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Aaron Adams, the mind behind Southeast Portland’s creative vegan hub Fermenter, has opened a new restaurant right next door. Workshop, a cocktail bar with a menu of vegan snacks that pay tribute to Adams’ Cuban mother, is cozy, playful, and, even slyly political. House-made, spirit-free spirits like fernet and chartreuse add bitter heft to nonalcoholic beverages, making them feel a little more serious than the standard juice and soda blend. The vegan caviar service may sound like something out of science fiction, but it feels as ceremonial and true to form as the “real” deal while costing a quarter of the price. Such offerings sit at the intersections of inclusivity and experience — drinkers and non-drinkers, vegans and omnivores, caviar connoisseurs and newbies alike are invited to gather in the homey space. The vibe is purposeful, too — the laid-back room is built for Adams’ comfort as well as that of his patrons, with a focus on keeping service-time anxiety at bay.
Now that Workshop is up and running, we took a moment to chat with Adams about those anxieties, the stigma around vegan cuisine, and his favorite things to eat in Portland, from Chinese food to frozen yogurt.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Eater: Is it ever exhausting dealing with the preconceived notions people have about vegan food?
Aaron Adams: It’s so polarizing to people. People will have a bad vegan meal, or a vegan meal that doesn’t please them, and say, “I hate it forever.” They’ve had a thousand horrible omnivorous meals, but they don’t compartmentalize it that way for whatever reason. I think people have obvious prejudices. I think anything that challenges their value system is going to be upsetting to them.
The thing we’re trying to say is, “Let’s try our best.” There’s room for both and for all of it. If there weren’t cruelties involved in animal agriculture, I wouldn’t have even considered being vegan. It’s hard to admit, but you yearn to be able to participate in cultures and practices. Remembering as a child, watching my mom making a big Cuban pig roast. I don’t do that now, but I yearn for that emotional feeling.
Would it be easier for me to run a restaurant that isn’t vegan? One hundred percent. We wouldn’t be dealing with a niche market, and we would not have to do so much work. We make our own proteins, we make our own cheeses; we don’t open the fridge and just grab a piece of cheese. We grab nuts and oats and culture them for a week.
Where do you like to eat out?
I kind of feel like where I’m at with my life, I just want to do this thing here, and then go home. I’m 48 years old now. I have a wife who is a nurse, I just redid my whole living room, and I’m trying to make our house more of an oasis.
I have an anxiety disorder. When I went to a dinner recently, I literally had to wear earplugs. I get really overwhelmed by noise and crowds. That’s why I like cooking a lot at home, doing meal prep and getting ready for the week.
I’m so glad that I have social media so I can see what people are doing. I’m so proud of my friends: Watching Luna [Contreras] really blossom and move forward is awesome to see. To see Peter [Cho] opening up another place. It’s great to be able to see all the stuff Gregory [Gourdet]’s doing. It’s so amazing to see how everybody’s really progressing and doing well.
The place where I like to get food a lot, and this is gonna sound “Old School Portland,” but I really love going to Zien Hong. It’s always pretty quiet, you can go sit in the corner, and I just love the salt and pepper tofu there. It’s amazing. I love when they have garlic ong choy, and their green beans are insane. It really always hits for me.
One place I’ll totally get over my fear and anxiety for? I love going to Bluto’s. Their hummus and pita are delicious. They always have vegetable skewers and some sort of roast vegetable salad. Chef Rick [Gencarelli] from Grassa and Lardo is rad and super nice. I really like what they’re doing, and it’s nice to have it up the street.
What about sweets?
[My wife] Jenny and I go to Eb and Bean a lot for fro-yo. She loves that place. And she also loves to go to JinJu Patisserie. There’s not a lot I can get there that’s vegan, but everyone that works there is so awesome and sweet. I love talking to them.