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November 10, 2010

Why Portland won the last 4 of 6 Food & Wine Best New Chef awards

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Source: PDX Eater

I’m so very proud of my hometown’s ascension to the national food scene over the past few years.  The latest news:  Castagna chef Matt Lightner picked up a 2010 Best New Chef Award in NYC from Food and Wine magazine.

Is it uncanny that four of the past six awards have gone to Portland chefs?  I say no.  The potential has always been there, but historically, it lacked a few catalysts that the bigger cities had.  When I left the Pacific Northwest in 1997, the food scene was emerging — but slowly at best.  San Francisco, L.A. and Manhattan were so far ahead.  And Portland was a waifish sibling to Seattle.

So what changed?  I think there are three major catalysts:

1) The big-city-to-PDX diaspora. Since the late 1990s, big-city kids have been coming to Portland in droves in search of a higher-quality lifestyle.   With them, they brought home equity gains and worldly appetites — and formed a dining-out critical mass that Portland historically lacked.

2) Portland became known as a spot for low-cost restaurant innovation. The rosy American dream of “opening up a restaurant” is so much more possible in Portland than it is in New York.  In Portland, a mid-level big-city chef can open her own shop much earlier in her career.  So many talented chefs who could cook in any city decided to call Portland home.  And if the first venture can’t be done on credit cards, Portland’s wealthy (aka angel investors) don’t need a venture capital partner to bankroll the next Pok Pok.

3) Local sourcing came back en vogue. It’s well known that some of the world’s best dirt and water is within 200 miles of Portland.  But this didn’t matter much between 1950-1990.  During this time,  the supermarket and corporate farm concepts ruled, so uniformed-sized pink tomatoes and iceberg lettuce from Albertson’s were the norm.  Once small farms came back in vogue, Portland was in a better position than practically any other city in the nation for local agriculture.

But today the Rose City is bustling with food.  So much that I have only dined at four of Eater’s 38 top restaurants.

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