How did you learn to cook?
My mother was a baker. She baked bread for a local restaurant in Northampton, Massachusetts, where I grew up. The guy who owned the restaurant gave us a mixer and would drop off ingredients and she would make bread at home while she watched the kids and my dad worked. We would be running around playing and she taught me how to make pies and cakes and breads and by the time I was seven or eight I would know how to make all kinds of things. The first recipe I memorized was oatmeal chocolate chip cookies. We never had store bought food in our house. Twinkies were a treat because we never had them. We’d barter home made cookies for that kind of stuff at school. A dozen home made cookies – that’s power in elementary school. But I always knew I was going to be a chef. I always loved it. Other members of my family, a few of them were in the food business, there was always food around. You couldn’t walk into Grandma’s house without being fed.
When did it get serious for you?
Well, I joined the 4H “Chef’s Club” when I was 12, which was run by the same chef who owned the restaurant my mother worked for. He would bring in a group of kids and for four hours he’d teach us new stuff everyday. The first thing we learned was crepe suzettes. You teach a boy to set food on fire and he’s hooked. But we learned how to make a roux, all the mother sauces, how to make pasta, a good deal of desserts like crème caramel and chocolate mousse. We always made some kind of app, entrée, sides and desserts every Saturday for two years. At the 4H competitions there were animal husbandry and gardening projects and there I was competing in the cooking and baking competitions, and often winning. We were a farming community. We always ate fresh-off-the-farm food.
I got a job as a dishwasher in the same restaurant between my sophomore and junior year of high school. I worked my way up, and by Christmas they let me start cooking. I was on the pantry station. It had an oyster bar, and I was shucking clams and oysters quite a bit. From there, I moved over to short order and grill. The first night I cooked on the hot line by myself was because the chef was passed out in the walk in. The owner was really helpful – we might have fed about 30 people, but at the end I felt great. I stayed there for a year after high school, then I got a job at a ski lodge in Vermont. I had been accepted at CIA but had to wait. After the snow melted, I came home and worked for a couple months hauling bricks for my dad – the only non food job I had (I hated it). I started at CIA in June of ’79. I walked up to meet the Dean of Students and as I’m shaking his hand, he told me that I needed to shave my sideburns and mustache or he wouldn’t let me go through admissions process so I had to go back to my car and dry shave. At CIA, there were master chefs from other countries – it was a whole new world to me. It was an amazing experience.
What did you do after the CIA?
I met a chef from Royal Orleans in the French Quarter in New Orleans at a job fair in Hyde Park and he hired me. I borrowed $500 from my uncle and drove down there. I went to work three days later and on the first day I made fried grits for 2,000 people at a big fundraiser for the Governor. I had never seen grits before in my life and I would have been happy to have never seen them again after that. I worked my way up and stayed for about a year. There were about five languages spoken in the kitchen. There was Spanish, Arabic, French, German, Italian -- it was the most intense kitchen I’d ever worked in. I grew up working in restaurants in a town of 400 people. This was culture shock. I worked a lot and after work we’d hit the bars. The social network there is tightly knit, and I met some great people. I learned many dishes from their mothers and grandmothers, many of whom lived in the Ninth Ward, making red beans and rice, veal birds (a piece of veal stuffed with vegetables and pickles rolled off and braised with spicy gravy), collard greens, etouffe…I’ve learned more about cooking from grandmothers than a lot of the chef’s I’ve worked with. I ended up pretty homesick and moved back to Massachusetts and got a job in a German bakery making pretzels, pastries, and breads. We sold a lot of the pretzels to students (there were five colleges in the area) and I swear some students subsisted on those pretzels.
How did you end up in Portland?
It was 1982 and I needed a change of pace. I called an old college friend to wish him Merry Christmas and he offered me a job at the Portland Hilton as his baker where he was the Executive Chef. I hopped on a plane on Groundhog’s Day in 1983 and I went to work right away. I was moved to the hot line as Sous Chef and I helped my friend clean house and turn the place around. I mostly did banquets and ran the kitchen in the hotel.
Did you stay there?
No, I moved to Richards 5th Avenue on the 21st Floor of the First Interstate (now Wells Fargo) building. That restaurant closed in ’85 and I travelled for a few years. A guy I knew named Art Marshall called me when I was working at a bakery, he wanted me to be the Executive Chef in the cafeteria division of the food service company he was running (they supplied food for cafeterias all over Portland – Textonic, Intel, places like that). Some places fed as many as 1,300 to 1,400 people at lunch. Their system of cooking was something he called “stick cuisine,” in which each kitchen had a pot and a stick and everything was pre-measured. He wanted me to go to each cafeteria and teach the cooks how to actually cook (mostly large batch cooking). These employees had been doing the same thing for 20 years and I had to show them how to do it differently, and they didn’t necessarily want to do it. I learned a lot about showing a lot of people what to do without pissing them off. While working for Art, I met and married my first wife. I got promoted to Executive Chef in the Entertainment Division of Tiffany Food Service, which included Multnomah Greyhound park, Autzen Stadium, OSU entertainment for all athletics, and Portland Meadows. We seated as many as 900 on the fourth floor of Multnomah Greyhound Park, which was the largest restaurant in Oregon at the time. I stayed there for six years.
Did you ever think about opening your own place?
Yes, in fact. When my daughter was 18 months old, we had the opportunity to buy a restaurant. Unfortunately, I thought I knew more than I did. We bought a place in NW Portland at the corner of NW 23rd and Overton and named it “Genevieve’s” after my daughter. We were two blocks away from a new restaurant called Wildwood. The only time we got really busy was when they had a wait of over an hour. We had a half vegan menu, half local seafood and free range poultry, and no red meat. We had an organic juice bar, made own breads and desserts, the food was gorgeous and people who ate there loved it, but we went broke in eight months. The day we closed was the worst day in my life.
What did you do?
I went back to Jake’s. They had instituted a chef training program, and since I had worked there before, I got hired and went through the program. They sent me to Denver to be the chef at McCormick’s Fish House, but losing the restaurant put me in a funk, and I wasn’t emotionally prepared for a new experience like that. I moved my whole family there but I worked every day. My daughter hardly recognized me, so we came back to Portland after about eight months in Denver. My first marriage didn’t survive, but I did. I was able to pick up a job with Tiffany Food Service and worked for them at Eastmoreland Golf Course. An old friend was working at the Washington Park Zoo in 1999 and said the chef there had been let go, so I applied and got the job.
|Chef Warner with Packy the Elephant's Birthday Cake|
At the zoo, I was Executive Chef. I ran the restaurant, catering, concerts, picnics, you name it. The process by which we selected different food items was pretty intense. When you taste 40 different kinds of hot dogs, you learn that they’re really not all the same. But the formula we had in place was to get the best quality for the best price and there was a lot of research and negotiation that went into doing that for each food item. But I had a lot of fun at the zoo. We did a lot there with a rag-tag bunch. We diverted up to 40 thousand pounds or more a week from landfills by composting. We brought on a lot of externs which is how I got to know the folks from OCI. This job is probably the only thing that would have taken me away from there. I met (OCI Executive Chef) Wilke a few years ago and told him that teaching students is something I’d like to do. It’s unbelievably satisfying. I like to share information and teach and doing it in a real school environment was always appealing to me. What we’re teaching people here is pretty impressive. The ones who take their education seriously here can be very successful. What stresses me most is when students miss class – if you miss a couple days there’s an enormous amount of information you’ve missed out on. We don’t teach to give them a pass/fail grade, we teach so they actually learn something. Watching someone go from not knowing how to peel an onion to seeing all these lights go off in the learning process, like flipping an egg or knowing how to tell when a steak is done, for me that’s all the fun.
What’s biggest surprise or challenge?
When I run into a student who is not taking it seriously. They’re investing time and energy and money, and I have to wonder what they’re doing here. But seeing that moment when someone who really wants to learn start to “get it” is very satisfying. The ones who get the best grades in my class are the ones that show up every day and turn in homework. If you’re going to miss shifts in this industry, you’re going to be unemployed a lot. Chefs need their cooks to show up.
It’s good to be me. And I encourage singing in my kitchen.