Gregory Gourdet Works to Build a Better Restaurant in Portland – The New York Times

Gregory Gourdet has revamped his plans for a Haitian kitchen, after being caught up in a citywide furor over the treatment of restaurant workers.
Gregory Gourdet with a Haitian-inspired duck dish at Kann Winter Village, the pop-up he opened after pushing back plans to open a Haitian restaurant in Portland, Ore.Credit…Celeste Noche for The New York Times
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PORTLAND, Ore. — In an early-morning interview last February, back when it was still normal for strangers to meet for maskless conversation, Gregory Gourdet, one of Portland’s best-known chefs, shared his vision for 2020. Having just wrapped up his second stint as a contestant on “Top Chef,” he planned to accomplish two long-held goals: completing his first cookbook, “Everyone’s Table,” and opening his first restaurant, Kann.
Mr. Gourdet, the son of Haitian immigrants, knew then that he wanted Kann to showcase Haitian cuisine, along with a taste of the healthy, paleo-friendly, dairy- and gluten-free cooking he has embraced since becoming sober, in 2009, and has made the focus of his book. He looked forward to returning to Haiti, to cook at his aunt’s house, to eat stewed conch and akra.
Mr. Gourdet had spent much of his career making slick, Asian-inspired food, starting in New York in the early 2000s, when he worked for Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and in the 2010s as executive chef at Departure, the restaurant and lounge atop the Nines Hotel in Portland where he rose to prominence. (He was also culinary director of the Departure restaurant in Denver, open from 2016 to 2019.)
The thought of introducing his adopted hometown to the cooking he grew up eating in Queens, N.Y., brought a smile to his face. “Haitian cuisine is not well-represented,” he said. “It’s part of me. It’s something I want Portland to have.”
But the pandemic quickly torpedoed that plan, as well as the trip to Haiti. And then came what locals call “the reckoning” — hospitality workers’ accounts of abusive treatment in the city’s restaurants. The furor, which unfolded on social media and in the local press last summer, included anonymous online accusations that Mr. Gourdet hadn’t done enough to stop harassment and discrimination at both Departure restaurants, and that he didn’t properly credit a pastry chef for her ideas.
He has denied those accusations, pointing out that his power was limited at the restaurants, which he didn’t own. But he said he has “listened to every single one of them,” reached out to many of those workers, and wants to help change the power dynamics in an industry that has mistreated workers for too long. Mr. Gourdet says he has reimagined his new restaurant as a template for how to do that.
Mr. Gourdet stopped actively looking for a space for Kann in the summer, when Portland was upended by the pandemic lockdown and frequent protests over the killing of George Floyd. With its opening pushed back to 2022, he turned to Kann Winter Village, a pop-up that began in December and will run into early spring.
Seven of his newly hired nine-member kitchen staff are people of color; six are women and one is nonbinary. To address concerns over pay imbalances in restaurants, all employees other than managers receive the same salary, and tips are split evenly between the dining room and kitchen staffs.
Mr. Gourdet is far from the first chef to take such measures. But he believes that his experiment can start to answer questions about how Portland restaurants can satisfy worker demands for equity and civility, at a time of intense distrust of chefs like Mr. Gourdet, who flourished in a system he now wants to change.
“The pandemic has really ravaged us as a community, and the reckoning has really ravaged us,” Mr. Gourdet said during an interview last month in the Winter Village kitchen, inside a former foundry in southeast Portland. “I’m here to see it get rebuilt.”
Uncertainty over the future is particularly vexing in Portland. The reputation of the city’s food scene — ranked the nation’s best in 2015 by The Washington Post’s food critic, Tom Sietsema — is disproportionate to its size, and an alarming number of its signature restaurants have closed during the pandemic. Among them were Beast, the flagship business of the award-winning chef Naomi Pomeroy, and all six iterations of Pok Pok, the chef Andy Ricker’s renowned Thai restaurant.
That leaves Mr. Gourdet, 45, as one in a dwindling group of established industry leaders trying to build something new in a scarred city.
While he considers himself an introvert, in his 10 years at Departure, he found time to appear on television, travel the world and stage an annual food and music party. “Everyone’s Table” isn’t due out until May, but preorders have already landed it atop the best-seller list at Powell’s Books, the city’s famous bookseller.
Mr. Gourdet’s professional experience, coupled with the fact that he belongs to many of the communities the industry has marginalized, makes him well suited to steer the Portland restaurant scene through crisis, Mr. Ricker said.
“In a lot of ways, Gregory represents the moment in history where we are. He’s Black. He’s gay. He cares about the environment. He’s trying to represent the cuisine from his own culture,” Mr. Ricker, 57, said in a phone interview from his home outside Chiang Mai, Thailand. “He represents a lot of what is in conflict in America right now.”
The task of mending fences with an embittered work force is made harder, local restaurateurs say, by a generational divide between management and labor, and by the preference of hospitality workers, many of them worried about alienating future employers, to air their grievances anonymously on social media.
“These conversations are vital,” said Ms. Pomeroy, 46, who has written about her regret that she emulated the macho behavior of male chefs earlier in her career. “But when you’re only interested in these online smear campaigns, and not talking face to face, the repairs aren’t going to get made.”
Similar reckonings have played out around the country over the past year, spurred by the #MeToo and Black Lives Matter movements, but Portland’s reflects a volatile politics that has existed here for years, said Brooke Jackson-Glidden, the 26-year-old editor of Eater Portland, who grew up in Oregon.
“There’s a natural tension between leftists and alt-right groups,” she said, “between people who’ve been here and people who’ve just moved here, and between vegans and people focused on healthy eating and the people who are interested in meat.”
The uproar over restaurants began in July, when Maya Lovelace, the chef and co-owner of the Southern restaurant Yonder and the supper club Mae, solicited written accounts of on-the-job abuse from local restaurant workers. Ms. Lovelace, 33, posted screen shots of the messages over four days, with the identities of the accusers concealed, to her Instagram account as Stories, which automatically disappear after 24 hours.
The anonymous accusations “ranged from human resources mistakes to allegations of serious crimes,” The Oregonian reported. They were directed at some of Portland’s best-known food businesses. Some issued public responses, including Olympia Provisions, a charcuterie company that operates Portland restaurants, and the restaurants Ava Gene’s and Tusk. Ms. Lovelace herself ultimately faced allegations, including from her only Black employee, that she treated staff insensitively. (In an interview, Ms. Lovelace apologized “for having ever made anyone uncomfortable,” adding, “I also understand that my intentions don’t erase the impact of any actions I’ve taken that hurt people.”)
She said the accusations against Mr. Gourdet “didn’t necessarily speak to his character or his personal behavior,” and that much of the criticism focused on Sage Hospitality, the company that owns Departure and the Nines Hotel.
The New York Times asked eight people who worked at Departure to talk about their experiences, but only two former employees in Denver agreed. One, Cheryl Jordan, said she endured and witnessed “revolting sexual harassment,” including threats of sexual violence, while working as a pastry chef there. She reported that to Sage Hospitality’s human resources department in 2016.
In a recording she made of the meeting, Ms. Jordan asks managers why the company hasn’t disciplined male chefs who had been accused of harassment, including one who she said had exposed himself to a female colleague. “I’ve heard rape jokes being made, I’ve heard sexual molesting jokes about children being made,” Ms. Jordan says in the recording. (Mr. Gourdet was not in the meeting.)
After a male manager responds that investigations are continuing, Ms. Jordan, 38, contrasts what she describes as management’s reluctance to take action against male employees who regularly use abusive language to refer to female colleagues with the immediate firing of a chef whom she reported for calling Mr. Gourdet a racial slur. “It was well established that racism is not going to be tolerated here, and misogyny and sexism is,” she says.
In a response for this article, Sage Hospitality said, “we are unable to respond in detail to media requests about a workplace complaint” because of “privacy concerns.”
Ms. Jordan, like others who posted on social media, said Mr. Gourdet “knew about the harassment and did nothing to stop it.” She added, “I expect Gregory to make reparations for the harm that has already been done, and he hasn’t.” She dismissed his plan for Kann Winter Village as a “publicity stunt.”
A male chef who worked at the Denver Departure with Ms. Jordan said that there was sexual harassment in the kitchen, but that he didn’t believe Mr. Gourdet was responsible for it.
“It can’t be his fault when someone says something when he’s not even there to hear it,” the chef said, requesting anonymity because he didn’t want to be pulled into the controversy. “I think he’s a wonderful person. He tries to show how you should behave.”
Mr. Gourdet said he wasn’t aware of the details of the complaints about Departure Denver when he worked there. “I handled zero H.R. in Denver,” he said. He said that he knew of complaints about Departure Portland, but that he was “blindsided” by how many more emerged last summer, having assumed that others in the Sage management were addressing the problems. “People felt there wasn’t enough resolution in these cases,” he said.
Other grievances, he said, were not under his purview. Referring to several anonymous complaints on social media about the “objectifying dresses” that female servers were required to wear at the Departure restaurants, he said he pushed to change the uniform, unsuccessfully. “I didn’t manage the dining room,” he said. (The pastry chef who said he didn’t give her credit for her ideas declined to be interviewed, but wrote in an Instagram message that that was just one of several complaints she had about the workplace culture at Departure Portland.)
Mr. Gourdet said he took the criticism to heart. “It’s my job to make sure all 30 people who worked under me in the kitchen feel good every day, and I didn’t do that,” he said.
Mr. Gourdet objected to Ms. Lovelace’s role, as he put it online last summer, “as judge, jury, executioner and apology accepter,” and to the fact that the accusers went unnamed, eliminating the possibility for making amends. “I’m a fixer,” he said. “I want to fix things.”
As Mr. Gourdet sat in the kitchen of Kann Winter Village last month, a side door was open to the outdoor “village” of 10 yurts, provided by American Express as part of a nationwide program. Tia Vanich, the project’s director of operations and Mr. Gourdet’s business partner, was helping refresh the tents before the next service. In January, indoor dining was still banned in Portland. (Those restrictions were lifted early this month.)
“Without the yurts, we’re not in business,” Ms. Vanich said.
Mr. Gourdet’s attempt to create a more inclusive and harmonious work environment is most evident in Kann’s kitchen. “I could have staffed this place with a bunch of white males in, like, literally five minutes,” he said. “But as a gay Black man, and with everything that went on with the reckoning and George Floyd, I didn’t want to do that.”
In the kitchen, Varanya Geyoonsawat, 35, who as sous-chef is the highest-ranking kitchen employee below Mr. Gourdet, worked alongside Jasmyne Romero-Clark, 27, prepping for the three six-course tasting menus — one pescatarian, one vegan, one omnivore — served five nights a week. Every menu included a salad of ripe plantains, squash and pickled apples in a cashew dressing, a version of soup joumou and upside-down banana cake draped in warm coconut cream.
Kann’s food, much of which is served in polished Staub pots, is considerably more rustic than the modern, pan-Asian cuisine Mr. Gourdet was known for at Departure. He acknowledges that the glitzy rooftop restaurant is out of step with the earthy, do-it-yourself aesthetic of the chef-owned restaurants that put Portland on the map.
He mentioned Ms. Geyoonsawat, who, along with Ms. Romero-Clark, worked at Departure near the end of his tenure, as a chef whose talents he didn’t fully recognize in Departure’s busy kitchen. He said it took working with her more closely, testing recipes for his cookbook, for him to realize that she had the ability to lead Kann’s kitchen.
Ms. Romero-Clark said she, too, felt her opportunities were limited by male chefs who didn’t take her seriously at Departure, though she doesn’t blame Mr. Gourdet. “He was gone a lot,” she said.
In early February, she was promoted to kitchen manager at Kann, which brought a raise — a boon for Ms. Romero-Clark, who wasn’t entirely satisfied with the equal-pay structure that Mr. Gourdet imposed. “I don’t want to say my job is more important than others,” she said, “but sometimes, when I’m pulling more of my own weight than others, it doesn’t seem totally fair.”
Mr. Gourdet said that he may have to adjust his plan for a progressive kitchen to suit the needs of his staff, and that it’s unclear whether it will be sustainable as a business model. But so far, Kann’s Haitian-inspired food has been well-received. Winter Village tables are frequently sold out, he said.
He looks forward to promoting “Everyone’s Table,” as well as the April premiere of his third appearance on “Top Chef,” this time as a guest judge.
JJ Goode, who co-wrote the book, said he was initially skeptical of Mr. Gourdet’s idea for a gluten-, legume- and dairy-free cookbook. He changed his mind after the chef sent him “an entirely thought-out table of contents, a great title and this list of 200 recipes, all of which sounded amazing,” said Mr. Goode, an experienced cookbook author. “Trust me, that never happens.”
The book doesn’t include a recipe for what is sure to be a Kann signature: a whole duck braised in Haitian Creole sauce and aromatics, then cooked confit. The dish is a reworking of a Peking duck that was popular at Departure — though Mr. Gourdet was quick to point out it isn’t completely his own. Other chefs had a hand in its creation, and after that, at Kann, Ms. Geyoonsawat “made almost all of them.”
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