Top Chef’s Gregory Gourdet on Sourcing, Sobriety, and Equity | Civil Eats

Top Chef’s Gregory Gourdet on Sourcing, Sobriety, and Equity

The Portland chef discusses his new cookbook and his approach to rethinking hierarchy in the kitchen.

Gregory Gourdet in the dining room of his new Haitan restaurant Kann, which opened in August. (Photo credit: Zack Lewis)

Gregory Gourdet in the dining room of his new Haitian restaurant Kann, which opened in August. (Photo credit: Zack Lewis)

In June, Portland chef and Top Chef star Gregory Gourdet’s sumptuous new cookbook won a James Beard award, and it’s easy to see why. Everyone’s Table: Global Recipes for Modern Health, co-authored with JJ Goode, features a dizzying array of dishes—from Haitian “legim” (a rustic vegetable stew with thyme, scallions, and fruity, fiery chiles) to a rich Vietnamese duck curry and a classic French roasted chicken recipe. (This last one came from his time working for Jean-Georges Vongerichten in New York City.)

Gourdet follows a paleo diet, and the book is written with that diet in mind—but it’s so plant-centric you might be forgiven for thinking it’s written for vegans on first pass. Gorgeous photos of Brussels sprouts with chiles, lime, and mint follow images of a “high-summer salad” (heirloom tomatoes, berries, and nectarines) with coconut dressing and a raw butternut squash salad with smoky chiles, pomegranate, and seeds.

Gourdet, who in early August opened his own Haitian restaurant, Kann, in Portland’s Central Eastside neighborhood, is fanatical about supporting local farms. Civil Eats asked him about the farms he sources from, his sobriety, and his hope to build an inclusive and equitable business where every employee gets to shine.

Tell us about your new restaurant. How long has it been in the works? What does Kann mean?  

It means “cane” in Haitian creole—as in sugar cane. I started planning it four and a half years ago. Honestly, I was happy at my old job [executive chef at Departures] and was there for 10 years. But eight and a half years in, I realized it was time to do my own thing.

In 2020, I had plans to travel and go to Haiti and do a bunch of research around the country. Then I was stuck at home like everyone else, so those plans were thwarted. But I was able to finish my cookbook! And I was able to razor focus on that.

During the [early days of the] pandemic, we got to do some pop-ups and experiment with some methods and content, but we didn’t find our space until last summer. It took all that time for things to be where we are now. Everything happens for a reason.

You’ve long been committed to sourcing from local farmers. Which farms are you sourcing produce from at Kann?

A lot of the cuisine is based on traditional Haitian flavors and methods and dishes.

As a chef who lives in Oregon, I’m 100 percent in love with our produce and ingredients—that’s one of the reasons being a chef here is so fantastic. Summer is my favorite season. The berries, the cherries, the stone fruit, the melons, the chiles, all these are the things I love love love about Oregon!

We’ll be ordering from Gathering Together Farms, Groundwork Organics, and Maryhill for berries. It’s a combination of a couple farms that do deliver, and then obviously trips to the Wednesday and Saturday markets just like everybody else.

“One of the great gifts of us hitting pause during the pandemic has been being able to listen to what changes need to be happening in our industry to make workplaces better and safer for everyone.”

Are you working with any farms to custom plant particular vegetables or spices that are commonly used in Haitian cuisine like okra or taro root?

That’s definitely something that we’ll work on next year. For now, we do have a hydroponic garden that we’re working on in our private dining room, in a small space—I’d say it’s 16 feet by 8 feet. Farmer Evan Gregoire is helping us. We’re going to grow Scotch bonnet chiles—that’s the traditional chile of Haiti, and they’re hard to find in Oregon. And then we’re going to have five additional “library units” [vertical shelving units] where we’re going to grow lettuces, micro herbs, and edible flowers.

I’ve read that you are making a commitment to equity in the workplace at Kann. What are you doing to ensure that sexual harassment doesn’t take place or that it’s swiftly dealt with if it does happen?

Equity, diversity, and inclusion—those are all part of our core values. Obviously, in creating a restaurant that’s highlighting Haitian culture, any African diaspora [cuisine]—diversity is very important to us, because we want that reflected in the culture. One of the great gifts of us hitting pause during the pandemic has been being able to listen to what changes need to be happening in our industry to make workplaces better and safer for everyone.

We are committed to having women in positions of leadership. Our entire kitchen management team—my chef de cuisine, my sous chef, and my pastry chef—are all female. So we’re a women-centric, queer, and BIPOC-led team. These are fantastic women. It’s my honor to help all of them get to the next stage of their careers. My chef de cuisine, Varanya [Geyoonsawat], was a line cook at Departures, she’s been a sous chef at my pop-ups. I gave her a sous chef job and I gave her a chef de cuisine job. It’s tremendous to see someone take those opportunities and run with them. I had tremendous mentors who always stood by my side, and I just want to be that person for the people on my team. Then, it’s the little things—like making sure people have insurance.

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For all staff?  That’s very unusual in the restaurant industry.

Yep. We also offer paid vacation and sick time.

Communication is extremely important. We have pre-shift and post-shift [meetings], so we talk about things at the end of the day. We are working very closely with the team.

We have an HR consultant, and we let the team know that HR is not here to protect the restaurant: It’s a resource for them.

“We know that it takes a team to create everything that happens. I want this restaurant to be as much about the team as it is about me.”

So we’re trying to do the best that we can to make sure that everyone feels that they are supported and heard, and that there’s a clear path for advancement. We have a system where tips are shared equally amongst the entire team, so that feels more equitable.

When you walk into the restaurant, you’ll see the dining room and the kitchen. There are no walls in this space. Everyone can see everyone throughout the entire room. I hope this instills in the team a sense that we all have to work together as a team to curate this beautiful experience for our guests. I let the team know that they are empowered and they are here because they [each] have a gift. And we need them to be able to do what they do best.

This sounds like a good model for the restaurant industry at large.

For so long it’s been: the chef has one single vision for the restaurant. And we know that’s not true. We know that it takes a team to create everything that happens. So I want this restaurant to be as much about the team as it is about me. Yes, I’m the creative director and the visionary behind it all, but at the end of the day, my team is here with me every single day—working, creating, cooking. They deserve as much credit for the things that are happening as I do.

In Everyone’s Table, you talk openly about your struggles with alcohol and drugs. You start the introduction with a scary car accident you experienced in 2007, and a year later, you attended your first AA meeting. Did food play a role in your recovery? Were there any benefits to switching to a paleo diet?

What happened is when I got sober, I just started wanting to live better. I started going to the gym more, started doing CrossFit, started going paleo. (I realized I had gluten and dairy sensitivities).

Before I got sober, I never worked out and I never worried about what I ate. I never slept. My first few years of sobriety, I felt that this weight had been lifted—I felt like I could do anything. It started with the things I could control, and that really has to do with my body and taking care of it—not staying up for three days at a time, but going for a 10-mile run. Some of us, in our quest to be a different person, realize that anything is possible and we can be healthy and happy at the same time.

There has been a lot more openness about drug and alcohol addiction in the restaurant industry lately, especially in Portland. There was a booze-free Feast dinner a few years ago where chefs talked openly about their sobriety. I think just seeing role models like you, Gabe Rucker, and Sean Brock, who are talking openly about being sober in the industry, has helped others find the courage to make changes in their lives.

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I got sober in Alcoholics Anonymous. But, being in the public eye, I’ve had to talk about my recovery so much. That helped me deal with the shame—peel back layers each and every time I had to talk about my past and just get more comfortable talking about it and accept that side of me. So, in doing that, I was able to feel better about the past and know that I’ve learned from it. It let other people know that it’s OK to be in recovery. I’ve had chefs reach out from around the country on their last leg, asking me what they should do. It feels good to be out there and visible and to help people make the changes that they need.

You write that the only way we can deepen our connection to other people is to embrace the good and confront the bad—i.e., colonialism, slavery, and indentured servitude. Can you give me a few examples of recipes in this book that illustrate the culinary fusion brought about by some of these tragic parts of our collective past? 

“Conservation and environmentalism have always been important to me. In the restaurant world, it’s extremely challenging. We do create so much waste.”

I think the cauliflower recipe, which is inspired by Jamaican jerk. Jerk is one of those dishes that originated because the Indigenous folks had to move up into the mountains to escape the torture by the British. To not be seen, they started cooking in pits, and that’s how we got jerk.

And then Pikliz—the iconic, traditional Haitian condiment. I think a lot of Haiti’s story is representative of this culture of oppressors. But the word Pikliz itself comes from pickle and épicé, which means spicy in French. France colonized and ravaged Haiti for many many years, so just the name of that dish helps tell the story that some of our favorite foods are born out of tragic situations.

You also write in the introduction to your book that one thing you won’t see in your pantry is single-use plastic. “They’re bad for us and bad for the world, plain and simple. Resisting their convenience is just one small way to make a positive impact.” It’s rare that I hear chefs say that. How long have you been plastic-free and how did you come to be so committed to that lifestyle?

In college in the ‘90s, I watched a lot of documentaries about the planet, health, and the food system. I actually studied wildlife biology for a brief moment. So, conservation and environmentalism have always been important to me. In the restaurant world, it’s extremely challenging. We do create so much waste. But being in Oregon, we have great composting and recycling programs. At home, I don’t use single-use plastics—I wash out my plastic bags and re-use them.

I’ve been to Haiti and Vietnam and these pristine beaches—and then just around the corner, there’s a lot of pollution. I’ve seen how plastic pollution affects us worldwide, and it’s pretty sobering. So I try to do my part not to contribute to that.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

Hannah Wallace writes about food politics, regenerative agriculture, wine, cannabis, and travel for a wide variety of publications including Bloomberg, Conde Nast Traveler, Inc., Food & Wine, The New York Times, Reasons to be Cheerful, Portland Monthly, Vogue, and Wired. She has been a regular contributor to Civil Eats since its founding in 2009. Read more >

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