Alone in the kitchen: Portland restaurants adapt to a Thanksgiving like no other

In 2020, chef Jose Chesa was going to cook Thanksgiving dinner for the public for the first time.

Like most independent restaurants, Ataula, a critically acclaimed 7-year-old tapas bar by Chesa and his wife, Cristina Baez, is usually closed for holidays. Instead of cooking for the customers, Chesa and Baez would wake up early, leaving their two children with their partner, and head to the quiet kitchen at the Northwest Portland restaurant to start cooking up a Thanksgiving feast for family and friends.

Chesa grew up in Barcelona. But after moving to the United States in 2005, he embraced the uniquely American vacation in his obsessive way. This meant channeling his culinary training in Michelin-starred European restaurants into creamy mashed potatoes, a roasted turkey bone demi-glace that Baez calls “magic” and roasted French turkeys with butter tucked under the pan. skin.

“He always makes five, six, or seven (turkeys), some for the staff, one for my sister,” said Baez, who usually cooks pavochon, or Puerto Rican roast turkey, during his alternating years at the request of Ataula’s kitchen. “One year, he even brought home two turkeys, and I had to say, ‘No, that’s too much.’ He’s just really excited.

This year was always going to be different. In February, Chesa, Baez and their partner Emily Metivier branched out with Masia, a second restaurant at the new, 220-room Hyatt Centric hotel that opened just in time for Valentine’s Day. Like most hotel restaurants, Masia had to serve three meals a day, 365 days a year, including holidays, with Barcelona-style xurros cooked to order at 180, the hotel’s lobby cafe. Normally this November would have given Chesa the first chance to serve her Spanish dishes over classic Thanksgiving dishes, perhaps to a full house.

COVID-19 had other plans. A month after Masia opened, new cases of the coronavirus were on the rise and Governor Kate Brown banned on-site dining at all restaurants and bars in Oregon, a restriction that lasted locally for three months. With the help of a loan from the Federal Paycheck Protection Program, Ataula was able to bring back staff and provide a take-out service throughout the summer. But in late September, Ataula closed again, at least for the winter, and Baez started using the space for Aybendito, a new pop-up featuring tostones (fried plantains), pastelillos (puff pastry Puerto Rican empanadas) and to-go blanks. Meanwhile, Masia reopened its dining hall in August, but with occupancy rates at downtown hotels such as the Hyatt Centric regularly dropping below 15%, business has been slow. Prior to the second stop, the restaurant was only open for dinner three evenings a week.

For many restaurants in downtown Portland, Thanksgiving is the busiest day of the year. In long-standing places such as Huber’s, Higgins and Paley’s Place, along with a growing list of boutique hotel restaurants, families are booking months in advance for a packed dinner service that can begin before 11 a.m. and continue after 9 p.m. the number of coronavirus cases led Brown to reinstate his ban on indoor and outdoor dining last week, most of those restaurants were already pivoting to take-out. Some, including Masia, have had to call customers to cancel meal reservations.

The Masia Restaurant is tucked inside the Hyatt Centric hotel in downtown Portland.Beth Nakamura / The Oregonian

When Masia first opened, a busy night could mean 16 people working – with seven or eight up front and the same number in the kitchen. Visit on a Tuesday these days and you might find Metivier up front, while Chesa has his back to himself.

“As a brand new hotel with great occupancy, as a new concept restaurant in the city center, we were busy,” Chesa said of Masia’s first weeks. “And I have a dream kitchen. The restaurant is so beautiful. Sometimes it’s hard for me to be alone in the kitchen, my God.

In the days leading up to Thanksgiving, instead of getting ready for an all-day party, what remains of Masia’s reduced crew will prepare warm-up and serve meal kits reflecting Chesa’s education in Barcelona. This includes Spanish turkey croquettes and cranberry aioli, French mashed potatoes, roasted turkey breast with herbs and candied leg, chard with Iberian ham, glass bread a la Barcelona, ​​this “magical” enriched demi-glace and small bottles of sherry and vermouth, the latter packed with sparkling water and orange and olive garnishes. And in Ataula, Baez will be making pernil al horno, a traditional Puerto Rican pork shoulder dish served with enough tostones, mojito sauce, yellow rice and pigeon peas for six people.

Chesa and Baez say offering Thanksgiving meals to customers is a way to “keep it normal” during these difficult times.

“Basically our favorite meal of the year is now available to everyone at home,” Baez said.

Ataula Restaurant in Northwest Portland

Cristina Baez, co-owner of Ataula, is currently using the restaurant’s Northwest Portland space for Aybendito, her Puerto Rican pop-up.Beth Nakamura / The Oregonian

For Baez, growing up in Puerto Rico meant a complex, even happy, relationship with Thanksgiving.

“Keep in mind that this is a colony, where for hundreds of years people have celebrated something that is somewhat detached from their history,” Baez said. “I remember thinking a year ago when I was 9 or 10, ‘Hey, we’re Taínos, we’re Native Americans, why are we celebrating this? And the adults laughed and got rid of it.

Yet before she left the island more than a decade ago, the holidays typically included lots of music, roast turkeys, dominoes with cousins, yellow rice, hot sauces, custard and a simple bar somewhere in the house stocked with rum and fresh juices.

Beyond the economic impacts of COVID-19, the past year has brought personal struggles for the couple. Chesa’s grandfather, who helped raise her in Barcelona, ​​died in August of heart complications. Chesa was able to face him before his death. But even if he had wanted to cross the Atlantic to visit her, he would not have been allowed to enter the hospital, which strictly limited visits.

“What a coincidence that in 90 years of my life, this is the time when I can’t go to Spain,” said Chesa. “And so I must have been in pain across the ocean.”

At the same time, Baez’s older sister, a mother of four who moved to Portland shortly after Ataula opened, was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, a variant of the same disease. which had already cost the life of their father. On Thanksgiving, Baez plans to bring him some extra food and custard.

After Thanksgiving, months after their federal Paycheck Protection Program loan was exhausted, the couple will head into the New Year and the generally sluggish months of January and February with the prospect of not having dinner on site at Masia. and no new government financial assistance.

“We got a lot of support this year,” Baez said. “They throw a life jacket at you, but you’re still stranded in the middle of the ocean, trying to wait for the hypothermia to end.” This is what we sometimes feel. Just hang on to the life jacket and keep floating.

ORDER

TO Masia, Chesa’s Spanish-accented Thanksgiving Meal Kit is available for $ 125. Pick-up from 601 SW 11th Ave. Visit masiapdx.com for more information.

TO AybenditoBaez’s Thanksgiving Bandeja Platter costs $ 125 and serves at least six people. Available for pickup on Wednesday November 25 at Ataula, 1818 NW 23rd Place. Visit aybenditopdx.com for more information.

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Michael russell, mrussell@oregonian.com, @tdmrussell



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Sandy A. Greer

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