Chef Gregory Gourdet is a celebrated chef, James Beard Award winning author, and television personality. He is best known for his award-winning cuisine, bevy of TV appearances, and trendsetting role in the culinary boom of Portland, Oregon.
An avid traveler and lifelong student of food and culture, Gourdet infuses methods and ingredients from all over the world, balanced together with his own Haitian heritage, to create signature flavors that are adored for their seasonality, boldness, complexity, and spice.
Chef Gourdet’s original plan was to study medicine and become a doctor. The proverbial fork in the road came and he graduated from the University of Montana with a degree in French, then enrolled in the prestigious Culinary Institute of America (CIA). He became the school’s first student to land a coveted internship with celebrity chef Jean-Georges Vongerichten. He graduated from the CIA in 2000 and went back to work for Jean-Georges full-time.
In 2010, Gourdet took the helm at Departure Restaurant + Lounge in Portland, OR, where he combined local ingredients of the Pacific Northwest with flavors and traditions from Japan, China, Thailand, Vietnam, and Korea to create his modern Asian fare.
In 2019, Gourdet ended a 10-year tenure with Departure to focus on opening his own restaurant, Kann, a wood-fired concept that promised to bring the cuisine of his Haitian heritage and the Caribbean diaspora to the American spotlight. Kann opened in Portland in 2022.
Chef Gourdet released his first cookbook, Everyone’s Table: Global Recipes for Modern Health, in 2021, as the ultimate guide to cooking globally-inspired dishes free of gluten, dairy, soy, legumes, and grains. The book aims to make healthy eating accessible to all, and won the James Beard Award for Best General Cookbook in 2022.
Gourdet’s career soared to new heights this year as Kann was named the nation’s best new restaurant. Total Food Service is honored to share his inspiring story.
Could you share where your passion for cooking came from?
I grew up in Queens as a first-generation New Yorker. I always loved watching my mom cook. You know, I grew up in a Haitian household, and my mom was an amazing caretaker. Even though she had two jobs, there was always food on the table!
Where did you study and learn the skills that have become sort of the foundation of your career?
I went to the Culinary Institute of America (CIA). That led to an internship at Jean-Georges. I then went on to work at Jean-Georges for about six and a half years.
Did you know in high school that you wanted to go to the CIA? Or how did you find your way there?
I actually did pre-med at NYU for a year because I thought I wanted to be a doctor. Then I ended up going out to the University of Montana, and studying wildlife biology. That is where I was living on my own for the first time and paying my own rent.
That is when and where I started cooking. I did, because I was in college for five years before going to CIA. And after three majors, CIA really felt like I would finally learn and everything just clicked for the first time. It was like the first time I got straight A’s. I loved school for the very first time.
Can you share your career path after the CIA? What were you doing and how did you land in Portland?
After six and a half years with Jean Georges, a friend presented me the opportunity to be the chef of a pan Asian concept in downtown Portland. Having lived in Montana, I spent time in Portland. I had developed a relationship with the city. I was just at a point in my life where I needed some change. I just moved cross country, moved back across the country and I have been here for the past 16 years.
What led to the opening of Kann?
Kann came out of not wanting to work for other people anymore and wanting more control. Just kind of wanting to do my own thing. After working in restaurants that featured so many other types of cuisines, I felt I wasn’t spending enough time learning about my own culture.
That spawned this introspective look and with that I started making Haitian food. It just felt very comfortable, and I was able to dig into family memories and history. It just felt like a much better cooking experience than cooking food that I had learned from other cultures.
Let’s talk for a second about Haitian cuisine. Is it seafood based or Creole?
Think Caribbean flavors with a big bandwidth because there are vast differences throughout the Caribbean. Lots of seafood of course because Haiti is an island. Lots of grains, rice, legumes and beans. Lots of starchy root vegetables like plantains, sweet potatoes, different types of yams, taro root, lots of scotch bonnet chili, sour oranges. Spices like cinnamon, star anise and vanilla.
Where do you source all this stuff? It’s not exactly on a Sysco or US Foods truck.
Most of it is actually pretty common. But we do source some things directly from Haiti including chocolate, mushrooms and coffee.
You sort of made a big gamble, thinking that Haitian cuisine that nobody really understood would be something that would be popular to everybody in that Portland community.
Keep in mind, I’ve been part of the community for the past 16 years. I have a strong footing in Portland and I’ve been feeding people this entire time. We tested the concept with a few pop ups, and they were extremely successful. It showed me that people were excited and ready for something different.
Talk about the customer base. Is it students from Portland State? Is it local business? What’s the mix look like?
We have a very, very crazy mix of guests, from the people who are flying in from around the country, literally just to eat at Kann, to people who happen to be here on a trip and they base it around Kann to I mean, literally every type of person and every type of guests.
How would you describe the atmosphere and ambiance of Kann?
It’s lively, and energetic. Service is extremely important to us. We have a family style menu, it’s a three-course experience with multiple shared plates within those courses.
Is it a price fixed menu?
No, it is not. Everything kind of leaves the kitchen as it’s prepared. But for a table of two, you might get two, three starters. And then for entrees you can get maybe two different entrees and two different sides. And, oh, save room for dessert. And we’ve had people come in and order the entire menu. We’ve had tables of four, tables of six come in and order the entire menu, which is 20 dishes. That happens often.
Is Portland a competitive restaurant market?
We’re a bit too small of a town to be competitive. It’s important that we focus on supporting each other, and if I have guests who are flown in from out of town, and they’re making a weekend of it, I always suggest friends’ restaurants as other options for them to go to.
I think building that sense of community is extremely important to us, even though there’s still elements of the pandemic that are not letting go. We are still somewhat in a kind of survival mode on some level, but at the same time, it’s like really important that we build each other up, because we are one community.
What’s your approach to building your front of the house team and culinary teams?
We have a clear ethos, it’s built on equity, it’s built on inclusion, it’s built on not being scared to develop people and really investing in their futures and in their careers, and also supporting but not micromanaging. Those are all part of the things that we do. I had really great mentors when I was younger, but I was also given a lot of freedom to manage myself. And that’s kind of how I lead.
I think it’s really important that young folks and the people that we have on our teams are able to do the work and stick up for themselves and communicate really well and we all collaborate on challenges and opportunities. Communication is a huge part of what we’re doing. I think we have a young team, either by their age or early stages of their careers.
Many including my chef and GM are in these positions of responsibility for the first time. It’s important that we help them find their footing. I’m there to support them and work on things together.
Can you talk about the impact that Jean-Georges had on your career?
Jean-Georges is definitely a mentor because, he was there and supported and promoted me. A lot of what I learned about food is based on his vision of seasonality with ingredients and the inspiration of spices and flavors from all around the world. He really enabled me to develop a high level understanding of quality and flavor. His right-hand person, Gregory Brainin was really my main mentor. He is the culinary director, main recipe developer for Jean-Georges worldwide. We worked together the whole time I was there and he taught me how to cook and how to balance flavors. I look up to people like Martin Anderson who paved the way for Black chefs in America many years ago.
What’s your approach to the way you design your kitchen?
The centerpiece is an eight-foot hearth. We had it custom built locally. I would say a good 50% of the menu is grilled if not more.
How about on the beverage side? Are there Haitian wines or cocktails?
There are not any wines but we have a very extensive Haitian spirit collection. Obviously Rhum Barbancourt is the most popular Haitian rum and one of our biggest exports from Haiti, but we also have Clairin which is a cane spirit. We probably have the largest selection on the west coast of Clairin. Many of the drinks are obviously inspired by the tropics and Haiti. There are the great rums, cane spirits and pineapple and soursop, coconut, habanero.
We also have a very strong zero proof program on drinks. We have very delicious expertly made craft zero proof drinks and cocktails. Our food is pretty well spiced and very savory so obviously, the wine list needs to pair well. Our wines, are highly focused on winemakers of color and female winemakers. One of our managers runs the bar program and we have a bar lead.
You mentioned recognition of ethnically diverse chefs in the Pacific Northwest… thoughts?
The Pacific Northwest is predominantly white. So having representation is extremely important. And having places like Kann and other Black businesses in the Pacific Northwest, is important for people, not only for people of color, but for all people. People of color can come and they connect to cultures and tastings that remind them of growing up, especially if they’re Haitian, but of course, if they’re Caribbean or have some type of Caribbean, South American Hispanic heritage, a lot of flavors will be similar.
It’s been cool to see people of different cultures find something in the food. We’ve had Indian, Filipino, Chinese folks all kind of eat certain dishes off the menu, and have it remind them of something from home. That’s probably the benefit of just food being able to kind of be a common denominator between us all.
I noticed the menu is both gluten and dairy free.
I’ve been gluten and dairy free for about 14 years. So, all my food is gluten and dairy free. It’s pretty straightforward with an understanding that there are a lot of dietary distinctions in Portland. With the sizeable volume, we want to have enough options for all guests. With that, we try to lean into being as inclusive as possible for all diners including being very allergen friendly at Kann.
Do you use social media, or use traditional advertising to promote the restaurant?
Instagram is our lead with promotion. We use it to promote our latest news including specials or upcoming events and let people know when a reservation opens up. We also love to share the backstory on dishes.
What are your thoughts about being honored by the James Beard Foundation?
We were super honored, it’s something that we really were striving for and hoping for. It was certainly like a goal from when we opened. We knew if we focused on making Kann a great restaurant from inside and out that good things would happen. That’s what we still focus on every single day, even after winning the James Beard award.
What’s next: Michelin stars?
For me, just making Kann a sustainable and healthy place to live. Being so busy, it does take a lot of energy for all of us on the team. So just trying to have things stabilized and be a sustainable business, for the guests and for the staff. I think that’s really my goal. Keep going and keep pushing. We already have guests often asking when the menu is changing and all that good stuff. Staying ahead of the curve, and making sure that we’re always innovating and offering something different is always kind of what we’re working on.
Are you happy cooking? Or do you see building a brand around you and where do you go from here?
For me, I don’t really plan on opening a million restaurants. I might open maybe one or two more in my lifetime, I think. I really enjoy being able to travel and I enjoy freedom. And I enjoy writing books. I definitely want to write more cookbooks. Restaurants are really, really, really hard. The profit margin is extremely slim and it’s really challenging. I’m so hands on that I know that I physically can’t be in multiple places at the same time. I am who I am.
Any plans to come back to New York and have a restaurant here at some point?
Oh, maybe one day. I love New York. And I feel like, Kann is my give back to Portland. And maybe one day I want to give back to New York.