Nine Chefs Point the Way

Chef’s Collective at Ruby June Inn: Summer Saturday nights under the sky and wisteria, on the White Salmon.

The best way to change an ailing institution is to blow it up. That’s what COVID did to the restaurant model as we know it. I chortle with glee every time I read of ways post-COVID restaurants are mixing it up, changing the rules … kicking the bums out.

And by bums, I mean miscreants in the kitchen. In my restaurant owning years, the pressure to just keep the doors open seven days, seven nights, meant I hired and kept on – as the kid says in Little Orphan Annie – “bad people.” But staffing shortages have made chefs and restaurant owners see things in a different light. Instead of cramming their restaurants with bad actors, just to keep the doors open 5, 6, 7 days and nights, they’re saying, “With this crew we have, how many hours should we be open?”

Last week I was talking to a friend, a chef and restaurant owner who has struggled the last ten years with keeping a big enough staff to run full-tilt. At the beginning of this year’s busy season, he wasn’t looking to hire anyone. He fired people instead. Under-performers. Gripers. People who brought the whole operation down. Now, on their reduced days and hours, the whole joint is joyous. I’m gonna guess he will make more money too. Churn is terribly expensive and shortens your life span.

Six years ago when I started my dinner series, “Supper Club” at what was then Husum Riverside Bed and Breakfast, we did a few things that seemed radical at the time, too. Pay in advance for a fixed dinner menu you won’t see until you are arrive and sit down.

I had a blast for three years. Enter, stage left, Chris Wiggins and Gretchen Wolf who bought the property, and spiffed it. It’s now Ruby June Inn. We reimagined the dinner series too. Today, it’s nine chefs who rotate through the summer, presenting a dinner every Saturday night from mid-June to mid-September. $100, 20% auto gratuity. Gretchen’s amazing wine pairings are extra.

I’m doing two dinners this year, but just as important, I’m hauling my apron and knife bag up to the inn and reporting for duty to assist two other women chefs in the collective. And they’re helping me at my dinners. Love to just show up and say, “Yes chef.” We are learning from each other in ways large and small. And bringing a new jam to the kitchen: high-powered estrogen energy, something not found in this industry until recent years.

How do folks like this new model, one that certainly takes away a lot of their choices: one seating at a specific time, no menu choices? Maybe some “weird” food they’ve never had before?

This year, the entire season sold out in three hours. Three hours.

Update: Last week, we added a winter dinner, just for fun. Working with the fabulous Chef Krystyna Livingston, we created a French country feast. The 40 seats sold out in 30 minutes. 

Trash to Treasures

What do oxtails, short ribs, lamb neck and fava beans have in common? At some point, all of them were bench warmers, or as they say in baseball: they rode the pine. Sat it out. No one wanted to see them on the field.

I can just see a little fava bean singing, “Put me in coach, I’m ready to play.”

Oxtail and ravioli

Of course that meant if you could find them, they were cheap. Our local farm butcher here in the Hood River Valley would sell us oxtail for $1 a pound. For the longest time.

Then the tide turned. First, about 18 years ago, with short ribs. Those dedicated steak-and-burger eaters discovered, thanks to restaurants (like mine) that short ribs were dang near angelic: luscious, pleasantly fatty, drool-inducing when braised two to three hours at a low temp, with tomatoes, red wine, mirapoix, fresh thyme. We served them with braised kale and collards, over mashed potatoes. Yeehaw.

And then, you couldn’t find them cheap anymore. Same with lamb neck and oxtails.

Six years ago, I started a supper club, and told folks they were going to pay in advance, and they’d see the menu … after they sat down. (SOP these days, but then, it was kinda different.) So, the first dinner in April 2017, I made oxtail and winter onion stew with Wildwood Farm leeks and shallots and L’Amuse goat gouda croutons. Wish I’d been out at the tables when the guests – most of whom had never eaten oxtail, assumed it was offal and awful – saw it on the menu. Probably shudders all around.

But after the five-course dinner, many diners said the oxtail was a revelation … incredible! … and their favorite dish of the night. I may have personally driven the cost of oxtail out into the stratosphere along with short ribs.

I’m saving a discussion of lamb neck for another time, when I will go on a rant about some farmer/butchers calling it “lamb neck chop.” Grrrr.

Fava beans: Planted for years (and still today) as a nice winter cover crop, and promptly plowed under. Heresy. Yes, I do know it’s a bean in a chastity belt. You have to take them out of their big winter jackets, drop them in boiling water for a minute, and then slip them out of their skivvies. Two steps. Who cares? It’s nice conversation food: spend some time with your loved ones, shelling them on the back porch. How it’s supposed to be.

With basil in abundance and fresh brown eggs in my fridge, they became a very quick and easy supper last night. The Giants – Dodgers came couldn’t even drown out Stu’s moans of pleasure.

Here ya go:

Fava Bean Bowl with Polenta, Pesto and Egg

1 cup shelled and skinned fava beans (this will probably require 15-20 fava beans)

2 tablespoons olive oil

½ cup dried Italian corn polenta (Bob’s Red Mill also grinds a nice one.)

2 cups water, or chicken or veg stock

½ cup milk

2 teaspoons butter

salt and pepper

4 tablespoons pesto (you’re on your own here … look it up … basil, garlic, Parmesan, pine nuts, olive oil, yadda, yadda …)

2 eggs

2 teaspoons butter

red pepper flake

Make the polenta:

Bring the milk and water or stock to a boil in a saucepan. Drop in two teaspoons butter, some salt and pepper, and then whisk in the polenta. Let it return to boil, whisking all the while, then move the pot to your simmer burner, the one you cook rice on. Turn it as low as it will go so that bubbles are just now and again bursting to the surface. Whisk or stir every few minutes. Let it go about 15 minutes. The longer it cooks, the creamier it gets.

Saute the fava beans:

In a saute pan large enough to fry two eggs, add the olive oil, the prepped fava beans, and a little salt. Saute on medium high for about two minutes, and remove to a small bowl.

Fry the eggs:

Add the butter to the same pan, crack in the eggs, and fry them until they are brown around the edges, the whites are cooked, but the yolks are still runny. (You may have heartier eaters in your family. If so, cook four eggs.)


Spoon the polenta into two nice pasta bowls. Divide the pesto between the two bowls, spooning it over the polenta. Spoon the sauteed fava beans on top, and add a fried egg to each. Sprinkle with red pepper flake. Serve with good bread.

Four Hours of Car Parking and 500 Balls

The rumors were rampant: ICE would swoop down on our county fair, where at least seventy-five percent of the attendees are Latino. Wednesday, opening day of the fair: slow. Thursday: slow.

Friday, Stu was the Lion’s shift captain for the day, which meant that he’d arrive at 8 a.m. and park cars with his crew until 10 p.m. that night. It’s what the Lions do: it’s community service, and it raises money for their scholarship programs.

What self-respecting similarly community-minded wife would not raise her hand, so I did, and Stu assigned me to a 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Friday shift, coinciding with the big Latino band concert that began that night at 8 p.m.

By Thursday, with very light fair attendance, Stu was saying, “Yeah, I’ll probably send you home.”

But by Friday afternoon, it was as if our Latino neighbors decided that ICE was just another boogey man under the bed. Slowly, the lots starting filling. And then the doors blew off. The chatter on the walkie-talkies we are carried was as noisy as blackbirds on a wire, and we began shifting cars and Lions rapidly from one lot to the next – first the soccer field, next the McCurdy field– as fast as we could.

I hate to just stand and wave cars by, so every year, on my single Lion’s fair car parking shift, I dance, I sing, “We’re off to see the wizard!” I bow, I kick, I jive, I juke. I get lots of grins and waves and thank-yous. One woman said out her window, “You’re going to wear yourself out!” And yep, it was HOT out there. A sheriff on a three-wheeler tossed me a bottle of water. Stu brought me a gator aid. I had fun.

And then, after hundreds of cars settled in for the music show, I went to see Cuate. In my screaming yellow parking vest, walkie-talkie around my neck.

Cuate and his wife Lola and their kids are family to Stu and me. Cuate was with us from the beginning of Nora’s Table as a dishwasher, and by the end of that run, he was the only cook besides me who could work every station at both breakfast and dinner service. I love him. After Nora’s, he bought not one, but two food trucks, and every year he has a hamburger booth at the fair. This year, he went with two booths: one for tacos, one for burgers.

When I arrived at the back of the food truck, lines at both booths were about 40 people deep, and it was bedlam. Organized bedlam, but bedlam all the same as fifteen staff cranked through preparing the hand-made tacos and burgers (we taught him well at Nora’s) to meet this crush of customers, the first big crowd of the week’s fair.

Cuate was elbow-deep in a big metal bowl of masa flour, water, cumin and salt, getting the mix just right for tortillas. Another of our Nora’s dishwasher alums, Arturo, was running a metal spatula through a big flat top full of carnitas. And in the tent attached to the side of the food truck, Cuate’s staff were frying burgers, grilling tortillas, building tacos, and hollering.

“Mas chipotle mayo!” “Mas cebolla!” “Mas masa!” Mas, mas, mas.

“I’m washing up, Cuate,” I said, to his appreciative nod. I took the now well-mixed masa, and started rolling it into balls, and plunking them into a big plastic pitcher. When the pitcher was full, I reached across the food truck window into the prep tent, and dumped the balls into Lola’s upheld lexan container. Boy, was she surprised to see me on the other end of that pitcher! Two more women dropped the balls quickly into a tortilla press, and then onto a flattop to griddle.

Ball after ball after ball. Mas. Mas. Mas. I lost count after a while, but I think it was darn near 500 before I was done. Cuate and Arturo and I chatted in the midst of all that chaos, catching up on families and friends and children, church and school and life. And then Cuate handed me a plate of tacos.

When people ask me if I miss Nora’s Table … this is what I miss. A crew of people working through pressure, happy to be together, pulling in the same direction, putting a food coma smile on people’s faces.

I’m sure people walking by wondered what an old white woman in a parking vest with a chattering walkie talkie in her pocket was doing in Cuate’s trailer rolling masa balls. To a few raised eyebrows, Cuate laughed and pointed at me, “She was my boss. She’s STILL my boss.”

No Cuate, I’m not your boss anymore. You, my friend, are the boss. El Jefe. Thanks for letting me roll your … well, you know.