Few people have influenced Portland’s food scene as powerfully as Greg Higgins. This veteran chef is a pioneer of the farm-to-table movement, with twenty years serving up fresh, local and seasonal fare at Higgins restaurant in downtown Portland. Principles that define our Portland food today were radical thinking when Greg began. We spoke with Greg about Higgins, his food philosophy, and what’s coming up on the menu.
How did you get your start in the food industry, and how did that lead to you opening your own restaurant, Higgins?
I started off originally working on farms in upstate New York. I worked on dairy farms and at a local creamery as a cheese and sausage maker. I cooked my way through college, and arrived in Portland in 1984 to work at the newly remodeled Heathman Hotel. My approach was always to try to hook up with local food, which was more difficult at that time because there wasn’t really a network for it. I spent ten years at the Heathman before opening their second restaurant, Southpark. We were sourcing things from as many local growers as we could for those two restaurants, but there are compromises you make when cooking for that many people and a hotel crowd. I wanted to open a place where we could avoid those compromises, which was how we starting thinking about Higgins. We opened in 1994, and Higgins was designed to be all about trying to build a program that celebrated local, seasonal ingredients.
How difficult was it to get a restaurant off the ground twenty years ago that prioritized working with local ingredients?
We spent a lot of time looking for investors for Higgins, and a lot of people thought we were off our rockers to make such a strong commitment to local and seasonal. There were far more that said no than yes. Opening a business is challenging already, and going for one with a clear philosophic and ethical approach rather than just profit – especially at that time – was a big leap of faith. There was no model to go by; nobody was doing it.
What was the reception like with customers?
It was a learning game to figure out how to price it all out to maintain value for customers while still upholding the real price of food. There was also a lot of education about the methods and the seasonality. Grass-fed wasn’t even really a topic of discussion at that time. And people would want a tomato on their burger, but they’d get ketchup because it’s February. Now people understand that, but then it was radical thinking. We went through lots of those conversations with customers and gradually we learned to try to work with the customers and educate them about our viewpoint. Not saying it was the only viewpoint, but telling them why we do what we do, and why we feel it’s the right choice.
What’s the most exciting trend or change that you’ve seen throughout your career?
Like anything, there have been both gains and losses. I think there have been gains in economies of scale. Many things are much more affordable in the realm of sustainable, organic local food because more more people are engaged in agriculture and farming, so that factors into accessibility and pricing. Consolidation is not the answer. So I think it’s very positive side that people are looking at farming as a viable option, and it also bridges the urban-rural divide. On the negative side is green-washing, which didn’t exist twenty years ago but is now somewhat rampant. I don’t have an answer to that. It’s not necessarily about certifications, but rather consumer knowledge and their ability to discern differences in quality and representations.
You’ve been around the world and cooked with many different people throughout your career. Are there any memories that stand out?
I’ve had a phenomenal range of experiences – for example, living in a tent in Mongolia for Mercy Corps and working with their local village butcher. Those experiences make up how I look at food. But I think the most important things to me are the relationships that I’ve built over time and worked to maintain with local growers. One of the more memorable experiences over the last few years was the memorial dinner for Gene Thiel of Prairie Creek Farm. Having known and worked with Gene for 25 years or more, that was powerful.
As spring arrives, are there any dishes you’re looking forward to featuring?
I have a large garden at home, so that keeps me in the mode of anticipation about what’s coming up. Yearly climates are always different and that means this spring won’t be same as the last or the next. Our menu pieces on average go in three-week cycles. Coming up we’ll be having asparagus, a lot of leafy greens, spinach, cress. We’re waiting on artichokes, and it’s forecast to be quite a remarkable salmon year for Oregon. We’re starting to think about rhubarb and strawberries, which are still a little ways out. Morels and porcinis are coming pretty soon. Potatoes aren’t all that far off. We organize our calendar based on fruits, vegetables, fish, and the weather outside. So we just take it one step at a time.
Photos of Greg Higgins and charcuterie by John Valls.
1239 SW Broadway
Portland, OR 97205
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