A good food festival serves up the essence of the host city's food, in 2 ½ days of dinners, tastings, and partying. A very good food festival sends you home with a deeper understanding of the food where you live.
This year's Feast Portland was a very good food festival. Last weekend in Portland, a whole bunch of people came together to taste and get drunk, to cook under impossibly hard festival conditions and to slip each other business cards. By the time I flew back to Oakland Sunday night, on a prop plane that offered the kind of view of San Francisco Bay that makes living here feel like privilege, I felt like I had an overview, not only of what makes Portland's food essential in the national conversation, but what's depressing the soul of ours.
Last Saturday at Feast, Francis Lam moderated a panel from PDX talking about why the biggest little city in Oregon figures big on the national food map. It was Portland Monthly food critic Karen Brooks, author of The Mighty Gastropolis, who talked about Portland's democracy of eating. In other cities, chefs at the best restaurants have their own back-channel networks for the good stuff. But in Portland, everybody pretty much has equal access -- sandwich shop owners, women who run food carts, home cooks, chefs on national TV. Everybody's standing in line together at the farmers' market in Portland, which means the possibility of finding amazing hazelnut-finished pork in a submarine sandwich and not exclusively on high-dollar tasting menus.
"We do fine craft cooking for the masses in a way that no other city has imagined," Brooks says.
Fine craft cooking for the masses. It's not Joshua Skenes' $40 bar-bite pigeon that Anna Roth sampled at Saison last summer, it's the $9 sandwich I got last weekend at Tails & Trotters, a butcher shop in a Portland neighborhood that sells hazelnut-finished pork (they also make a few sandwiches). A healthy craft food scene is all about the scrappy and the affordable, the geeky single-subject passion driving certain people to polish things that are tiny and unremarkable (lager or donuts or chicken wings) until they shine. In San Francisco we like to think we're all about fine craft cooking for the common man and woman -- it's part of the progressive mythology we construct for ourselves. But have SF's populist craft foods gone as extinct as the $1,500 flat?
Fine craft sandwiches off a loading dock were what gave Kitchenette its fire. The aspirations for fine craft cooking made Mission Street Food, Mission Burger at Duc Loi, and the first generation of Mission Chinese Food as dangerous and improbable as a litter of tigers under the back porch. Craft gave the Eat Real Festival its first flush of excitement, and the first seasons of Off the Grid at Fort Mason enough heat to push back the wind and the fog.
Oh, fine craft cooking for the masses exists here still -- in sandwiches from Pal's Takeaway and in bowls of Hapa's ramen, milk teas from the Boba Guys and margheritas from Pizza Del Popolo, the Zilla dog from 4505 Meats and smoky pastrami from Wise Sons, and in Georgian dumplings from Satellite Republic, when you can find them. But in the tech meritocracy that San Francisco feels like now -- where a few blocks on Valencia feel as rarefied as a Street View version of Google's cafeteria -- can we really call ourselves a food democracy?
Because, and this is something else Karen Brooks said about Portland, in order to be risk takers as food entrepreneurs -- guys like Andy Ricker, who started Pok Pok from a shack on his driveway -- you need to be in a place with cheap rents. There is no Kickstarter big enough that can insulate you from five-figure rents, even if you are the genius who comes up with the next Cronut. "When you're not paying $10,000 a month in rent, you can take chances," Brooks says.
Are rents still cheap enough in Oakland to allow chefs to take chances? As one pastry chef I know, who thought an empty space in Temescal might be cool until he found out the rent was 12K per month, they are not, unless you're willing to take a chance on East or West Oakland.
Of course we still have pop-ups, and a couple of food business incubators like La Cocina. But a community of chefs and passionate amateurs able to rent cheap storefront space to take a risk on goat sausages or pulque or Korean roasted corn tea, that isn't likely to happen here in any near future I can imagine. On the other hand, young chefs and amateur food geeks tend to be very resourceful. Maybe when today's tech bubble goes the way of the last one, and the white-linen four-tops disappear from Valencia Street, maybe then San Francisco will get the populist craft cooking a lot of us want to thrive here. Until then, hey: Fares to Portland really aren't that bad.