Welcome to Dining Confidential, a monthly column in which local chefs talk about their favorite restaurants, bars, and cafes in Portland, highlighting their own restaurant’s ethos and sharing fun personal takes. Know of a chef you’d like to see featured? Let us know via our tip line.
Just over a year into Canard’s expansion to Oregon City, chef and owner Gabriel Rucker still feels great about bringing his high-brow, low-brow, French-ish cuisine to the suburbs. “I’ve grown older — as a father, a husband, a chef — so to have some different scenery is nice,” he says. “I live in Milwaukie; it’s nice to operate a restaurant that services a smaller community than just Portland.”
Rucker has plenty of experience servicing Portland, however: Rucker opened Le Pigeon, arguably Portland’s most iconic restaurant of this century, 17 years ago, meaning he has spent nearly half his life on the same three-cook line, on the same corner of East Burnside, give or take a few spinoffs along the way.
Much of Portland dining seems to orbit around Rucker’s principals, consciously or otherwise. Tasting menus come and go; Le Pigeon remains. Every variation of elevated junk food that we’ve seen in the past five years (“that’s been my schtick since the beginning,” he quips) feels like a dot that’s easily connected to Canard’s steam burgers. Rucker says the key to his longevity is remaining steadfast in his personal identity while staying open to new possibilities in the workplace. “Never completely reinvent yourself, but always grow,” he says. “It’s important to have one-and-a-half feet in who you are, in what people come to love about you, but then to always be willing to put that half-foot forward. ... I’m just being true and focusing on what’s delicious.”
We caught up with Rucker to talk about where he likes to dine in Portland and beyond, from the joy of supporting old friends to 10 a.m. bacon cheeseburgers. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Eater: So where does one of Portland’s most known chefs like to eat on his time off?
Rucker: This is the hardest question I ever get asked. I’ll preface this by saying that 12 years ago, my wife and I started a family, we have three kids now, and having kids does alter the amount of time that you dine at home. The kind of restaurants I go to are different. One of my flaws is that I don’t make enough time to go out and eat, but I love it and find true joy in it.
Where do you and your wife go for a fancy dinner without the kids?
When it comes to nice restaurants, Arden is an absolutely fantastic experience. [Executive chef] Erik Van Kley is one of the most talented people. Le Pigeon would not be Le Pigeon if Erik didn’t take my job as sous chef to get it up and going. He’s one of the most talented chefs in this city and has his own vision of unique food. His identity is on the menu, and he’s someone I respect so much.
What’s your family’s go-to takeout option?
My favorite ramen in town is Kinboshi, right next to Le Pigeon, so it’s easy to take home and the whole family loves it. I love that you can add on chiles and extra crispy pork and create your own bowl the way you want it.
For the Milwaukie and Canard Oregon City crowds, what are your favorite places that are closer to home?
There’s this place called Ma-Kin Thai and Sushi, it’s in an industrial business park, and my wife discovered it. They have this spicy basil half duck, you get it stewed with rice and veggies. It pulls off the bone. We can always get a table there, my wife gets sushi, my kids get California rolls, everybody wins.
When it comes to getting breakfast, the place my family and I have been to by far the most is the Shari’s in Milwaukie. It’s my daughter’s favorite restaurant. It’s the kind of place where we come in, they recognize our family, we recognize them. On a weekend, you don’t wanna wait in Portland brunch lines.
And what do you get at Shari’s?
I’m, like, a notorious bacon cheeseburger for brunch guy. I’m up really early; on the weekends I’m usually up at 4 or 5 a.m. By the time 10 o’clock rolls around, I’ve been awake for so long, I’ve worked out, and I don’t need pancakes.
Another great place in my hood is the Milwaukie Cafe and Bottle Shop. It’s a small, they have a little smoker and make Southern biscuits, pimento cheese, brisket, and they have a little bottle shop of cute wines you can buy. That restaurant reminds me of everything I loved about going out to brunch in Portland when I first moved here. Funky, food-focused, cool skateboard art hanging up, nice chefs that are cooking and say hi to you.
I don’t mean to plug my own restaurant, but we go to Canard in Oregon City a lot. One of my kids’ favorite things are the Tokyo hot chicken tenders.
A lot of people don’t think of chefs sitting down and eating at their own restaurants.
It’s a very healthy thing to do, to know the difference between this side [the dining room] and that side [the kitchen]. I try to eat at Le Pigeon at least once a year to remind myself, ‘Oh, this is why people still like it.’