Photo by Avila/EPDX
Ken Forkish is a busy man, and he wouldn't have it any other way. Since the opening of Ken's Artisan Bakery 13 years ago, Forkish has tackled a pizzeria, wrote a James Beard Award-winning cookbook, and now with his newest venture, Trifecta Tavern, he's serving up Maryland-style seafood in an elegant tavern atmosphere. The reviews for the new spot have been mixed, but according to Forkish, "What really matters isn't what you read in the paper, what really matters is how many people come in, and their experience."
If he had the time, Forkish would be the type of guy you'd want to hang out with for a few hours at a bar, talking about dough and char over a couple dozen oysters. Eater caught up with Forkish at Trifecta to talk about Ken's Artisan Pizza, long wait times, his newest venture, and his favorite regular: Bill Cosby.
First off, it's Pizza Week at Eater, so let's talk about pie…
I opened Ken's Artisan Pizza in 2006 — that's been a really good ride. It's a wood-fire oven pizzeria. I love the style of pizza we do, not everybody else does. I think it made the Oregonian's, like, fifth-bad pizza in the city a couple years ago, and I was like, 'Fuck, you kidding me?' That really hurt. [Laughs] It's been a very rewarding place. I love our pizza; I love the place; I love my people there. I like some charring. There is a degree of char that looks great, and it doesn't taste burnt. We're not trying to please everybody; if you do that, you're McDonald's. You do the pie that you believe in, and you hope they like it. You find your audience after a while.
What's your favorite kind of pizza?
My favorites depend on my mood. We do a pizza with mozzarella di bufala. We call it the Napoli, and it's bufala that's flown in fresh from Italy every week. When it's at its best, the cheese — no two are the same — it has this perfect amount of tang. Fuck yeah, that's good. We do one that we call the New Yorker. It's from a recipe in my book. And I like that one a lot, it's a little bit of a cheesier pie, more like what I grew up with: a little saucier, a little cheesier. You want everything to be in balance on a pizza. I don't want — the crust, the sauce, the cheese, the toppings — any one element over laying any of the other elements.
Of all your establishments, which runs the longest wait?
On our busiest nights, it's maybe still longer at the pizzeria, because we just don't have as many seats. 55 seats, plus 10 at the bar. Although, we turn them like four times a night, on our busiest nights.
When's the absolute busiest time at the pizzeria?
At five o'clock on Saturday. When we open the door, we've got a line of people outside that usually fills the restaurant, so by 6:30p.m. we've already done 75 covers. That's how we do four turns on our busiest nights. What always frustrates me about the pizzeria is that a lot of people say, "You know, we never go, because we don't want to wait." But that's Friday and Saturday night. Try Sunday, Monday, Tuesday night: Go on our slower nights if you don't want to wait. If you want to wait, come on Saturday at six.
How do you handle having to tell people they have a long wait ahead of them?
I've done it enough that I just want to give them an accurate read. That's really hard to do. You can go based on how many people are waiting, how many tables you've got, what your average turn rate is and give them your best guess. And I'm not the one giving the guess anymore. I used to; I don't want to be that guy.
How's it going at your newest spot, Trifecta?
Once my book was published and I recuperated from the work, I could have just enjoyed the ride, but I just can't live that way. So I'd had in mind to do a tavern for a very long time. Our real star here is Rich Meyer — he's our chef. Rich was chef de cuisine at Higgins for 17 years. Rich and I have a common heritage; I'm older than he is, but Rich grew up on Long Island, and then in Maryland. I'm a Marylander by birth until I was 21. Rich's first food job was cooking in Ocean City, Maryland. We didn't know each other back then, but I love the fact that we have this common heritage. And there's a lot of East Coast, mostly Maryland seafood themes here at Trifecta. Whether it's oysters, or more oysters, or shrimp and grits, or my uncle Max's chicken liver toasts, or the ham and oyster rolls, or the double pimento cheese burger. This is like my ideal childhood menu, 40 years later.
You've been open for quite some time at the bakery and the pizzeria — how about regulars?
You want lots of them. Thousands of them would be great. [Laughs] We have lots at the bakery and the pizzeria, lots. The community that we've built up at both my bakery and at the pizzeria — because I spend a lot of time at my businesses — it's something that affects you at the heart, as well as this good sense of being like, "Portland is different because I've done these things." So, it's tremendously satisfying.
And any celebrities?
Bill Cosby is one of our biggest fans at my bakery. He orders our Oregon croissant several times a year; he says it's the best pastry he's ever had in the U.S. Somebody picks up the phone, and he says, "Hi, this is Bill Cosby." And they go, "Yeah, right, who is this really?" And he goes, "No, it's the Cos!" I freakin' love that. Usually it's his personal manager, but sometimes he calls himself, and we get a real thrill out of that. He's been one of my heroes since I was a little kid. The pizzeria, not so much. Celebrities typically don't want to wait for a table or be in such tight confines. I think Trifecta is ideally suited for celebs, because of the booths — your seating is more private, and we can handle the reservations here.
Throughout your long industry career, I'm sure you've dealt with some jerks... any good stories?
We try and forget those as soon as possible. [Laughs]
What's the most important Gatekeepers tool?
The first thing the customer wants the instant they walk in the door: they want recognition; they want contact; they want a smile. And then, as soon as the conversation starts, they want to know that you're on their side. You know, that's the most important thing. Because if you come in and you've got a reservation, and then you see that there's a lot of people waiting, it's in those circumstances that there could be that little bit of apprehension and tension, until you know for sure that your table is ready. This is something I tell my people when we're interviewing and training, no matter what, they just want to know that you're on their side.
· Ken's Artisan Pizza [Official site]
· All Previous Ken Forkish Coverage [Eater PDX]
· All Previous Pizza Week Coverage [Eater PDX]