Wildwood Restaurant

Disclaimer: this post has no recipes. It is a long-winded homage to a restaurant that is closing its doors.  I'll return to the recipes in the next post.

There has been no shortage of great culinary influences in my life. I had immigrant parents and grandparents, which meant that I was exposed to an array of interesting home-cooked foods, many of them foreign to where I was born and raised.  I watched countless hours of PBS culinary programming, and then countless hours of the food network in its early days.  I had a father who loved to garden.  Our house growing up had a backyard with a farmer's market's array of vegetables growing in it, in addition to fruit trees and berry bushes.We would harvest incredible organic bounties before anyone I knew even talked about produce in those terms.  My father also took my brother and I foraging around the Northwest.  We hunted morels, we picked Italian plums off of overflowing trees, we collected big plump blueberries, and wild strawberries.  The fruit and veg that we got in abundance were then preserved into pickles and jams by my grandmother. My mother made us dinner every night, and a special shabbat dinner every Friday night.  We almost never went out to restaurants, and fast food was not a concept I grew up with. Food meant a lot to me very early on. I started teaching myself to cook at a young age. By college, I was cooking for friends and roommates on a regular basis.

In 2004, I graduated from a liberal arts school with a degree that was worth very little in the marketplace. I was living in Portland, and I was trying to find a day job that would help me pay the bills while I worked on starting an art-non profit.

I walked up and down the streets of Portland, handing out a mediocre resume to any restaurant that might have been hiring.  My previous service industry experience included working at an ice cream shop, and waitressing at a Greek restaurant. I remember stopping outside Wildwood. I thought, "This is a fancy place. I'll never get a job here." I walked in anyway, I left my resume, and soon after I was called in for an interview with the manager.  I had no idea that I was about to work in a place that would fundamentally impact the rest of my culinary life.

Wildwood has defined the bar by which I now compare every single fine-dining experience.  Food has to be as good or better than it was there.  Service has to be as good or better as it was there. Unfortunately for other restaurants, they often miss the mark.  

Wildwood didn't just teach about how great a restaurant can be, it taught me about what was possible with food, it taught me about what was possible when one has passion, it taught me about what it means to form a business that is rooted in a community.

Wildwood is closing after 20 years.  I worked there 10 years ago for about a year.  At that time, Wildwood was packed every day.  Lunch service on a Friday in December was the hardest I've ever worked in my life.  As a recent college grad, Wildwood gave me more than a paycheck that paid my rent. Wildwood graciously welcomed me into the "real world." I made lifelong friends there, I developed a strong work ethic and attention to detail, and I made lifelong memories.  

I quit my job at Wildwood because I was offered my first gig in Los Angeles.  Two weeks after I gave notice, I moved to Hollywood and started working at Sony Pictures TV. Before I left, Cory Schreiber, Wildwood's founder and executive chef at the time, asked me about my upcoming move and job change, and in a nervous attempt at self deprecation, I said; "Yeah, I'm going off to do a real job."  To which he responded, "This IS a real job." His tone was not recriminating or condescending, but there was a weight to what he was telling me.  I worked as a busser at Wildwood. In my 20-something mind, I was the lowest on the totem-pole in the restaurant food-chain, and I was trying to make light of my status. I was full of shit. The truth was, I was honored to work at Wildwood.  Cory called me out on making light of what I was doing.  He wasn't just saying my job was real, he was saying any job is real. He was saying: take pride in your work. Take pride in the place that supports you. Take pride in what you do. 

In no particular order, I'd like to thank Wildwood for the following things:
  • Introducing me to the idea of farm to table food.  
  • Introducing me to the idea of seasonal cooking and eating.  
  • Showing me that every part of an animal can be butchered and used for something.
  • Serving me some of the most memorable meals of my life, with the greatest company
  • Teaching me that cooks are the filthiest, crassest, funniest, hardest working bad-asses out there.
  • Teaching me that you should never, I really mean never, clear one diner's empty plate when their companion diner is still eating.  It's incredibly rude. No one should feel bad or rushed about lingering with their food.  The meal is done when everyone is finished, only then should plates be cleared. 
  • Teaching me how to properly cook a steak, how to properly chop with a knife (learned the hard way), how to properly cook a piece of fish, and how to properly fry an egg.
  • Learning that you can be a well-known James Beard award winning chef and still be incredibly humble, kind, generous, innovative, and an activist.
  • The first time I smelled and tasted freshly shaved truffles was at Wildwood.  That is probably all I needed to say about the affect the place had on me, and how grateful I am to have worked there.
Goodbye Wildwood, and thank you for what you were.