We were presented with an opportunity to sit down with one of Portland’s hottest chefs, Gabriel Rucker, and learn what it feels like to be a two-time James Beard Award winner, what his priorities are, and where he likes to eat in Portland (when he’s not at his restaurants, of course). Chef Rucker is charming, extremely talented and very creative. His is a trajectory that will continue to go up; he will continue to be successful; and Portlanders and tourists alike will continue to flock to his restaurants. Add Le Pigeon and Little Bird to your dining list when you’re in town, or pick up his cookbook Le Pigeon: Cooking at the Dirty Bird in September to recreate the divine meals at home.
Congratulations on your second James Beard Award as “Best Chef Northwest.”
Thank you. Sitting outside Lincoln Center before the awards, I was like, “I don’t really think I’m going to win and I almost don’t want to.” It’s a lot of responsibility. The bar gets raised on you. There’s the pressure, and part of it is feeling like you have to earn it. It’s probably a good trait to feel like you never deserve things, and it keeps me honest. [It] keeps me constantly pushing myself to be like, “Well, you got this, so act like you deserve it.” Not that I do deserve it, but I should act like I deserve it. And that’s something that causes anxiety and causes me to lose sleep, but also puts a smile on my face.
Was this a goal of yours, to earn two James Beard Awards before you’re even 40?
Nope, honestly. I just had my friend from a restaurant in New York City telling me about how Le Pigeon has an amazing reputation in the New York City restaurant industry. That’s the stuff that’s cooler than the awards — hearing that your own peers in the food scene respect you. That to me is the biggest accomplishment I’ve reached in my career.
The goals in my business are to have butts in seats, have guests come excited and leave happy, and hope they’re happy enough to tell their friends about their experience. To be busy, to treat your employees well, and to be respected by your peers — that’s what does it for me.
What’s a typical day like for a two-time James Beard Award winner?
I’m at Le Pigeon most days, but I’m at the other restaurant I co-own, Little Bird, every Tuesday. I prep and work with the team in the morning, through lunch. Then that means I get to go home and cook dinner with my family and watch the [San Francisco] Giants game if it’s on. In the summertime, I can still go on a bike ride. I get to see my wife, talk to her about her day and put my son to bed. If you really want to know about me, family definitely comes first.
Do you think you could replicate the success of Little Bird and Le Pigeon in another city, or is Portland “it” for you?
I’m not an empire builder and Portland is home. I once read a quote that said, “Perfect is never something you reach. It’s something you’re constantly striving to reach.” If you think, “Yeah, I’ve made it, I’ve done it,” then what do you do? Life has definitely changed for me, I’ve been evolving and feeling more confident in what I do, but I don’t think another city is my style. I like to be in my restaurant cooking food too much to be in other cities, too. My style of management is too hands-on. I want to be sharing my personality and cook with my cooks. I don’t want to just tell them how to do it.
Do you see yourself as a mentor?
I guess I do. It’s hard for me to say that, because it’s hard for me to say things like that about myself. But at Le Pigeon, we’re lucky enough to have people working for free one day a week with the hope of getting a job. They come in with not that much experience, and hopefully leave with a lot more knowledge. I take the time out of my day to help someone cut a red onion better, glaze a carrot better, properly sear a piece of meat, teach someone how to move in a kitchen, how to listen and how to respond to what a chef tells you. If that’s the definition of a mentor, then, yes, I do see myself as one. I do what I can. These people respect what we do enough that they’re willing to work a full-time job and then come in every week on their day off to cook with us. I feel like it’s my job to give back to those people. If there’s a position at Le Pigeon, which doesn’t open up that often, or if there’s a position I feel they would be successful in at another person’s restaurant, or if it’s telling them not to take a job that would be detrimental to their career, or if it’s just teaching them how to dice an onion better, I do that.
When you dine out in Portland, where do you go?
I like the seafood at The Woodsman Tavern. I also really like Ava Gene’s and Boxer Sushi. I just had an amazing dinner at Ox. What Gregory Denton and Gabi Quiñónez Denton [co-chefs and co-owners, along with restaurateur Kurt Huffman] have done inspires me — I’m inspired by what they do and how successful they are. It’s good to have your friends in the business be successful because it pushes you. I can’t rest on my laurels, because why would someone want to come to Le Pigeon when they’ve been there before and there’s something new like Ox?
What are your culinary inspirations?
I get inspired by everything. I get inspired by all the cooks I work with. I get inspired by American fast food. We have a dessert at Le Pigeon that I was just working on with our pastry chef that involves Cap’n Crunch cereal. It’s got a blackberry panna cotta, strawberry and white rum ice cream, corn, and brown sugar anglaise.
Le Pigeon has really changed in the last year. We now offer a tasting menu and we sell a lot of them. When two customers are getting 14 plates instead of four plates, buckle up because you only have a certain amount of space and you still want their experience to be great. But we’ll always have the bar that doesn’t require reservations — you can always walk in and have a burger and a Coors. Let’s not forget our roots, what got us here. You can always evolve, you can always do better, but you’ve got to stay true to what got you there. We’re excited about our Le Pigeon: Cooking at the Dirty Bird cookbook, coming out on September 17. It’ll feature so many recipes from the first few years of Le Pigeon and Little Bird and give inspiration and confidence to readers and cooks at home.
Photos courtesy of David Reamer