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‘Pig’s’ Idea of Portland’s Restaurant Scene Is Mostly Detached From Reality

Nicolas Cage’s Taken-esque film about hunting for a truffle pig takes place in Portland, but it doesn’t seem too tied to the reality of the city. Is there still something valuable in what it does say?

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A still from the movie ‘Pig,’ featuring Nicolas Cage looking bruised and bloody, carring three plates of food in his arms.
Nicolas Cage in the film Pig
Courtesy of Neon

On July 16, the new Nicolas Cage flick Pig debuted in theaters around the country. The story follows an ex-chef, Robin Feld, as he searches for his missing truffle pig, taken from his rural home in a violent pig-napping. Cage travels across Portland’s various bridges, discusses the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake in nihilistic monologues, and stops at a food cart pod and various restaurants for soft-spoken interrogations. The movie, on paper, looks like a cross between Taken and John Wick with a culinary lens; instead, it lands somewhere between First Cow and The Killing of a Sacred Deer, almost completely nihilistic outside of the pre-portioned amount of caring each human is allotted in each lifetime.

Though my coworkers may disagree, Pig does seem to make a damning critique of the larger restaurant industry. Its fight club, populated by Portland chefs, maybe nods at the industry’s systemic problems with workplace violence and abuse. The white-tableclothed restaurant Eurydice, a nod to the character in Greek mythology who Orpheus tries (and fails) to bring back from the dead, is presented almost satirically, with a pretentious menu and service model — perhaps a nod to the fleeting success of restaurants built on lofty-but-hollow goals. And the film’s hyperbolically bloodthirsty truffle industry parodies the way the food scene places overwhelming import on the frivolous, or at least the impermanent.

As someone who has covered the Portland restaurant industry for years, however, Pig’s take on Portland dining seemed disconnected from the city in which it’s filmed. The fight club felt ludicrous outside of a weak metaphor. The premise of a highly competitive, Mafia-adjacent truffle trade — one that would result in pig-napping, in particular — seemed like a reach. But nothing felt quite as incongruent with Portland’s industry as the meal ex-chef Robin Feld (Cage) and specialty foods distributor Amir (Alex Wolff) share in a so-called hot restaurant (seemingly shot at the now-closed Bluehour).

The two visit the buzzy Eurydice (note that all of the restaurants in Pig are fictional) while attempting to track down the pig. A server, dressed in all white, places a dish supporting a smoke-filled bell jar on the white-linen-draped table. “We’ve emulsified locally sourced scallops, encased in a flash-frozen seawater roe blend, on a bed of foraged huckleberry foam, all bathed in the smoke from Douglas fir cones,” the server says, lifting the jar to reveal swirls of smoke. Robin uses his still-muddy and blood-stained hands to pluck one of the seafood bonbons from the plate, pops it in his mouth, and asks to speak to the chef. “We’re interested in taking local ingredients native to this region and deconstructing them, making the familiar feel foreign,” the chef says. Robin looks at him with pity and disdain; it’s revealed to us that this chef, a former employee of Robin’s, had wanted to open an English pub. “Nobody wants pubs around here,” the chef stammers. Still, he blurts out the dish he wishes he could have sold at his abandoned pub: a liver Scotch egg with honey curry mustard.

The idea that Portlanders wouldn’t be interested in a pub caught me off-guard. Many chefs lean into a casual, pub-like atmosphere in Portland, and this city has a vast array of exceptional bar food. What doesn’t feel familiar is the style of molecular gastronomy on display in the white-tablecloth Eurydice; the dish in the film could, potentially, appear at a restaurant like Castagna or Berlu, though it didn’t seem to fit either quite right. A liver Scotch egg, on the other hand, sounds like something many Portland chefs may serve: It reminds me of the Scotch egg on the Radar menu, with its black pepper aioli, or the version at Rose & Thistle with sweet hot mustard. The inclusion of liver feels very true to chefs like Le Pigeon’s Gabriel Rucker; that makes sense, considering he worked as a consultant on the film.

In an interview with Eater, Rucker noted that the core premise of the film was already a touch off, considering many Oregon truffle foragers don’t use pigs to forage. “Well, they don’t use pigs for foraging truffles anymore, they use dogs. But I didn’t bother explaining that to the director because the movie is called Pig,” he said. He did note that there is a thriving foraging industry in Portland, especially one that includes truffles.

It’s true that Portland’s foraging culture is ubiquitous. Oregon is home to a truffle festival, companies that specialize in foraging gear, and several chefs who rely on their own foraging skills, whether that’s on the coast or in the woods. However, the relationships chefs have with foragers are not usually quite as high-stakes; in fact, Portland’s industry is often celebrated for the way chefs remain connected to producers, buying directly from ranchers and farmers. Chefs here often collaborate and share resources, working together on pop-ups and fundraisers. The idea that Portland chefs would not name their truffle supplier out of fear of helping the competition, as the Eurydice chef does, seems silly in a city that regularly lists the names of farms on menus and in dish descriptions.

Damian Magista, the founder of Portland honey company Bee Local (now Jacobsen Co. Honey) currently works as a filmmaker, so he is uniquely primed to review a film like Pig: He’s familiar with Portland’s specialty food market and the larger restaurant scene, as well as the world of moviemaking. He didn’t see much of Portland in Pig, though there were a few notable exceptions: The premise of a specialty foods middleman, like the one played by Wolff, is not exactly unheard of in Portland. However, Magista says they’re nowhere near as prevalent — or powerful — as the characters in Pig. “You run into them, these middlemen who don’t really have anything to offer, and they just kind of broker these deals,” he says. “A few of those people exist in the Portland area, but I don’t think they’re well-liked. Portland tends to do a really good job of weeding out these D-bags.”

In Magista’s perspective, there was one scene that really stood out in its absurdity: the fight club scene, in which Portland restaurant workers beat each other up in some sort of underground chef gambling ring. If the inclusion of this sort of scene is a reference to abusive behavior in kitchens, Portland is not free from that phenomenon. However, the moment feels out of place in this otherwise quiet film, and considering almost all the women in the movie are either dead, incapacitated, or limited to a handful of lines, I’d conjecture that the issue of toxic masculinity in kitchens wasn’t exactly front-of-mind. Most viewers saw this scene as less of a metaphor and more of a direct allusion to Fight Club, the book-turned-movie written by Oregon author Chuck Palahniuk. “The fight club thing was so clearly ridiculous,” Magista says. “It seems like they went, ‘Oh, we’re doing a film in Portland? Gotta throw a fight club in there.’”

This moment speaks to a broader issue Magista had with Pig: It felt very much like a film about Portland written by someone without much of an understanding of the city. “People who are going to like this are people who are not here in Portland,” he says. “It’s not necessarily representing Portland. This brings me back to: If it were shot somewhere else, would it be a better film? I say no. It comes back to the director choosing to tell a compelling story, and how he failed.”

Some of the chefs I reached out to for this story had not yet seen Pig, including Justin Woodward of Castagna, Will Preisch of the now-closed Holdfast Dining, Vince Nguyen of Berlu, and Vitaly Paley of Paley’s Place; many simply didn’t respond to requests for comment (which is understandable; who wants to talk to me about what they think about a movie about a pig-napping?). Multiple calls on Twitter for perspectives from restaurant workers went generally unanswered. In Paley’s view, whether Pig’s representation of Portland is truthful likely doesn’t matter. “As a fiction flick, I would expect [the] director to take many creative liberties on the subject,” he says.

In certain ways, Pig really isn’t a food movie; it’s a movie about art and time, the futility of life, and what grief teaches us about love and pain. But by using Portland as the backdrop, Pig turns the city into a caricature without noting what makes it great. It feels like a voyeur’s understanding of the food world, a fiction built on a real industry grappling with the biggest challenges in its history. My hope is that no one watching Pig thinks it’s representative of Portland’s restaurants; from where I’m standing, the restaurant world it portrays is the exact opposite of this city’s industry: one that is unpretentious, collaborative, and fighting to stay alive.

All About ‘Pig’: the Nicolas Cage Movie About Truffles, Chefs, and a Stolen Pig [E]
‘He’s Nicolas Fucking Cage’: A Short Conversation with the Consulting Chef of ‘Pig’ [E]

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