Culinary professionals agree that food fortifies our community, builds strong relationships
Whether it’s snagging those first strawberries of the season at the farmers market, talking tomato varieties over the back fence with your neighbor or enjoying a celebratory night out at a favorite restaurant—food isn’t just fuel for our bodies, it nourishes and shapes our communities. To help us explore this idea, we invited some of the people who make valuable contributions to our food region to chat with Clark faculty about what it takes to feed and create a community.
Participating in an hour-long conversation spent at the Historic Vancouver Barracks were: Amber Baker, co-owner with her husband of Red Truck Farm in Ridgefield; Alison Dolder ’12, Clark Professional Baking and Pastry Arts professor; Earl Frederick, lead Culinary instructor; Aaron Guerra, Clark executive chef and Cuisine department head; Branden Marsh ’01, executive sous chef at Michael Jordan Steakhouse in the new Ilani Casino in Ridgefield; Warren Neth ’90, founder of the Southwest Washington chapter of Slow Food International; and Sunny Parsons ’94, owner of Heathen Brewing and Feral Public House in Vancouver. Hannah Erickson from Clark’s Office of Communications & Marketing moderated the discussion. The highlights are presented here, edited for clarity and length.
This conversation is in preparation for the opening of the Tod and Maxine McClaskey Culinary Institute. In September when the doors open, Clark will offer new opportunities for students, faculty, staff and visitors to gather and enjoy meals in an inviting atmosphere. In this story you’ll learn what makes Southwest Washington special, how food culture is changing, and why soon you might have less reason than ever to cross the bridge for a special meal.
Eating in Southwest Washington
Partners: What do you see as the food culture of Southwest Washington right now?
Sunny Parsons: The food scene is eclectic. We’re trying to represent so many different international foods and trying to do them authentically, not screw them up too much by Americanizing them. Do you know what I mean? Another movement I’m seeing in this area is we’re getting more and more specialties, more and more people that are really good at one or two things.
Partners: What do you think is one of the factors for making that change?
Parsons: I think it’s a growth in population. I think that we’re kicking people out of Portland, and they’re coming up here because the rent is being raised. We’re the food petri dish of the area, where people can go and have a lower rent and really be a rock star, where they may just be one of many in [Portland]. That’s amazing for us, and we should embrace that, especially with that bridge getting harder and harder to cross.
Partners: “Food petri dish?” Other people?
Branden Marsh: I agree. The people who do food in Vancouver don’t want to be Portland. They want to be different. A lot of chefs move here because they can do their own thing and support local farmers.
There’s a plethora of farmers in Clark County. That’s something really special. That community connection has always been really important. From everywhere I’ve worked in the Clark County area, everyone is really community-driven, so it helps develop a lot of things.
Aaron Guerra: I notice the mood, the passion. For the longest time it was like, ‘The Pacific Northwest is right across the bridge.’ We are the Pacific Northwest, and people are realizing we have it just as good here as anywhere else. Like Branden said, there’s a lot of opportunities growing on this side of the river, and it’s only going to get better.
Alison Dolder: I see a lot more people willing to take a risk. A lot more small bakeries are opening up. Years ago, where people were satisfied with what they had: ‘Oh, we’ll go to Fred Meyer or we’ll go to the bakery that’s been open for 30 years.’ Now there are a lot more people offering a lot more choices. People are like, ‘Oh, you can have that kind of bread, or you can have this.’
Partners: Amber, Branden was talking about the sense of community and the partnerships with the agricultural world here in Clark County. Have you found that to be the case as a farmer?
Amber Baker: Yeah. We’ve been here six years, and it feels like there’s been a huge transition even in that time. Part of that, I think, is just us getting to know the community better and finding out who are the chefs in the region that are wanting to partner with farmers.
What’s so great about this area is you still have farmland and urban areas right next to each other, whereas in Multnomah County, there’s nowhere to grow food in a larger capacity.
It was interesting to think about chefs moving up because of rent push and space being available here. I would say that’s been true for us as farmers as well. I hope that stays part of Clark County as we’re moving forward, so that we can actually have farmers and chefs within a very short distance of each other.
Partners: Warren, do you think a group like Slow Food Southwest Washington would even have been possible 15 years ago?
Warren Neth: Yeah. I think there have been groups and local food pioneers who have entrenched themselves in different areas of Southwest Washington. I’ve been excited to see more starting to hit their groove and starting to get more product [in the market]. People like Cascadia Creamery out in Trout Lake, who have been working with their family farm to produce more high-quality, European-style, cave-aged cheeses to bring back older food traditions.
Going out to Long Beach, we have some family farmers who have started doing organic cranberry bogs [and] Starvation Alley Cranberries. There is this kind of splitting off from old farming families by the newer generation that are pioneering old-world farming techniques or just getting back to some organic practices.
I’ve seen a couple more of those come up in the last five years. I think that’s a good jumping off point to get more people coming up to our area because, as Amber was talking about, we have an amazing amount of arable land, a lot of different kinds of arable land.
I’ve really liked focusing on Southwest Washington because it has a great range of climates and soils and different kinds of terroir. We have the Trout Lake area—the mountain (Mount St. Helens) volcanic soils. In the Klickitat Range we have the plateaus where people are raising buffalo and heritage cattle breeds. Go west and we have the estuaries and coast. There is this big swath of different growing terrains and foods that we can be producing here.
I think, as these first wave of food pioneers come out, we’ll be helping to open up a whole new train for people to start growing more and bringing more products in.
Partners: Including grapes, right? Sunny, you just started a vineyard. Is that here in Clark County?
Parsons: It is, me and about a million others. There’s something sexy about the wine industry, and not being a farmer, I can tell you that I didn’t realize—well, I played a little poker in my day, but this is the biggest gamble I’ve ever taken, trying to grow grapes. And I think I actually can buy them way cheaper than me growing them, because I’m so supremely inefficient.
I’ve learned a ton about the land and got to meet some amazing people in every aspect of this industry, whether it’s restaurant, whether it’s farmers or it’s cheese makers. Everybody is just so passionate about what they do. A lot of them gave up really good day jobs to go after their passion.
Partners: Earl, you’ve worked and taught in Portland, and now you’re over here. Do you see any differences?
Earl Frederick: A big difference. I’m from New York originally. I went back there a couple of months ago, and you have a lot of the Michelin Star chefs from New York City going to Upstate New York. I see the same pattern going on here from Portland to this side of the river.
It’s a back-to-basics approach. Gastronomy, all that stuff as far as manipulating food is—I won’t say it’s like California, but we’ve got our own thing here. I also like the minimal approach to food. It’s something that’s been lost, and that’s what we’re getting back to. I’m really excited about having more connections with the farmers, the breweries, vineyards, and things like that so we can showcase this area.
Hear what the professionals have to say about the role of education in the food economy in Southwest Washington.
Partners: It sounds like part of the food culture here is a kind of minimalism, focusing more on the ingredients and less on flash. And that’s deceptively simple, because there’s a lot of talent involved when you take away the flash.
Marsh: I think the biggest thing is not overthinking. Keep it simple. If you’re tasting a tomato, it should taste like a tomato. I think over the years so many chefs were trying to figure out, ‘How can we manipulate this tomato to be something it isn’t?’ But when you have something that tastes great and you know where it’s from and you know it was picked that morning—I mean, it’s someone’s livelihood. You’re showcasing the livelihood of the farmer, so you want to do your best to not screw it up.
Frederick: Let the food speak for itself.
Marsh: Yeah, let the food speak for itself.
Dolder: Like Earl said, you’re getting back to basics. Now it’s down to your talent and the ingredients.
Partners: I could see that focus on ingredients creating pressure on you, Amber, as the person supplying those ingredients.
Baker: That hasn’t really been my experience. I think systemically there’s a lot of food that doesn’t make it to the final plate. From a farm perspective, we make sure that it turns back into soil so it becomes food again. We’re really clear that we want to give food off our farm that we feel really proud of.
There’s a lot that we’ll eat that we don’t sell and that’s fine because we need to eat too.
There is something about having that perfect piece of produce that we need to shift, so that there is an understanding that food doesn’t always look exactly the same. But I haven’t found the chef community to be more demanding. I’ve actually found the individual consumer to be more demanding. I feel like chefs understand food a little more. We love working with restaurants and with chefs, because it’s people who also make food their livelihood.
Partners: There’s so much in our mass media about food, from Facebook video recipes to entire TV channels devoted to cooking contests. What are some of the common misconceptions that people have about your profession?
Dolder: … How long is the session? [Everyone Laughs.]
Frederick: How easy people think it is. Just because you see something once on TV or you bake a perfect cake at home, you want to open a bakery. There’s a lot more that goes into running a business. The TV glamorization is a blessing and a curse. It gives us exposure, but it also gives you a false perception of what the industry is really about.
Dolder: It’s definitely a double-edged sword. Like Earl said, people think, “Oh, I’ll just open a bakery, I’ll open a restaurant,” but there’s so much work that goes into it. There has to be a lot of passion behind it.
Guerra: You need the core passion and drive. Like Chef here. [He node to Marsh.] He’s on his sixth day, was up until 2 o’clock last night and up at 7 o’clock this morning. It’s that level of commitment that you have to have in order to do it right. Becoming a good cook and becoming a chef is not a destination. It’s an evolution of mistakes and triumphs and discovery and everything in between. Your job is to keep your eyes, your mind, and your ego open to it all. Realize that you’re not going to be on Food Network next month. That’s the one percent of one percent. To truly be successful in this industry, you have to love it. You have to be entrenched in it. It has to be a lifestyle, and short of that, it’s going to be a rough ride.
Partners: What are some of the things you love about your profession?
Dolder: I always say that bakers like to make people happy. Food is something that brings people together.
Guerra: I have to agree. One of my best memories is working a line at a major hotel in California. I put out a Manila clams appetizer dish and was just doing my thing, cooking, having a ball. And I got another order for the Manila clams. The waiter came up and said, ‘Just want you to know that that was from the same table. They enjoyed their appetizers so much that they wanted to have another one.’ You can’t replicate that feeling; when you make somebody happy on that level.
Parsons: I love to travel with food. I’m a family-style guy. Bring out the food, and if you’re willing to share and you don’t mind my fork being next to your fork every once in a while, it could happen. But being able to experience some exotic things, some things that are different but well-executed, I can live in these other cultures without having to get on a plane. It’s really hard to do right but when it’s done right, it’s amazing. I mean, I don’t know if you guys feel that way, but I just love traveling with food and through food.
Partners: Food is definitely like a cultural ambassador quite often, and it’s also a way of creating community. Can you think of some examples in your own life where you saw food create a community or express it in some way?
Neth: I definitely had that experience growing up on a small farm. We did a lot of direct sales to restaurants. I saw how that worked: My stepfather made the relationships through friendships he had with restaurant owners. My mom and I would bring the food to the back door of the restaurant.
There was a strong sense of community between all those relationships that I’ve always appreciated. Through my work with Slow Food Southwest Washington and Clark County, I’ve always tried to help create an environment of relationships—friendships built between the farmers and chefs and consumers. I think that level of community is a beautiful thing.
Parsons: When you’re telling the story of that farm, when you’re telling the story of your culinary influence or whatever dish you’re making—I think that’s the part people all fall in love with. It’s not the 70-hour work weeks and pumping out the grease trap when you’re in the middle of your shift. That’s the passion we all are here for.
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Guerra: I find it ironic that where this movement of food has been going in the last 15 years is actually back to where we used to be. It was more subsets of communities and the chefs were the family members who provided you with food. They had that ability to rely on what they had around them in order to create that beautiful food.
My grandfather had a farm when I was a kid. I remember walking through the fields and getting lemon cucumbers and thinking how cool that was. We’ve lost that. And that’s where we’re trying to get back to: that consciousness of what is our food, where does it come from, and how simply you can manipulate it to make something more beautiful than it already is.
Dolder: When you have a party at your house, where does everybody end up? In the kitchen. Whether you’re cooking there or everybody’s hanging out, it’s always around the kitchen, no matter how big your house is.
Earl and I were talking the other day about a restaurant in Virginia that has people lined up out the door. They’re just making very basic, home-cooked food that everybody loves. Earl was saying, ‘Yeah, I remember going to parties, and you’d say, ‘Who made the potato salad? Was it aunt somebody or was it your grandmother?’ Because everybody had their specialty, and it’s not a party unless someone brings their potato salad or their deviled eggs or whatever it is. No matter how simple, everybody just loves it, and it’s a memory.
Partners: Amber, I missed you in the last round with the question about what you enjoy about your work. What is it that you enjoy about farming?
Baker: There’s something about the work that is really compelling. In my family it is being outside, being hands-on, knowing what you’ve done in a day, being able to see that point to it.
I didn’t come from a farming family. I grew into farming in my adulthood. For me, there’s something about contributing to a food system that’s more honest, that’s really important and that keeps me motivated. With the current disconnect we have from our food, we don’t really understand what it means to actually make food. We don’t understand the labor that goes into food. To be quite frank, there’s a lot of exploitation in the system around how food is made and how food gets to our houses. For me, it’s motivating to contribute a small bit to doing the work myself that feels really important. I grew up in a farm-worker community in California, and seeing what industrial food looks like in the field—it’s literally factories in the field.
For me, there’s something about doing that differently and being responsible with my body in that work and the labor of it. And it’s something I do with my family and my children. And yeah, obviously I love to eat good food, and that’s really amazing as well. It’s a combination of my personal enjoyment of it, but also doing the system differently that keeps me in it.
Partners: We’ve talked a bit about the passion that needs to go into this work. Let’s also talk about the skill. What role do you think formal education has in the current food economy?
Dolder: The way that we’re approaching it is with input from chefs and people in the food industry, so that we can find out what can we do to make our students the most well-rounded and work-ready when they come out to go to work for you. It’s really important that they have the necessary skills, the basics, the understanding of where their food is coming from and how they can best prepare it and present it.
Guerra: Yeah. One of the sayings in the kitchen is, ‘A cook knows how; a chef knows why.’ That’s the one thing at the McClaskey Culinary Institute that we’re very excited about. For a lot of years now, it seems that the true fundamentals, the true understanding of the traditions and the how to prepare foods in those traditions and how to split off that, has been glossed over. So we’re taking them back to the fundamentals, truly understanding the ratios of mousse, or how to properly create a fond (base) in a well-done stock.
Plus we’re also conscious that in today’s different landscape, individuals have to think and they have to be able to come out from the back of the house, whether they want to or not.
Parsons: What I would love to see, and I think has already happened, is more of a collaboration between education and real-world restaurateurs or restaurants. We have a lot to learn from each other because you guys are academically studying the science of food. I’m the outsider here. I’m more of a serial entrepreneur. I love food, but I have other people actually doing the heavy lifting. Taking the time for us to clock out of our daily role and be involved with the program, and vice versa, is hugely beneficial, at least it will be for me.
Partners: Branden, you just took a job at a large restaurant. What does having a culinary degree on an applicant’s résumé mean for you when you’re hiring?
Marsh: Nowadays, you just don’t see it anymore. When the economy shifted, a lot of back-of-the-house people left the industry in our area. The restaurants that survived were chef-driven ones that really took that name and that brand and moved forward. People stepped away from the culinary industry, education-wise, for a while.
I would like to see, basically, the fundamentals. There’s a huge gap in talent. There’s a huge age gap right now. A lot of youth, they just don’t cook anymore.
There’s a huge gap in education, and it’s crucial. The past two restaurant openings I’ve done, it’s been challenging to find the labor. Everyone wants to be a chef. Everyone wants to have their name on their jacket, but the people that actually cook, the day-to-day cooks, they’re very scarce.
For example, with the casino, you’d think it would be easy to hire cooks. But there was a shortage. I didn’t have enough time to develop the people. I basically had to give a crash-course education for half of my staff. That’s challenging when you’re trying to open a multimillion dollar restaurant—to not have the fundamental knowledge of prep and knife work and how to hold a knife.
We need to get back to that and encourage those people to come cook and learn the trade and inspire the next generation. I’m excited for a quality culinary institute in our backyard.
Frederick: We’re going to be not just teaching from a book, but teaching from experience. Once you have that buy-in factor from the students who know that you’ve been through it, they’re more likely to pick up on what you’re talking about.
Like you said, there’s is a shortage of cooks. It’s because most culinary schools advertise, ‘You want to be a chef. You want to be an owner.’ They don’t, say ‘prep cook.’ They don’t say ‘line cook.’ They gloss over those details, so unless you understand how hard it is to make it in this industry, then pretty much you’re going to be set up for failure. Employers are going to have to go to a temp agency just to fill those holes.
Guerra: That ties into my earlier comment: We need chefs teaching young culinarians how to be chefs and to remind them that it’s a process of learning. There is discovery and mistakes and all those types of things. Without that, we can’t refine their craft.
Certain individuals think, ‘Oh, well, I know how to do that. I don’t have to pay attention.’ When you shut yourself off, when you stop seeing the big picture [you shortchange yourself]. Chefs who we grew up with—they saw the big picture. They had to do everything from getting the fresh produce, to learning how to manipulate it, to plating it and keeping the business numbers running at the same time.
It’s a tall calling, but I think the education part is crucial because without chefs like Earl and Alison who have been down that road to tell students, ‘OK, that’s a great thought. Really love how you did that. But if you think about it just like this, it changes the entire complexion or the outcome of what you’re doing.’ Those little differences can make the difference between being open and being closed.
Dolder: I think—particularly with a panel like this where we have people growing food and people in the local farm movement and chefs and vintners and brewmasters—that for us to be involved with them is a valuable piece that we take back to the McClaskey Institute. Our students can turn around and see we’re not just teaching them from a book. We’re involved with the industry, we’re seeing what’s going on, we’re getting their input, and we’re still a vital piece of that industry. We’re not just standing up there spewing out facts or telling them what to do. We’re still doing it, and we’ve done it. I think it’s important for them to see that.
Neth: I’m really excited that, from the get-go, I’ve been hearing the department reach out to the farming community and local food advocates. I hope that we can have part of the program be a way that we can get the chefs out into the field and meet a couple of farmers, maybe even have a farm work day, just learn a little bit about off season. I think that’s a huge, huge thing that we could add to the students’ curriculum.
Having a little taste of what it’s like to be out at a farm and learning about cooking seasonally will be a huge, huge thing for those chefs and for our regional food scene.
Dolder: I think that’s a great point. If, as chefs and instructors, we work with people like you, and our students can see us involved in this and not just standing up there spewing out facts from the textbook or saying ‘Thirty years ago when I was in the industry…’ We’re still in the industry. We’re still working with people and in the food industry.
It’s important for us to model that for our students so that they can see that you don’t just finish being a chef or a baker and then go to work as a teacher. You’re still involved.
Partners: I want to wrap up with just some fun, personal food questions. What’s your go-to dish to make yourself when you’re off work?
Marsh: Tacos. Every day is Taco Tuesday at my house. I make tacos as many times as we can make them. It’s a great way to showcase what’s fresh and what’s in season. We make our tacos with whatever looks good. So we’re not conventional taco people. We use the tortilla as a vessel to eat whatever we make. So Taco Day every day at my house.
Guerra: See? And that’s exactly how I grew up.
I love breakfast. I like all kinds of stuff, but Sunday mornings tend to be the time I get to spend with my lady. I like to experiment with breakfast foods, doing raspberry pancakes with lemon curd on top and food like that.
Baker: We really do try to eat a lot of the food that we grow. Some times of the year we eat the same thing every day. My favorite months are August and September, when there’s a little bit of everything to eat. We’ve got chickens on the farm, so I would say one of our favorite things is having chicken dinners.
I left my off-farm job a couple of years ago. Now my new job, besides the farming, is to produce as much food for our household as possible. It can be a little bit boring and mundane sometimes. I’m a home chef. Anything that’s coming out from the field is what we’re eating, what we love to eat.
Frederick: I’m a barbecue guy. Anything grilled on a barbecue. I just barbecued yesterday. My grandmother was a sharecropper from North Carolina, so all those farming practices—snapping beans and shucking corn and all that stuff that people probably didn’t do at my age—gave me a better understanding of food.
She used to smoke a lot of product. I mean, she had pigs, chickens in the back, and I watched that process. It gave me a better appreciation for that food. I don’t let anything go to waste. I love pig ears. It’s my favorite. Yeah, all the awful meat. Some people might be turned off. That’s right down my alley.
Neth: The funniest thing happening in my kitchen these days is breakfast, making pancakes with my daughter. We make them from scratch, and since she’s two and a half, she knows every ingredient. She uses a little wooden spoon and points out all the ingredients.
Besides that, we do a lot of cooking with our family recipes. My wife’s family is from Alabama, so we have a bunch of stewed greens in the refrigerator right now, good ham hocks in there. I bring out some of my Black Sea German family recipes, these little dense noodles and sauerkraut pies and things like that.
Dolder: I think we need to have a potluck. This all sounds good.
Partners: No kidding!
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Hannah Erickson is Clark College’s senior communications specialist.