The most fitting analogy you could apply to Portland's restaurant industry is Six Degrees of Separation — if you swap out "Six" for "One." Everyone seems to have worked with each other at some time or another. Or, as in chef Ben Bettinger and bartender Kevin Ludwig's case, multiple times.
The duo first met at Paley's Place. A couple of years later, they teamed up again to open Ludwig's Beaker & Flask, which quickly took Willamette Week's top honors for "Restaurant of the Year." But few people stay in one place for long, lured elsewhere by former coworkers and the thrill of the "new." Before B&F shuttered, Bettinger once again teamed up with Paley, helping him inaugurate Imperial, while Ludwig (Wildwood, Park Kitchen, Clyde Common) inaugurated the bar program at Rodney Muir's La Taq.
But, as of the last few months, the dynamic duo is back together, with Ludwig taking on Laurelhurst Market's bar program, and Bettinger steering the kitchen.
We recently sat down to talk to them about where they've been, where they're going and what the challenges are of taking over an already established (and successful) food and beverage program.
How did you two first meet?
Ben: We first met at Paley's Place. I was the intern and he was a bartender. I can't really remember how long we worked together there before Kevin moved on to Park Kitchen.
Kevin: Ben was just out of cooking school and I was behind the bar (at Paley's). I remember he just impressed the hell out of everyone. He was like a big puppy, so full of energy and enthusiasm. When his externship was done, Vitaly didn't have a job available, so he had to go work somewhere else. As soon as something opened up he was brought back, but I was kind of on my way out. I had the opportunity to help Scott Dolich open Park Kitchen, but I could tell (Ben) was going to be a star, so I kept tabs on what he was doing. I can't say we were super tight friends, at that point, but Benny is just one of those people who makes you feel like you are.
I know you had a good relationship that quickly made Beaker & Flask a dining destination. What made it work?
Ben: Once we got B&F open we got busy very quickly with Willamette Week's Restaurant of the Year coming just a few months after opening, and from there we really just went into survival mode. I changed the menu as I saw fit and Kevin would create awesome new cocktails that would work well with my food.
Kevin: I think there was a mutual respect. We both knew that the other was serious about their craft and enjoyed what each other produced. At the same time, we both like to have fun in the work environment. Like I said, we didn't really become solid friends until the Beaker thing started to happen. We spent a lot of time together (along with Tim Davey, my bar manager) and we found ways to have fun and release some of the stress. We'd play Wiffle ball in the space, or go up to Seattle and hit the good bars up there. There was a lot of hype leading up to the opening of Beaker, and once it opened, we got hit hard, but I think it worked because we delivered. I had complete trust in him and I never had to worry about the kitchen and I think he appreciated me not getting in his way. I think that leads us back to respect.
Ben you've been at Laurelhurst Market since this summer. And Kevin, you were just recently hired on. How did that come about, and how does it feel being once again back together on the same team?
Ben: I was approached by the owners of Laurelhurst Market last year. They're all old friends of mine so it seemed right off the bat like such a great fit. I had met with Ben Dyer a few weeks prior and was totally taken by surprise, though, when he asked if I would ever consider taking over as the chef. The rest is history. I am definitely really excited to have Kevin back behind the bar with me. I really admire how he approaches cocktails, he just has a certain way of manipulating a few ingredients to make them taste different then I've experienced before. I think we are both extremely happy to be working together again.
Kevin: I had just taken the summer off and road-tripped around the country. I was just in the process of getting my resume together when I got a message from Eric Nelson (the old Laurelhurst Market bar manager), letting me know that they were looking for a new guy. It was, honestly, the most perfect thing that could have fallen in my lap. I sent a text to Benny (Bettinger), he hooked me up with Dave, and it was done pretty quickly. I've always loved this restaurant and being able to work with Ben again was icing on the cake.
What are your plans for your dining and cocktail menus? Are there certain menus items that are absolutely off limits?
Ben: When I showed up, there was a small list of menu items that could not be touched. After three months of being here, there are just a few of those staple menu items left. I think the wedge salad with braised bacon, pickled celery and blue cheese may be the only survivor. It helps that I am a huge sucker for a good wedge and this is definitely a great wedge.
Kevin: I think the only one that is off limits is a drink called Smoke Signals, which is a drink developed by the original bar manager, Evan Zimmerman. It's still a huge seller and people come in specifically for it. It requires a lot of prep (smoked ice, pecan syrup) so it's not something that can just be whipped up on the fly. I'll always have to make those products, so it'll stay on the list. But it doesn't bother me. It's a good drink.
How are you putting your own spin on the menu?
Ben: My approach is to touch upon some old steak house classics while at the same time reinventing the wheel a bit with what can be done with a steak house menu.
Kevin: I'm gradually putting my stamp on things. Seeing what our customers want and deciding on what moves to make. This isn't a broken restaurant that needs to be fixed. That being said, I have ideas. It's a steak house, but with a Portland bent, so I'm thinking along those lines. I put on a version of a classic drink called a Tuxedo (subbing Aquavit for the gin) and I'm working on a perfect blend of gins to use in a house Martini. I've also got a great crew of bartenders and I'm encouraging them to develop their own.
What are the challenges of taking over already successful kitchen and bar programs when you two have already made names for yourselves in this community?
Ben: It's been challenging to take over this restaurant because it was already extremely popular and always very busy. Laurelhurst Market has a very strong following of regulars and so I really needed to be careful not to rock the boat too much. Gradual changes to enhance an already awesome program was the plan, although I can get a little impatient at times.
Kevin: It's a great challenge for me, because, for the most part, I've always opened places, so my ideas were the first ideas the customers experienced. This is a hugely successful place and I want to be respectful of what has been built here. I'm not looking to come in and force my agenda on our already happy clientele.
What ingredient are you most inspired to play with right now?
Ben: Right now I am most inspired by beef! We have up to nine different cuts of beef on our menu at any given time. I love it. I'm totally embracing the joy of running a modern Portland-style steakhouse.
Kevin: Well, I've spent the last year focusing almost exclusively on agave-based spirits at La Taq. That was a nice immersion, but I'm just excited to get to work with the full range once again. I was a huge gin guy for years, and I've kind of gotten away from that in recent years. There is so much great new gin out there and that gets me excited. Laurelhurst Market hasn't really done much with good rum, and that's always been a love of mine, so I'm going to try and get something going there. I think that good, sipping rums could find a place here.