cilantro caramel. Tons of vegans were like, “Oh my god, this is amazing.” We’re conscious of lifestyle and it is great to produce something that everyone can enjoy. (Photo: Gregory Gourdet)
Jacobsen’s Sea Salt
I became obsessed with this salt a few years ago when I discovered it. My friend Ben Jacobsen was harvesting water from the Oregon Coast, driving it to Portland, and making salt from it. I though the whole story was fascinating, as was the salt itself—large, beautiful flakes with clean and bold oceanic flavor. Now I use Jacobsen’s Salt to season and finish all my dishes, from sushi to desserts. I never travel without it, and I love making flavored salt blends from it. (Photo: Allison Jones)
Sweet Sticky Rice with Mango at Pok Pok (Portland, OR)
This is my favorite dessert of all time and I long for summer months when ripe and fruity champagne mangoes are in season. I adore the play of chewy, sweet, floral coconut rice with the creamy mango, salt, and sesame seeds. Rice and mangoes are a big part of Haitian cuisine, so this dish speaks of home and growing up with similar flavors. I can’t wait to go to Thailand and have it first-hand one day. (Photo: Austin Bush/Food52)
Peking Duck at Departure (Portland, OR)
Restaurant 66 in NYC was my first chef de cuisine position. The restaurant closed a while ago but it was there I learned wok cookery and Chinese technique from Chinese cooks. One dish that stuck with me while there was Peking duck. Every December, we make our take on this dish at Departure to celebrate the holidays. Our version has a 50/50 ratio of pink juicy meat to crisp, flavorful skin. It is extremely labor intensive and each duck takes four days to make. The complete dinner comes with six condiments and garnishes: candied kumquats, house-made plum sauce, scallion, cucumber, steamed pancakes, and duck-fat fried rice. It takes six cooks to get each dinner to your table. People have flown in from New York and driven from California to have it. It’s popularity is insane. It is one of the best things we make at Departure and one of our biggest annual events. (Photo: Drew Tyson)