When I was asked to write a profile of Ryan Magarian, PDX's "King of Co-"—co-founder of Aviation Gin, co-owner of Oven & Shaker, co-owner of the Pearl's new watering hole, Hamlet—for The Pearl magazine, I was a little nervous. I mean, he practically jumpstarted the new distillery explosion in Portland with Aviation gin, his witty, not to mention crave-worthy, cocktail menus are among the most highly regarded in the city, and partnering to start two hot downtown restaurant/bars, well, a resumé like that is a bit intimidating. I needn't have worried…direct and down-to-earth, he was as forthcoming about his challenges growing up as much as his recent successes, which is why I'm publishing this extended interview.
Ryan Magarian calls it “The Big Box of Awesome.” Co-owner of Oven & Shaker with six-time James Beard Award-nominated Chef Cathy Whims and ChefStable restaurateur Kurt Huffman, Magarian is referring to the area from Northwest Everett to Southwest Morrison between 10th and 13th avenues.
“You’ve got the tightest grouping of amazing, delicious concepts from bars to restaurants of anyplace on earth right now,” he said. “You’ve got Clyde Common, Pepe le Moko, Multnomah Whiskey Library, you’ve got Kask, Oven & Shaker, Teardrop. Six world-class places right here in a small [area]. These are bars people in other cities and other countries know about.”
Whims (left) and Magarian of Oven & Shaker.
And he should know. This local boy from Portland’s West Hills went to Sunset High School, got a degree in political science from the University of Oregon and then headed to Seattle where he was mentored by Chef Kathy Casey and cocktail historian Robert Hess, eventually becoming an internationally renowned spirits and bar program consultant.
Describing himself as an insecure kid, he said, “I wasn’t good at sports, I wasn’t popular, so my identity piece was being the guy who went to parties and got drunk. Drinking was something that became an identity for me early, but for the wrong reasons.”
He credits Hess as the person “who really helped me change my thought process from seeing being a bartender as a job about alcohol delivery and more as a job about creating an alcohol experience. That was a shifting point in my life.”
The Convertible at Hamlet.
With that new focus and a keen eye for what works in the spirits industry, Magarian was instrumental in the development of Aviation Gin, working with House Spirits distiller Christian Krogstad to develop its unique flavor profile. Working on this signature product, he realized the next step was to create a flagship for his work.
“I needed a place you could come find my culture, [a place that] was under my control,” he said. “I wanted to create a healthy drinking environment and that meant you needed to have a strong food element, which would mean having a strong chef partner.”
Magarian had been “kicking the tires” with Huffman about opening his own place, and it had occurred to him that pizza and cocktails would be a fun and unique combination, one he’d seen done successfully in Sydney, Australia. A fortuitous meeting with Whims where she mentioned opening a pizzeria drove them to create a business plan for what would become Oven & Shaker.
He dislikes the term “bar chef,” preferring instead to describe what he’s done at Oven & Shaker as “liquid cooking.”
“You take spirits and fresh, raw ingredients and, through a change in temperature and dilution, create an entirely new and hopefully delicious culinary experience,” he said.
Believing in a strong culture of precise execution, Magarian’s goal is to make his customer smile.
“I want you to look at it and smile at the recipe, whether it’s the name of the recipe or just what’s in it,” he said of drinks like his Pepper Smash, a surprising combination of fresh mint, anise-flavored aquavit, lime juice, maple syrup and the juice of a yellow bell pepper. “I want it to be fun, I want it to be uplifting. I want you to think that Ryan makes fun, delicious cocktails.”
It’s a formula he plans to repeat in his newest venture, another partnership with Whims and Huffman called Hamlet around the corner from Oven & Shaker. With a menu focused on cured meats from around the world with traditional ham-friendly foods like collard greens, bocadillos, biscuits and pimento cheese, Magarian’s still-in-development bar program will introduce Portland to cocktails based on whiskey and fortified wines like sherry, madeira and port.
He feels that his partnership with a James Beard Award-level chef like Whims is yet another ground-breaking step in Portland’s food scene.
“It’s a quantum leap forward for the bar community that chefs will take someone like me to do this with,” he said. “I hope that it’s a template that will catch on in the industry, that more bartenders will partner with great chefs, not just as a consultant or a head bartender, but [in an] authentic partnership. Because if that happens, it’s going to create much more viability for this as a profession, bringing far more intelligent and passionate people into it.”
Read the edited version in The Pearl magazine. Photos of Magarian (top) from Oven & Shaker; Magarian and Whims by Amy Oulette for The Pearl magazine.