Portland's Escape Room Mastermind
A Portland-based designer is the brains behind some of the world’s best escape rooms
Gabriel Rucker is a legend. The James Beard Award-winning chef's incredibly daring French(ish) restaurant Le Pigeon hoisted him (and Portland, Oregon’s food scene) into the national spotlight when it opened in 2006. He is also a main character in my book, Burn the Ice. As we wrapped one of our final interviews, he had an idea: “If you really want to get a sense of what goes on, come work in my kitchen.”
I laughed. But he wasn’t kidding. “Seriously,” he said. “You should stage.” To stage in a restaurant means to essentially intern for free to showcase what you can do for the head chef. Considering the
last time I worked in a kitchen I was 17, ladling marinara onto chicken Parm,
I wouldn’t describe my culinary skills as practiced. But this wasn’t the sort of invitation you just turn down, and a tiny part of my brain secretly thought maybe this was my chance to show Rucker I was a natural.
I began training: knife work in the morning; culinary theory at lunch; repeatedly watching Ratatouille with my kids before bed. I still needed a confidence boost, so the night before I left, as I delicately plated my kids’ chicken nuggets and corn (fancily cut off the cob), I told them about my pending adventure. My four-year-old daughter spoke for both herself and her two-year-old brother: “Oh, no, Daddy. That’s going to be not fun.”
When I showed up at Le Pigeon, Rucker introduced me, and everyone on staff naturally assumed that, as a food journalist, I likely had at least some professional experience in the kitchen. “It’s just like riding a bike,” one of the prep cooks told me. “I’m sure when you’re in it, it’ll all turn to muscle memory.” I smiled as sweat ran down my back. “I’ve never ridden the kitchen bike!” I wanted to shout. “There is no memory in my muscles!”
After the staff meal, I joined Rucker and the other cooks in plucking stems off cherry tomatoes. It was a relief to be able to contribute to something repetitive and easy. When the clock struck 5 p.m., the front door was unlocked and guests started walking in. I took a big breath and realized I really had to pee. Tough luck. It was showtime.
Quickly, an audience of customers sat at the counter of the open kitchen, and orders started coming in. On the line, Rucker and his two cooks moved with a balletic grace so smooth and practiced it almost looked fake. It was the little things—the blurred speed at which Rucker basted the herb-crusted steak in butter with a bent spoon, the ninja knife work while looking elsewhere and having a full conversation, the coded language (“Two Rogers, one Terry, two Cancúns on fire”).
But as soon as I became involved, that world-class ballet devolved into a nursery-school production. The audience sitting at the counter didn’t help my nerves. One gentleman said he’d been to Le Pigeon 40 times. Another, a man Rucker referred to as “Bones,” was a former Pigeon sous chef. These were not wide-eyed first-timers who might not know the difference.
With an open kitchen, there’s nowhere to hide, but I tried my best, jamming myself against the back wall and waiting for instructions. Mostly I was a gofer. I would place hot pans in the corner for the dishwasher, wipe down plates for food runners, or run down to the basement prep kitchen to get more peach XO sauce for the grilled shoyu pigeon dish. Eventually, I reached a groove. It wasn’t muscle memory,
but you can’t help but get caught up in the energy of a restaurant as it passes from servers to cooks to everyone else.
And then Rucker, perhaps seeing that I was starting to gain a smidge of confidence, pulled me aside. “Hey, Kevin,” he said. “Why don’t you make some of the profiteroles?”
He was talking about the foie gras profiteroles, arguably his most famous dish, an insane, decadent creation that includes foie in not only the ice cream, but also the batter and powdered sugar and caramel on top.
“You mean,” I stammered, “for the customers?” “Relax,” Rucker said. “The ingredients are ready. You just have to put them together.”
It was true. I’d seen one of the cooks building them all night. I can do this, I thought. When the next order came in, I stepped up to the station, my hands shaking. I cut three profiteroles horizontally and scooped some of the foie ice cream onto each bottom half, then placed the top back on. It felt as if they had turned off the music in the restaurant and everyone was watching. I drizzled the caramel as gracefully as possible over the tops and onto the plate as I’d seen, and then shook on the powdered sugar. When I looked to Rucker as he examined the dish, I felt like a man in a courthouse awaiting sentencing.
“You know,” Rucker said, “we might actually be able to serve that.” It wasn’t quite the “you’ve missed your calling” feedback I was aiming for, but, I figured, that sort of thing probably wasn’t going to happen until at least my second trip.
Kevin Alexander's book, Burn the Ice: The American Culinary Revolution and Its End, is out now.