Dishing Local Bounty to Raving Local Fans

by BRIAN KERR, Executive Chef, Deschutes Brewery & Public House

I was working for a worldwide restaurant chain for ten years and was becoming disillusioned with their practices in menu development and the way they treated their staff — two things that are very near the core of my philosophies. When I began work there in the early 2000’s it was still a very large company but it had a mom and pop senior management vibe that appealed to me. It felt secure and comfortable, if not very exciting or ambitious. Ten years in and some senior management shakeup as well as a sale of the company to an even larger company, and I was looking for something new and exciting. I wanted to try to find something that fit my ideals and not just something that took care of my bank account. I was a passionate homebrewer and beer enthusiast as well as a chef driven by flavor, seasonality, a sense of being and nourishment. I wanted to tie my passion for food and beer together, so I began my search.

As a food service professional I have become much more choosy regarding the company that I keep and the company that I work with — which is why five years ago, when I saw an advertisement from Deschutes Brewery and Public House seeking a general manager for their Bend location, I immediately sprang into action. Though I had no general manager experience whatsoever, I relied on my abilities to talk my way into a job through a show of passion and experience. I had worked at many different kinds of restaurants mainly as a chef, but with the occasional bartending job, catering gig and a stint as a food and beverage director. I felt prepared to interview well. Although I was not selected for the general manager position I was determined to work for Deschutes Brewery in some capacity, so before I got off the phone with the human resources manager I asked her if they were hiring anything else I could get in the door with. She told me, “Well yes, we are also looking for an executive chef at the same location.” I had to choke back a laugh and compose myself for a moment before I told her, “Ok, that’s no problem, I have been a chef for 25 years and I would love to talk to you about that job.” One week later and I was sitting across from the founder and president of the company, Mr. Gary Fish, and we struck a deal.

I moved here in April of 2013 and began my job as the chef at Deschutes shortly after, while my wife and two young boys stayed behind in Portland to sell the house and tackle the monumental task that that entails. I made friends at work, met some of the regulars, befriended the rest of the management team, asked a lot of questions about the direction and vision of the pub and tried to come up with a game plan. I will be honest — it took more than my first summer there to come up with that plan! I learned from our brewers the styles of beers they were passionate about. I listened to the sous chefs’ experiences in the restaurant and the evolution that they have undergone in all the years the pub has been open. I paid attention to the senior managers when they spoke of delivering quality and working as a team — owning it, and learning from what we do every day, good or bad. I was really integrating myself into the culture at the pub, but I still felt like an outsider — moving from the big city to this jewel of the cascades — just another car on the road to most people.

Once I wrote a couple of the menus for the pub and began to build an understanding of what people want, what they will spend, what they will forgive or tolerate, I felt at ease and at the same time driven to continue to create raving fans of our restaurant. Most people who drink beer on the west coast have heard of Deschutes Brewery, but many people who live in Bend had given up on coming to the pub, and I wanted to win those people back. I asked questions, I listened, I read every comment card, I spoke to past chefs and paid attention to the business levels I was witnessing and trying to pin down what direction I wanted to take this kitchen. Several people I spoke with along the way shared the belief that Deschutes Brewery had grown too much, had gone corporate (it hadn’t) and had turned its back on the people who supported the pub since 1988. These folks, the locals, was the group that I determined to be the most influential when it came to the pub being a success and a continued place for community. I felt it my duty to continue to support and drive the sense of community in our culture through food and underneath that, where the food was coming from. I came to the conclusion that if I could never really be called a local, what I would do is bring the local farmers, producers, suppliers and artisans into the pub and get them on my menu.

Summer of 2015 came around and I thought it would be fun to go to the farmers market and see what I could do about my new found passion; to see if I could turn it into reality. I pulled along my sous chefs, or maybe in the early days they pulled me along, but together we would go to the market and talk to people, look at the food, meet farmers, get to know more about the business of farming, seeing the faces behind the scenes. We would just walk down there and buy up a bunch of stuff that tickled our fancy, take it back to the pub and work up specials with our bounty. Once our loads became too large to carry back to the pub, we got ourselves a cart — our Farmersmarketmobile — and pulled it behind us through the market; again meeting more farmers, buying more now that we didn’t have to carry it all in our arms, and we became a recognizable troupe at the market. We struck some deals in the first summer, spoke to the producers of the fruits and vegetables, the breads, honeys, spices and flowers. They came to recognize us and they supported us because we were supporting them. We learned about what was coming, set up orders ahead of time, and even got some to deliver to us. As we were learning and creating relationships we were also winning people back to the pub with this show of support of community. People would see us at the market and ask what we were going to do with this bounty and get excited. They would hear where we worked and would wrinkle their brows and say something to the effect of, “You guys serve fresh food?” It was obvious to my team and I that people who hadn’t visited us in years had a notion that we were not really a working kitchen but just a place for burgers and fries.

Well, if that is what they believed, we were out to change their minds forever. There was a farmer who sold fingerling potatoes at the end of the market who was very friendly, very helpful and wanted to get his produce a more regular rotation on select menus in town. Chris Casad, who at the time worked out of Juniper Jungle Farms in Bend, was that fellow and we loved his potatoes, his lettuce and his undying enthusiasm for local food and farming. He wanted to know if I was interested in having a local farmer grow our potatoes for our French fries, which was undoubtedly the highest volume of our produce purchases. He asked a lot of questions, I asked as many in return. He wanted to know how many pounds of potatoes we use in a year and I told him it was something like 80,000 pounds annually. Remarkably, Chris just nodded his head and grinned and said I think I can do that. I was dubious. But, he was determined and convincing; so much so that when he drew up his proposal, it included a request for ‘seed money’ to get seed potatoes shipped from Florida to his farm. I convinced our management team that this is the direction we want to go. We have to get out in front of the farm to table movement happening in Bend and doing this with Chris would put us on the right foot. Of course there were other restaurants in Bend buying from farmers and supporting the local businesses and producers — we were not the first — but making this move sent a signal to all the farmers and our restaurant peers that Deschutes Brewery and Public House supports our local farmers.

The first crop of potatoes didn’t get us a year’s worth of potatoes, but Chris was not deterred and neither were we. We gave him another dose of funding the next year for some better, heartier potatoes and we nearly got a year’s worth that year. Chris was beginning to feel a bit pinched in his location in Bend so he made the extraordinary decision to move his farm to Madras for a larger plot of land, a longer growing season, production space and more equipment. Aside from any gap in the supply chain, we have been serving the potatoes from Casad Family Farms on our menu for the past three years. It is a strong relationship that has spun off many more strong relationships in the farming community. Several years ago, through Liz Weigand at Agricultural Connections, we began buying more items from more farmers. We created a valuable relationship with Liz, and the farmers that she supports as the ‘hub’ of the wheel, who bring locally grown food to the people, the grocers and the restaurants. We currently do business with Field Farm, Groundwork Organic, Mahonia Farm, Boundless Farmstead, Home Farm Foods, Rainshadow Organics, Happy Harvest Farms, Barley Beef, Three Sisters Garlic and a dozen other local farmers and producers.

I have taken my passion for local foods and products to the public, having recently been on a panel of chefs, producers and suppliers at a High Desert Food and Farm Alliance forum, at a City Club forum with Liz and Megan (of Boundless Farmstead) about local food getting from farm to table and the three of us gathered for a television interview for Supper Club. I have made commitments to half a dozen farmers for the upcoming season to supply us with lettuces, onions, beets and a variety of other items. We put a locally made hot sauce on the table for our guests, as well as two more from the Willamette Valley.

Our staff is trained on why we do this and where the food is coming from so that they in turn can pass it on to our guests whom I truly believe do support us in our local-centric purchasing. We strive to continuously improve our use of the food we buy, making the most of what is available in each season — whether that is spring onions or garlic scapes, summer melons from Corvallis, local peppers and lettuces, fall squash, winter kale and cabbage. We serve it fresh, we cook it up with care, we ferment it with love, we pickle it because we love pickles. As a team we have grown our vegetarian and vegan menu offerings. We write all of our menus and specials with fresh in mind. We try new things, we take risks and we celebrate our local community.

As the chef at Deschutes Brewery and Public House I am very proud of the direction we have gone in the past five years. If you were there in the summer of 2013 and haven’t been back, please make a point of returning and seeing what we have to offer, you won’t be let down. And please, join me and the team in supporting our local community by going to the farmers market every week, your family will thank you for bringing locally grown fresh produce home. It really does make a difference!

Lastly, shop local. Buy products that are made here from the people you know or see around town whether they be artists, musicians, farmers, brewers or chefs. I sincerely look forward to meeting you at the market this summer and striking up a conversation.

photos by HomeSpun Magazine

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