An edited version of this story first appeared in the November/December 2010 issue of NW Palate magazine.
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“The whole idea was to show how simple it is. No smoke and mirrors.”
One of the big fictions in this current food-obsessed age is that you can't prepare great food if you have anything less than a gourmet kitchen filled with gleaming stainless steel appliances, preferably restaurant-grade.
The truth is that fine cooks can make do without all the fancy high-end equipment. Just drop in to Evoe, a plain-looking café from the street in Portland, Oregon, as I did one early afternoon, and take a seat at chef Kevin Gibson's prep table-cum-chef's bar. With little more than a sharp knife, a mandoline, a household-grade electric stove, and the same non-stick plug-in griddle my mom made pancakes on for most of my childhood, he turns out some of the best food in the city.
Not to be missed are Gibson’s deviled eggs, a mustard-infused version dipped in breadcrumbs and fried on the griddle till warm and vaporous. The best thing to do is to order another item as each one arrives: blistered padron peppers (from Oregon’s Viridian Farms), for instance, followed by thin slices of artisan-cured meats with an assortment of house-made pickles. Ordering this way allows you to sit at the butcher block counter and watch Gibson peel an artichoke to order, or shave a delicata squash into ribbons. It’s like having a personal chef prepare your lunch while you take a master-level cooking class.
The oldest of four children, Gibson grew up in a solidly middle-class family in Iowa City, Iowa. His father was in charge of facilities for the University of Iowa and has a square named for him on the campus. His mother pursued her master’s degree in social work when the kids started school, and he recalls that may have piqued his nascent interest in the culinary arts.
“I think what started it was that while Mom was going to school, she would let each one of us kids cook a dinner each night of the week,” he said. “It was casseroles and gravy and tater tots.”
He also remembers visiting his father’s parents on their farm, and the cellar where his grandmother put up row upon colorful row of preserved fruit and vegetables to pull out during the long Midwestern winters.
During summer his family would head west to visit his mother’s parents in Portland, Oregon. He remembers going with his grandparents to buy produce from the farms and farm stands that used to be out near the airport. It may have been that exposure to the Pacific Northwest that drew him back after college.
With experience managing a café and bakery in his hometown, he found work in the food service industry almost immediately upon his arrival in Portland. Following a tip from a co-worker, he eventually came to work at the now-legendary restaurant Zefiro. It was to be a watershed experience for Gibson for several reasons, not the least of which was that his first interview was with Monique Siu, the woman who would later become his wife and partner in opening Castagna.
“I came in with all this managerial stuff from Iowa and she asked, ‘How are your knife skills?’” he said.
Gibson attended culinary school while working at Zefiro. After graduating, he left for a six-month stint at a resort in Costa Rica, which turned out to be another instructional experience.
“There was a staff of women who lived in a little village down the beach, and they would bring all this great super-simple food that was so delicious,” he said. “Chicken soup with masa dumplings that had cilantro and onions inside of them, and gallo pinto, black beans with peppers and rice with a piece of fish on top or steak.”
He also recalls the fruits. “This produce guy would show up and have everything from watermelon to strawberries to berries and papaya. It would all be super-fresh.”
When he returned to Portland, he returned to Zefiro, but this stint was short-lived due to his blossoming relationship with Siu. “We jibe really well on food, on what we like to eat, aesthetics, how people should be treated,” he said.
In 2007 he left the kitchen at Castagna, working for several months at Cameron Winery. “It’s really hard work,” he said. “It was fun, but it’s not glamorous. Pruning in the cold, you start listening to the birds and your mind starts to wander. You appreciate a warm place for lunch.”
Three months into his sabbatical he got a call from Peter de Garmo, the godfather of Portland’s Slow Food movement and owner of Pastaworks, the city’s premier Italian food market. He lured Gibson back with his idea for opening a café that would showcase the store’s existing products and act as a testing ground for new items.
“The whole idea was to show how simple it is. No smoke and mirrors,” Gibson said. The café, which came to be named Evoe, is a place where people hang out and talk, with wine and small plates that Gibson loves to make, along with reasonably priced entrées that sing with freshness and simplicity.
Gibson is still getting accustomed to cooking in front of his customers. It’s been hard for this essentially shy chef to go from the shelter of a restaurant kitchen to being within arm’s reach of his customers, but he says it’s also been eye-opening.
“Putting a plate down in front of people, that immediacy, I like that,” he said, smiling at the thought. “You know that old adage, “You eat with your eyes first”? I always kind of suspected that, but I’d never really experienced it.”