Remembering Robert, Five Years Later

Robert on scooter.jpg

It is an unusually warm October day in the Hood River Valley. I am sitting on a dry patch of grass overlooking the valley and a large tent, where Robert Reynolds’ friends and family have gathered in the shade to remember him, after his passing in late August. Fellow cooks, food industry colleagues and friends, and his siblings have come together to reflect and reminisce about Robert.

Ned Ludd chef/owner Jason French remembers that he and Robert spoke of cooking together often, but never got the chance to do just that. Other cooks and chefs describe Robert as a barometer by which they measured themselves as cooks, a man who helped shape their perspectives on food and cooking. Friends exclaim over how much they will miss Robert and his understanding of the place and point where food, culture and community converge. He would know—his last book, “An Excuse To Be Together,” is a collection of Robert’s recipes and recollections celebrating the manner in which those things are intertwined.

I will always remember Robert for his profound impact on our community and on me.  Now, five years after his departure, I find myself reflecting on our city and how drastically it has changed in a short period of time to become a culinary destination for tourists. Robert spent 14 years in Portland, helping to, as he would say, shepherd the chefs, and remind the rest of us that the evolution of culture, food, community requires looking back, while looking forward.

I first met Robert in 1998, when he came to Portland from Colorado, to teach a cooking class at the Sheridan Fruit Company. His intelligent, practical approach to food, and his deep and firm foundation of knowledge, made an immediate impression on me. New England roots and a passion for French cooking, which Robert acquired through extensive travel and close work with Josephine Araldo in the Bay Area, allowed him to produce “From A Breton Garden,” an extraordinary book on vegetable cookery he shared with me then and I consult still.

Several years later, I invited Robert back to Portland to collaborate with me on a dinner at Erath Winery.  As we explored the markets together, I witnessed his love affair with Oregon blossoming. Robert referred to it as "the crunch of cabbage," by which he meant that here, he was aware of the subtle nuances of each ingredient: the sound of his knife slicing through the cabbage when he showed me how to make Josephine’s delightful red cabbage and blueberry recipe. Pronounced, clean, splitting, like an iceberg cracking.  For Robert, these sounds signaled that the cabbage was grown and harvested with great care, removed from the field less than 24 hours earlier. After that dinner at the winery, Robert announced his plan to relocate to Oregon.

When he came to live here, Robert brought with him a gift for our community: a “new” perspective on food and cooking founded on old and established views and techniques. This ethos matched beautifully with Oregon’s burgeoning small farm movement, and the return of chefs to our fields and streams to source the region’s best, freshest ingredients. Robert played a key role in defining what he called “the language of the market,” for the farmers market, he insisted, has a dialogue of it’s own, a lexicon focused on seasonality, flavor, connection, and the agricultural economy.

I sent cooks to work with Robert, knowing they would return with a perspective I could not offer. And Robert and I continued to create events that would allow us to work together, to cook, share, raise money, and sometimes rub shoulders with the likes of Robert Mondavi, and various other industry luminaries who visited Portland.

I remember one evening in particular, when the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP) descended on Portland for their annual conference. I asked Robert to assist with a dinner billed as “100 Years of Oregon Cuisine,” to be served in my family’s century old restaurant in downtown Portland, Dan & Louis Oyster Bar. The kitchen space was a challenging one already, not to mention as a venue for putting out a multi-course meal for 100 culinary professionals with high expectations. 

As we sent out the entrée, I felt deflated; the pieces of halibut were overcooked and dry. I looked up to see Robert smile, then laugh, without prompting. The situation was one we both knew well, a chef’s embarrassment turned to comedy. What do can you do, after all?  You cook, you make mistakes. The lesson is in turning them into those blissful moments of acceptance before moving on to the next meal, because there will be thousands more, the next one never the same as the one before it. Robert’s attitude and sense of humor were a refreshing relief and example on those occasions when many of us took ourselves a little too seriously.

I saw Robert for the last time two weeks before his death. He came to my house, where I prepared dishes that I thought he would enjoy: cold clams with aioli, eggplant stewed with tomato and garlic, wood roasted salmon. I knew my time to bid him farewell was imminent and I wish we had spoken of what came next, as he was clearly at ease preparing for the journey that followed. Instead, we shared that meal in my backyard and spoke of food and teaching, both of which he’d mastered. We talked about the culture of food in Oregon, and how it and our city were changing. Then, I drove him home in the late summer twilight, and hugged him good night.

Teachers who are willing to share completely and without hesitation, who have a vast knowledge, deep and abiding passion for their work, and a personable approach, are rare.  Robert was one of those individuals.  And knowing how he thought about food and culture makes it difficult for me to imagine what he’d make of the current culinary scene in Portland. The image of a boat blowing away from the dock and Robert attempting to re-secure the boat ties comes to mind, a mental note that we don’t know where we're going unless we have some sense of where we have been. Robert shared that perspective with a knowing glance, time and time again, and for those of us who were lucky, that glance was the beginning of a long conversation.