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The Future of Dining: Portland's Culinary Elite Share Their Wildest Predictions

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Are food cart pods dead? Will tips soon be a thing of the past?

Future Week 2015 on Eater
Future Week 2015 on Eater
Bamman/EPDX

As part of Future Week on Eater—and to find out if drones really will replace waiters and we'll all be baking with insect flour—we asked Portland's culinary elite to share their predictions for the future of dining. Below are perspectives from Feast co-founder Mike Thelin, chef Lisa Schroeder of Mother's Bistro, restaurateur Kurt Huffman, old-school publicist Bette Sinclair, and other culinary visionaries. To be honest, from what they have to say, we're both excited and terrified.

Have a crystal ball? Share your predictions for the future of Portland dining in the comments.

Chef Greg Higgins, Higgins Restaurant — I think that we'll see a lot fewer DIY and independent restaurants making cheeses, charcuterie, and other goods in-house. It's really just the Portland and American food scene growing up. In Europe, chefs don't make cheese and sausage. They buy them from expert producers. Here, we have Ben Jacobsen and Jacobsen Salt, for instance.

One of the biggest things I've seen over the last 30 years is the rise of viable and really dedicated food artisans who are crafting ingredients rather than just selling raw ingredients. This goes hand in hand with new health regulations from the USDA, which are clipping the wings of chefs a bit.

Restaurateur Kurt Huffman, Chefstable — Anyone who has been in this business for a while knows that you can never guess what the next thing or the next trend is going to be. Who would have thought that something as idiotic as bone broth would become a "thing"? Pretending to know what's coming next is fraught with peril and presumption, so I'll just focus on one issue that I think will consume the industry in the next 5-10 years.

To put it bluntly, restaurants cannot afford to pay cooks and dishwashers enough to make the jobs worth it.

The restaurant industry needs to quickly figure out how to make working in the kitchen a viable career option. To put it bluntly, restaurants cannot afford to pay cooks and dishwashers enough to make the jobs worth it. In an industry that averages approximately 5% profitability, there's no room to significantly increase wages for half of your staff. Some restaurants will be able to pay more—and the highest performers in every city up and down the West Coast are doing that—but those are the exceptions and not the rule.

On top of this problem you can pile on the following: Wages are going to increase dramatically as cities and states pass progressive minimum wage laws (say hello to $13.50 an hour in Oregon very soon), then mandatory healthcare kicks in on the first of the year. Good luck hoping that tip credit laws* will ever pass on the Left Coast.

Why does an increase in the minimum wage exacerbate this problem? Because it is imposing a much higher wage for servers and bartenders and other tip-earning employees who are, by far, the best paid people in the industry. As a result it makes it all the more difficult for restaurants to pay kitchen employees wages that keep the talent flowing and the food excellent and the wait times short. Until the restaurant industry figures out how to pay it's kitchen employees a wage commensurate with the skills required and the intensity of the work environment, we will continue to work with an unsustainable business model.

From my perspective, the answer to this problem will be found in how restaurants manage their tipping or auto-gratuity policies. In cities like Seattle and Los Angeles, where $15/hour minimum wage is now phasing in, we are seeing restaurant owners like Renee Erickson and Bill Chait either doing away with tipping altogether or adding a service charge to all bills. In both cases, the outcome is similar: auto-gratuity now appears on every bill. In both examples the intent is the same: rethink a way to generate enough income to pay for all of the new costs the industry is confronting without raising menu prices.**

These kinds of experiments are going to happen here in Portland as well, as soon as healthcare is mandatory and even more once the reality of a $13.50 minimum wage sets in.

I agree with this approach, but my concern is that if these policies don't address the urgency of radically increasing kitchen wages, then we're only addressing survival. If we want to thrive as an industry we need to rethink where our guest's tips go, and in my opinion, we need to fundamentally change how they are distributed with one simple caveat: kitchen employees need to start getting an equal share of the tips.***

How we do this is up for debate.

But one thing is certainly in our industry's future: AUTO-GRATUITY. Coming soon to a bill near you.

* Tip credit allows restaurants to deduct earned tips from a tip-earning employee's wages down to a state established minimum. It is legal in the vast majority of the country, but it is not allowed anywhere on the West Coast. The reasoning is that these employees are still guaranteed the same minimum wage as non-tip earning employees, so the restaurant is essentially given credit for providing a job where the servers, bartenders, and so forth are given the opportunity to earn tips as income.

** People who think that restaurants can pay for all of these new costs by simply raising their menu prices have no idea what they are talking about. In economic terms, there is limited price elasticity in our industry, and it may take owning a restaurant to understand the depth of this truth.

*** I invite all angry servers, who want to rant about how idiotic this idea is, to write me at kurt@chefstablegroup.com.

Chef Lisa Schroeder, Mothers Bistro — Molecular gastronomy has already jumped the shark, and we're starting to see shi shi foo foo restaurants slowly convert to casual enclaves of impeccable yet approachable food. Over the next five years, I see a resurgence in "analog" dishes and a return to food that is real, tasty, and nourishing, both physically and spiritually.

More and more diners will want to know about the provenance of what they're eating. Animal ethics and sustainability will play an increasing role in dining decisions. On the service side, I believe technology will be embraced to offset increased staffing costs. Paper menus will be a thing of the past, with information about each dish available electronically for the picky/allergic eater. This will eliminate the need for server knowledge, thus costs. I think iPad or texting orders are likely to become prevalent.

Chef Sarah Bui, Doi Dua — This question can be answered a bunch of different ways, so I'll just comment on the food side of future dining.

I really believe the future of dining is a very exciting one. Everything is cyclical, and dining is no different. In regards to cooking, I think more and more people are rediscovering the past. Whether it be returning to traditional techniques or classic dishes or reconnecting with one's heritage, there's more interest in breathing new life into subjects that could easily fade away.

I see my peers really getting into the dishes they grew up eating, taking what they learned from their elders and making it relevant now. There's more value put on doing things the old-school way, the more labor-intensive way, because it yields a better, more authentic product.

I also think there will be more of an emergence of ethnic foods. It's so easily accessible now, and diners are even more adventurous than ever, not shying away from unfamiliar ingredients or flavors.

I can't even begin to list off the many different restaurants and pop-ups that are modernizing ethnic cuisines with customary, quality ingredients. These types of restaurants come with preconceived notions that their ethnic foods need to be plentiful, quick, cheap, and straight-forward with not-so-great ingredients. So there will be the challenge to break these notions, and more and more cooks will rise up to the occasion in the future. I mean, we're one of them, and there will be many more to come.

Mike Thelin, Feast Co-Founder and Bolted Services Principal — Honestly, I think Portland is the model for the future of food. We're not a town of fancy restaurants or Michelin-starred validation BS. We're a place where food trucks and taverns are sourcing from some of the same farms as our best restaurants in town, and where there is a real culture of sourcing, cooking, and gathering together over great food.

We're also a city that has reinvented and rebuilt itself and its neighborhoods based almost entirely around food.

We're also a city that has reinvented and rebuilt itself and its neighborhoods based almost entirely around food. Would Division Street have the energy it has today without Pok Pok? Would we venture to NE 30th and Killingsworth without Expatriate, Beast, and Yakuza? How many people were lured to North Portland for John Gorham's food? Would Lower East Burnside be what it is without Le Pigeon? How many folks are checking out Lents and outer SE Portland thanks to the new Mercado development?

And although rising real estate costs will likely and sadly spell the death of food cart pods (as we know them at least) over the next decade, these tiny food clusters have energized parts of Downtown and the Eastside and have become destinations and international tourism beacons. The lesson here is that the power of food can transform landscapes, and America is in dire need of that. So it's impossible to say what things will look like in 50 years, but placing food at the core of every community, while also addressing (and that means more than lazy lip-service) the very real food inequality and access issues we face, will bode well for us all.

Chef John Pickett, Willow — Chefs in Portland have, for the last 10 years or so, dramatically changed the way that their audiences think about their food: Consider the episode of Portlandia about Colin the chicken and what percentage of Portland chefs and servers know exactly where their chickens come from. The local food industry led that trend and changed the way its guests engage with their meal.

For the future, I see a focus on specific sub-cuisines within broad umbrellas. I think it is great, because the old language doesn't work anymore: It's not Mexican, it's Oaxacan; it's not Italian, it's Tuscan; it's not New American, it's Cascadian. Our guests' tastes are evolving, too, and they are looking for restaurants to focus on one type of cuisine and to do it very well.

Personally, I am planning on an emergence of tasting menus in addition to, or in lieu of, a la carte menus. Across cuisines and different backgrounds, chefs in Portland are approaching a kaiseki-style of dining. We have seen it to some extent at places like Farm Spirit, LangBaan, and what Willow aims to do once open. By offering a set menu, chefs are able to price their multi-course meals affordably and well below what a similar a la carte experience would be. Excellent food for a good value.

A few brief food-trend ideas: house-made vinegars (fruit-based and beer-based are particularly exciting) and house-made/enriched amino base (think restaurant-specific tare or Worcestershire that is used to lend flavor in sauces and dressings). I would really love to see a resurgence in old school cooking equipment, like the slow cooker or pressure cooker, too.

Gary Okazaki, Gary the Foodie The cost of opening and running a restaurant in PDX has skyrocketed, and there is no reason to believe this trend will reverse. The pressure to create a place that is profitable under these circumstances will likely lead to restaurants that are safer and, to me, less interesting.

I have deep admiration for Bonnie and Israel Morales who opened a restaurant that seemed risky at the time [Kachka]. I would have never thought a Russian restaurant could succeed in PDX to the degree that Kachka has (does anyone remember the Russian eatery on SE Foster?). I hope restaurants such as Kachka are not the rare exception.

One of the keys for PDX's dining scene to continue to flourish is an influx of young talent. The most intriguing food I've had this year in PDX is from Vince Nguyen, who collaborated on a dinner with Justin Woodward during the summer. Vince recently returned to Castagna after having been a sous chef at San Francisco's Coi. I am excited to see what he will do in the future. This city needs young talent, such as Vince, to move here. That will be the lifeblood for PDX innovation.

I do have one off-the-wall prediction that within the next 5 years there will be a food cart creating Michelin-quality food, and it will be ground-breaking and will change the way fine dining is perceived, both in PDX and in the USA.

I do have one off-the-wall prediction that within the next 5 years there will be a food cart creating Michelin-quality food.

Chef Vitaly Paley, Paley's Place, Imperial, and Penny Diner — I think the future of food is back to basics and back in time. I think more of us are going to explore our roots, get in touch with our past, and cook from the soul using ingredients of our region, thereby creating something new and unique.

Chef Chris Whaley, The American Local — I have lots of thoughts on the future. One thing I think we will see is a reflection of minimum wage increases in service approach. I see a lot of restaurants already moving away from the traditional tip system and charging people a service charge which will help cover higher labor costs. The odds are that we will see this more and more.

I can also see a lot of newer places going with counter service concepts, similar to Boke Bowl or Bollywood, to cut down on labor costs.

Another thing I think and hope we see is more chefs focusing on vegetables more than meat. As large meat production becomes more unsustainable, people will continue to move towards small producers, and this will make meat more expensive. I also think chefs are really learning to love vegetables and that will show on future concepts.

I don't know what the next culinary trend will be. I'm not that smart, but I do think we are moving past the molecular gastronomy movement and more towards simple executions. The mid-range restaurant seems to be able to offer a lot more interesting concepts these days, which gives people less of a reason to go to high-end places.

Publicist Bette Sinclair, B Sinclair Public Relations — We are a nation obsessed with food. As a necessity, and a lifestyle. What we eat is tied to who we are. What we believe in. So, what will we be eating? As a prediction, I was going to say "Whatever is on the Pope's plate." Because, no matter what, Italian food will always be popular. (And hopefully layer cake will be the new dessert craze; I’m crazy for cake.)

With an ever-increasing workforce and an aging affluent population, more than ever dining out will serve as entertainment, a social activity and a convenience, whether it's a food cart, bistro, or a fine dining restaurant. Ambiance will be key, even if sitting street-side. And I think more people will take to the streets: Watch for drive-up window food vendors to pop up around town. My dream is that noise levels in restaurants will become tolerable.

Informed consumers will pay more attention to what they eat as a lifestyle choice. They'll look for healthier classic dishes that taste delicious and are good for our bodies. We will look to using repurposed foods based on our desire to practice sustainability and conservation, using every part of the product. Vegetarian or otherwise.

More emphasis will be on the next generation of diners. One day, all elementary schools will incorporate vegetable gardening, harvesting, and cooking into the regular curriculum to teach young people about nutrition and where their food comes from. This education will eventually have a trickle-down effect, and these new evangelists will force all manufacturers, grocery stores, and restaurants to use fresh, healthy, local, and intelligently grown foods. Farmers markets will be year-round, accessible, and affordable. And at the end of the day bacon will still reign.

Chef Janis Martin, Tanuki and Falcata — I see the immediate future of dining to be much more influenced by what is happening politically with our economy than any sort of organically occurring creative movements. Leaving value-neutral the demand to nearly double the national minimum wage while also mandating several new benefits to be supplied at employer expense, I believe the majority of innovation in our industry is going to be focused on how to weather these changes.

Smaller businesses. You'll see less young people with a few bucks and a dream opening up. The ones that do, the survival rate will be lower. There will necessarily be a lot less risk-taking by young idealists, and a lot more monetizing of things that were once small and local by people with pull.

Unintended consequences of political maneuvering aside, I can't but think that the town is succumbing to the Hawthorne variation of the Observer effect. Almost 9 years ago, when I started here, Portland still had a bit of that culinary Wild West thing going on. Now we're seeing the inevitable phase of affectation that accompanies being long under the public eye. People seeing money to be made over a vision to share.

Add to that a dining public that staggers drunkenly across the sobriety test line between savvy and cynical. My overall prediction locally? A lot less "sincerest pumpkin patch" and a lot more cash cows.

To remain optimistic though, I predict 2016 to be The Year Of Mae, Chef Maya Lovelace's pop-up. And really, that's the best thing that that can happen to our dining scene right now.

Chris Angelus, Owner of Portland Food Adventures, Host at Right at the Fork Podcast— With regard to the word "dining" and Portland, increased tourism and the influx of new residents will likely create a divide. As real estate becomes more expensive and wage issues become less discussion and more reality, the cream will rise, but those who are treading water won't be able to sustain.

There's enough "accessible" dining now so that a small culling probably won't be noticeable to people other than those who've been culled. What I like to refer to as "finer dining" in Portland will most likely become more expensive and, successful restaurateurs will begin to spend more time away from the kitchen, or at the very least without knife in hand.

I'm hopeful somehow the creative spirit and collaborative community that makes our dining world what it is won't be a consequence of all this. Maybe because there is no place like Oregon, it can continue to provide the foundation on which the drive for peer-respect creates interesting, delicious experiences.

Mixologist Daniel Shoemaker, Teardrop Lounge — In the broader context of the Portland dining landscape, I fully anticipate a move to revisit origins, to embrace anew the pillars on which the city’s current culinary era were built—the constellation of Paley, Higgins, Dolich, et al from which so much has emanated. Those places that inspired the symbiosis our cuisine with our surroundings are being exposed to the influx of people from elsewhere and will continue to show the best that we have to offer.

As far as a particular type of cuisine, I firmly believe we have way too many Bay Area folks disembarking daily to go without a Mission-style burrito shop for too much longer, which is, personally, a very exciting prospect.

As far as a particular type of cuisine, I firmly believe we have way too many Bay Area folks disembarking daily to go without a Mission-style burrito shop for too much longer.

With regard to cocktails, on the other hand, I’m convinced we are going to see—are seeing it already, in fact—the rise of the middle tier of bars around town. Cocktails have become ubiquitous, but it’s happened hand-in-hand with the resistance to being seen as taking them too seriously. More and more saloons, neighborhood bars, and even nightclubs will be seen embracing the shift in the overall drinking culture.

Consumers are so knowledgeable in Portland, and their expectations will demand that fresh and balanced are de rigueur. I’m far from alone in the anticipation that you will very soon be able to safely order a daiquiri or sazerac.

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