Cigarettes And Foie Gras

Chef Dana Francisco

Weekly Newsletter
Issue #277

Cigarettes And Foie Gras

Dana Francisco is Chef de Cuisine at Gabriel Rucker and Andy Fortgang’s restaurant, Canard, in Portland, Oregon.

Walking into Canard—a small, jam-packed, and bustling restaurant in East Portland—I felt like I was moving into the epicenter of the quaint but detail-oriented dining that’s put Portland on the international map for cutting-edge restaurants. Guests are greeted by soft lighting and the homey smell of herbs and butter. The wooden floors creak slightly underfoot. After dropping off a sixpack of tallboys to the kitchen, a must-do gesture when invited to such an experience, I sat down with Chef de Cuisine, Dana Francisco, for a sampling of his signature dishes.

Francisco looks more like he should be headlining Warp Tour than pontificating on the flavor contrast created by combining foie gras and rhubarb. With his large hulking stature, long black hair, tattoos covering his entire body, and a cigarette perpetually dangling from his lips, it’s easy to imagine sweet old ladies crossing the street to avoid his path. But as the meal unfolded, his intelligence and passion for fine culinary art was undeniable.

His menu pulls from both the highest of French tradition and the lowest of delicious American decadence. Steak tartare might follow an order of fried chicken wings, while steamed burger sliders might proceed a morel vol au vent. Pulling from his lengthy and diverse repertoire allows him to subvert expectations for patrons, creating something exciting and surprising. Every ingredient is considered and discussed at length. The bacon bits on the oeufs en mayonnaise, alone, take hours to prepare. Francisco finds himself at the forefront of new American auteur cooking, recently garnering his first Michelin mention, while maintaining his gritty, unpretentious persona.

After dinner—full, satisfied, and a little drunk—I guided him over to a nearby bar to talk life, career, personal philosophy, and restaurant politics. I ordered our drinks; a whiskey for me and a tall water on the rocks for the sober Francisco. We situated ourselves at a backyard table, where I was free to laugh at an annoyingly loud volume and he was free to chain smoke with abandon.

His menu pulls from both the highest of French tradition and the lowest of delicious American decadence. Steak tartare might follow an order of fried chicken wings, while steamed burger sliders might proceed a morel vol au vent.

Francisco started his career at 14 as a kitchen porter. Growing up a half-Filipino half-German military brat between Germany, Hawaii, and Texas, he came naturally to the discipline and hard work required in a kitchen. After a bit of personal scandal kept him from following his family’s footsteps in joining the military, he attended the San Diego Culinary institute. From there he ventured on to the Culinary Olympics where he competed for two years and coached for a third. After years spent in the school of hard-knock-high-end restaurants he finally found a comfortable home at Canard, under the oversight of two-time James Beard winner and all-around eccentric, Gabriel Rucker. A telling bit of Rucker trivia is that Nicholas Cage met with him for character research prior to his bizarre and captivating performance in the film Pig.

“I’ve idolized this guy [Rucker] since I was in my early 20s,” Francisco said, taking a drag of his cigarette. Despite Rucker’s daunting prestige, he was a welcoming and helpful force from the beginning—inviting Francisco out for a stage [stahj] after a simple phone interview. During this trial Francisco “didn’t cook a single piece of food for him… [He] wanted to see how I interacted with the team,” he explained. He was impressed by Rucker’s humility and hospitality in the face of unparalleled success. Early on Rucker told Francisco that he, “like[s] hiring people who know more than [him].” This sentiment impressed Francisco, and he was ready to come on board.

Francisco brings this same humble view of the culinary world to his own philosophy. “It’s a blue-collar job and fabricating this lifestyle image [of a chef] wearing crispy clean whites and floating through a kitchen isn’t realistic and it’s giving a lot of young people trying to go into this field the wrong impression.” Emphasizing the grueling work it takes to perform at a high profile restaurant, he prides himself on “having tough skin, working 18-hour days seven days a week.” When I push back on this tradition of toiling for little pay that back of house employees endure, he explains the precarious situation restaurants find themselves in. “Two bad months and you can go out of business.”

Even so, Canard is working towards providing a better work-life balance for its employees within a less-toxic environment. With the kitchen being included in the tip pool, mandatory days off, and even an upcoming summer break, Canard is pioneering a hopeful new trend in restaurant labor relations. Restaurants, Francisco said, are “moving towards a place where [they] pay everyone a living wage and when necessary can respectfully decline [unruly] customers…. [But, we still need] people who are driven. Even if you aren’t making a ton of money, if you put the work in, it does work out.” Removing both the pay and ego disparities within the culture is also something he is working on at Canard. There are “no names on our menu… no names on our uniforms,” he says, lighting yet another cigarette.

Above all, his philosophy is one of inclusion and hospitality. Finally at Canard he has a customer base with whom he feels a strong kinship. “Our guests are awesome,” he said, “[it’s] great to work in a place where you’re serving your own people.” He loves providing experience and joy to people who really appreciate him and his work. “A lot of people come to our restaurant with luggage, which tells me that we are either the first or last place in Portland they’re choosing to see.”

When I push him to talk concept, he isn’t having it. He says we need to take “concept-talk” with a “grain of salt.” He laments that “chefs [are] pushed into feeling like they need an elaborate origin story….“These [celebrity chefs] with a lot of face time on different TV shows… sometimes fabricate things… to check the box…. The creative work is great, but it’s a blue-collar job.”

These [celebrity chefs] with a lot of face time on different TV shows… sometimes fabricate things… to check the box…. The creative work is great, but it’s a blue-collar job.

His background and history of course play a role in his work, even if he isn’t always willing to wax poetic about it. I mean, Texas brisket, dumplings, seafood, French traditional… Who else could have put this menu together?

He described work itself as evoking an image of, “[my entire family] sitting around with our grandfather as a collective cooking food together and feeling happy. Feeling satiated. Aunties rolling lumpia. Eating dumplings…. When you’re doing this professionally it’s with the people you’re grinding with, working all those hours… and it is a type of family.”

This emphasis on heritage and storytelling continued while discussing the conceptual aspect of ingredient selection. Francisco explained his affinity for calamansi, an obscure Hawaiian citrus, by detailing its social and historical history, instead of its exact flavor profile. On the Hawaiian island of Lanai, a mostly Filipino population worked to cultivate the small fruits for agricultural purposes. Their land was bought out from under them, and their crops burned to make way for luxury hotels. As plastics were used on an industrial scale in the farming process, while the crops burned, plastics leached into the ground, ruining the soil. The workforce was left jobless, forced to work at the fancy hotels which covered their once self-governed land.

Struggling to understand his exact process, I used this opportunity to ask; “more than it evoking a sensory memory or because of its traditional culinary use, it seems like you’re drawn to this ingredient because of its fascinating story?”

“Each ingredient is a Lego piece, and I’m a kid playing with Legos,” he said. “But what I’ve learned over the past few years is not to cook for myself…. When I eat a hamburger outside of work I enjoy it, why am I too good to have it on my menu? The answer is I’m not. Nobody is…. [I’m] getting away from pretension and moving toward a focus on flavor.”

I was seeing a lot of contradictions. While all his statements were, when fact-checked against the work, accurate, there were dualities I couldn’t neatly square. He’d spend five minutes criticizing intellectual snobbery, and then with genuine verve, go on a tangent that would give an MFA in painting a run for their money.

“Growing up mixed race and never feeling like I belonged any one place was hard. But these days, it’s a godsend. I can do whatever I want,” he said, expelling a cloud of smoke.

This tension is exactly what has made Francisco so successful. That he can step into a space and see it from a totally unique vantage point, without having to fit his ideas and paradoxes into any one tidy little box.

By working from a place of heart and intuition he can experiment in this way without breaking his first rule: “Make people feel not stupid.” This extends to all of his interactions. His desire to make others feel welcome and comfortable is a part of him, without effect or effort. Want burgers? Why not? Bring your luggage with! Duck confit or pancakes? White truffle or kimchee? Tattoos and cigarettes or white linen and fine crystal? Why the hell not have it all?

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