Plates of World Adventures
Chance Favors the Prepared Mind with Coquine’s Chef Katy Millard.
BY ANGELA SANDERS
PHOTOS BY NOLAN CALISCH
“My food is like my brain, my mutt mind,” says Chef Katy Millard of Coquine. A glance at Coquine’s menu shows a smattering of cultures, from the browned butter dashi served with Romano beans to the tomato-horseradish-piri piri-vodka sauce, spicing Katy’s take on shrimp and grits.
This “mutt-like” approach stems from Katy’s international upbringing. She was born in Zimbabwe to a Portugese mother and an American missionary father, spent the first three years of her life in South Africa, then lived her childhood in Alabama. “While my neighbors were eating macaroni and cheese for dinner, we had paella,” she says. “My comfort food is piri piri chicken.”
Mixing things up further, she studied hospitality in college in Michigan, worked at the Edwardian-era Hotel Iroquois on Mackinac Island, and spent a summer in New Orleans. Add five years in France learning classic French technique from Michelin-starred Chef Guy Savoy and a few more years with the experimental, self-taught Chef Daniel Patterson, and you get the melange of cultures that infuses Katy’s work.
Chance has also played a role in Katy’s career. Katy’s five years in France happened after her house burned down during her last term of college. “I didn’t have anything to tie me down,” she says. “I bought a backpack and left for Europe.” In Paris, she met her father for dinner at Restaurant Guy Savoy and was so inspired by her meal that she returned the next day to ask the chef for a job. Practically unheard of in the precisely ordered world of the French kitchen, he took her on.
Chance also led her to acclaimed Chef Daniel Patterson and his San Francisco–based restaurant COI. After she returned to the United States to settle in California’s Bay Area, a stranger told her about Patterson only a day after she’d started a stage at another restaurant. On the stranger’s urging, she applied to COI. Soon, she was instructing the chef in the rigor of the French kitchen while he, in turn, educated her by questioning each “rule.” “It was life changing,” she says.
But as Louis Pasteur famously said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Despite Katy’s lucky breaks, Coquine couldn’t exist without her grit, plain and simple. When Katy went to work for Guy Savoy in Paris, she didn’t speak French. She spent her days “peeling a lot of shrimp, potatoes, and shallots,” and she cried herself to sleep. But she stuck it out.
In 2008, she moved to Portland. It was the height of the recession, and Katy’s determination once again rescued her. She made ends meet and built a food community through catering and pop-up dinners. Her purpose also shows in her choice of suppliers. Here is where her voice becomes firm. “Origin and a visible food chain are very important to me. I won’t compromise.”
Katy rigorously works through each dish in her mind before taking it to the kitchen. Her husband, Ksandek Podbielski, helps her negotiate “writer’s block” by, for example, talking her past her love of peas and almonds to another exploration of a sweet-earthy counterpart to the vegetable. She focuses on a dish’s balance of acid and texture, and a plate’s measure of protein, grain, and vegetable, until she feels a dish’s elements come together.
That said, Katy strives for “unfussy” food. When she conceives a dish, she will continue to take away from it until she has the purest — but still arresting — expression of her original idea.
Cultural diversity, chance, and perseverance all factor into Katy’s Charentais melon and cucumber salad. Farmer Dan Sullivan of Black Locust Farm was dropping off produce late one summer when he mentioned off-hand, “You don’t happen to want any melon, do you? I have some Charentais.” Katy remembered the sweet, pungent melon from her days in France and bought them all.
CHERNTAIS MELON AND CUCUMBER SALAD
serves 4-6, depending on serving size | prep time 20 minutes
Katy’s salad balances the melon’s musky sweetness with pickled red onions, mellowed with cucumbers and celery heart. Chopped, roasted almonds play against the melon’s soft texture. Togarashi shichimi — a Japanese mixture of seven spices — adds a touch of heat, which is in turn softened with cool, herbal shiso.
1 ripe, medium-sized Charentais melon (2–3 pounds)
1 pound small cucumbers (Diva or English varieties work well)
1/2 teaspoon rice wine vinegar pinch of fine sea salt
1 1/2 teaspoon Spanish or other light olive oil
1/4 teaspoon togarashi shichimi (a Japanese spice mixture available at most international markets)
1/4 cup pickled red onion, drained (see recipe below)
4 leaves red shiso, cut in half and then in chiffonade
All of the tender yellow leaves on the inside of a bunch of celery
1/4 cup whole natural almonds, lightly toasted and roughly chopped
Peel the melon: Cut off just enough of the top and bottom so that it will stand securely on your cutting board, and, using a sharp knife, cut off just the skin from top to bottom in long strips until all the green under the skin has been peeled off. Cut the peeled melon in half and scoop out the seeds. Place cut side down on your cutting board and slice as thinly as you can while making whole slices.
Trim the ends of the cucumbers, and slice them lengthwise as thinly as you can with a knife or mandoline. Place the cucumber slices in a medium mixing bowl with the rice wine vinegar, a generous pinch of fine sea salt, the olive oil, togarashi, 1/2 teaspoon of the pickling liquid from the onions, and the shiso. Stir to combine, and let it sit for a minute and macerate. Taste for seasoning (it should be bright and tart and a little spicy, but you should still taste the cucumbers). Adjust with vinegar or salt to taste.
Add the pickled red onions and the melon slices, and toss to combine. Taste again, and adjust salt and acidity to your liking. Drain off any excess liquid. Divide between four or six plates. Then put five or six little celery leaves on each salad, and sprinkle with one tea- spoon or so of the toasted chopped almonds. Serve immediately.
Pickled red onions
1 medium red onion, peeled, trimmed and sliced thinly (1/8-inch lengthwise)
1 cup rice wine vinegar
1 1/8 cups water
1 1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon togarashi shichimi
1 very small clove garlic, peeled and crushed
Put the sliced onion into a stainless steel or otherwise heat-safe, bowl. Combine all of the other ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil. Pour over the onion slices, stir, and let cool to room temperature. Refrigerate overnight.