With the Toro Bravo cookbook, three of my very favorite things have come together — Toro Bravo, McSweeney's, and Powell's. One of the reasons that I moved from Catalina Island to Portland in 2002 was Powell's. I can't count the number of times over the years that I applied for jobs at various Powell's locations around town. Unsuccessfully. Although I've never been gainfully employed by Powell's (and I know a lot of great people who are and have been), I am very happy that I get to take over the Powell's Blog this week in honor of the book which I so luckily got to coauthor with chef-owner extraordinaire John Gorham and which officially launches tomorrow from McSweeney's — Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull.
John and I had our first meeting for the book in the Orange Room of Powell's downtown location. At a panel for the book at Wordstock, we talked about that meeting a bit and how he and I walked up and down the cookbook aisles grabbing books that we liked, didn't like, books that had something in common with our project. Once we both had sizable stacks, we took them all up to the bookstore café, flipped through them, and talked about them. It turned out that we saw eye-to-eye on a lot of things — look, feel, content. It was a great book first date. So great, in fact, that the cookbook was born three years later.
A couple of weeks ago we had a prerelease book reading at the downtown Powell's, and maybe some of you reading this were there? It went great despite the fact that we were a little nervous. It was our first official Toro book event, so that's to be expected. I had a bottle of bourbon in my bag, though, that we lightened a bit prereading and, well, that helped.
There are so many stories that we could lay down here about the making of the book — blood, sweat, tears sorts — but John and I decided that the best way to go about this week of guest blogging would be to offer some tasty bits that didn't make it between the covers for one reason or another.
During the three years that it took to put the book together, I recorded 50-plus hours of audio of John talking story about everything from a tattoo on his ass to tales of his Grandad Gordon and coming up as a chef. We tested many recipes that didn't make it into the book; I conducted loads of staff interviews and sat down numerous times with John and his wife, Toro proprietor/executive assistant Renee, to get all the steamy details of their relationship and then some. I also shadowed John at Toro one day from early morning until late evening. All of these things are lonely and quietly biding their time in folders in my laptop, so we're going to let them out and share some of them here with you in five daily installments.
I hope that you like them. And I hope that you don't think we're jerks for not including them in the book. Installment #1 is the first part of a conversation between John and Renee about everything from the crazy early days of their much-talked-about relationship and John's dramatic weight loss in 2008 to his bike accident during that time and how all of this and more played into the making of Toro. I recorded this conversation at their home in the spring of 2012, and it's unedited in every way. Some parts are in the book in the timeline, but most aren't.
Renee: John and I met in the summer of 2003. I'd just started working at Paley's Place in Portland, and John's now ex-wife, Courtney, was the floor manager and my boss. After closing we all went out to this little wine bar up the street called M Bar. That was the first time I met John. Later that night we all went skinny-dipping in the Paley's home pool.
John: At that point I was a chef at Tuscany Grill just up the road from Paley's Place.
Renee: I hadn't technically been hired at Paley's — I'd just done my first serving stage. Courtney liked me but the rest of the staff were like, "Don't hire this girl; she doesn't know shit." And they were right. I was 22 and really didn't know anything about service. So Kimberly Paley came home that night and found me naked in her pool. She didn't have her glasses on and she said, "Suzanna is that you?" Suzanna was a bartender at Paley's at the time. I said, "No, Kim, it's Renee," and she said, "Did we hire you?" I thought, well, you did now! I got hired, but I honestly don't think I would've if I hadn't had the balls to get naked in her pool that night.
John: And then Renee and I became friends. I'd go to the Paley's bar after work and talk to her along with everyone else there. It was a regular thing for us all to go to M Bar after work since there are only 15 or so seats there and we could take it over.
Renee's boyfriend at the time, Benny, worked for me at Viande. He was doing his externship at Paley's and on his days off he came down and worked for me at Viande. So there was also that connection between Renee and me.
Renee: Courtney left Paley's when John and Courtney's daughter Ruby was born in 2004, and that's when John started Simpatica. In February 2005, after Simpatica had been going for several months, it was that horrid Valentine's Day when a group of us went to Simpatica for dinner and then proceeded to get wasted and go from strip club to strip club. That was the first time that I partied with John. We were friendly at that point but not friends.
John: Renee had really excelled at Paley's, so when we were opening Toro Bravo in the summer of 2007, we thought of her. Vitaly Paley, the owner of Paley's Place, and I used to be pretty good friends, and I told him, "I'll never steal any of your people. If they drop off a resume, I'll let you know, but I'll never steal anyone." So we got wind that Renee was leaving Paley's when we were opening, and we knew we couldn't hire her right away because they'd think we'd schemed. We really wanted to, though.
Somehow we got a hold of Renee and let her know that we were opening Toro and asked her what she was up to. She said she was going to Clyde Common, a restaurant that opened right before we did in Downtown Portland, to serve, but she didn't want to be held down by one restaurant. She came in and staged a week or so after we opened, and then we asked her to be our manager. She left Clyde. We used to do a lot of catering up in the ballroom above Toro at that point, and Renee became the catering coordinator right away in addition to serving.
Renee: I'd always had a little crush on John, but it never came to my mind that that was even a possibility until the Willamette Week Restaurant of the Year photo shoot.
photo by David Reamer
Right around the time that Toro got ROY, after just a few months of being open, my boyfriend Benny and I started breaking up. That was a long, drawn-out breakup, and that's when John and I really started hanging out after work and talking. I was devastated. Benny and I had been together for about five years; we owned a house together—
John: Portland marriage.
Renee: Anyway, that's when John and I got closer.
John: Renee and I had to work together on those catering events, so we were in the office a lot planning and organizing. Nothing ever happened though.
Renee: Not then, but that later became code for let's go make out. "Let's go talk about catering events."
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Liz Crain is the author of Food Lover's Guide to Portland. A longtime writer on Pacific Northwest food and drink, her writing has appeared in Cooking Light, Budget Travel, VIA magazine, The Sun magazine, The Progressive, Portland Monthly, and Culinate. Her new book is Toro Bravo, coauthored by chef John Gorham.
Books mentioned in this post
Liz Crain is the author of Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull.