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Transcript

Episode 30: Ambition and Obsession in America's Coolest Kitchen

Transcripts are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Paul Kix:                       

Hello, and welcome to another episode of "Now That's A Great Story", the podcast that examines a single story from the world's greatest writers and, along the way, helps you strive for similar greatness. I'm your host, Paul Kix. My guest today is Kevin Alexander, the James Beard award winner whose debut book, "Burn The Ice", chronicles the rise in demise over the last 15 years of America's culinary revolution. I like a good meal, but I'm in no way a foodie and yet I absolutely love this book. He tells amazing stories from the most innovative kitchens in the country, and today we're going to focus on the [er 00:00:41] story of the book, it's North Star, the restaurant in Portland that set off the whole Earthy, wild chef has star revolution. Mr. Alexander, thank you for coming on the show.

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Thank you so much for having me.

Paul Kix:    

I have known you since 2007, but you weren't a food writer then. How and why did you move into this?

 

Kevin Alexander:            

Interestingly enough, we worked together at Boston magazine and I was writing about culture generally. I was like the young kid who would get shoved into follow that high school team around or what are the teens doing or go to the gym? I honestly think that it was 2008, and it was during when everyone thought the journalism world is going to come to an end that Thrillist popped up in Boston and offered me this gig basically covering restaurant openings. It was a beat to five days a week writing this email newsletter of what's opening in Boston restaurants and bars. It was literally like any other beat, like a cop beat or courthouse or whatever. I just started pounding the pavement, really learning who's behind restaurants, what's happening in Boston. I just started to fall in love with it. From there I became senior editor for the West coast, moved out to San Francisco. I launched our national food edition and I really just started to dig into the world of food.

 

Paul Kix:   

Okay. Tell me Kevin when ... because I think you've got an MFA somewhere along the way too, right? Were you doing that at the same time you were working for Thrillist?

 

Kevin Alexander:           

I was perpetually in grad school. While I was at Boston magazine, I was getting my journalism degree at BU. Then while I was ... actually it was the whole time I was at Boston magazine, I was getting my MFA at night at Emerson. That was 2005 to 2008. Yeah, it really wasn't until I started working for Thrillist, it was after that when I was like, "Oh wait, I need like a full salary job in a contributing editor gig at like a city mag might not pay all my bills."

 

Paul Kix:   

Yeah. What was the hope with that MFA, right? Did you have novel aspirations? Was it short story? Was it this sort of non-fiction book you wrote here?

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Yeah, it was fiction. I got my MFA in fiction. My thesis was a never to be released novel.

Paul Kix:   

I'm sorry to drag this up. I didn't know it was going to be painful.

Kevin Alexander:              

No. It's fine. It's fine. This is fine. I need to do this. I promised myself I'd do this. I talked to my therapist about it, and I think I'm ready to tackle this. But no, it was essentially right what you know. It was about a character in college and his friends and it was bad. I think it was a very bad novel. But I still, I had interest from an agent and she was like ... she read it and she was like, "You know, I really like some parts of it. Like if you spend three months rewriting it, maybe we could like bring it out." I was like, "Three months?" I really have no idea how anything works. Yeah. That novel remains in a box in my attic, which eventually I will burn. Yeah, I came sort of thinking, "Well, maybe I want to do some fiction. I'm already doing non-fiction all the time, so this would be an interesting thing to jump into."

 

Paul Kix:   

What is it about the food writing world? Okay, I get it that it's like you're doing this thing for Thrillist and it's a beat job, but you come to really like this, and I want to understand what was the gravitational force that really drew you to it in the end.

 

Kevin Alexander:           

I just find the people that work in the restaurant and bar industry fascinating. There's no standard trajectory, and they're just all completely different. Some of them were PhD students who got really into the alchemy of making cocktails, and some of them barely finished high school and just like always had worked in kitchens. It's just the range of characters that you find there, and especially earlier on, it was fascinating to me. I'd always grown up working in silly jobs. I did the training program at Johnny Rockets, but never sadly completed my Johnny Rocket's training. Look, it's intensive. I worked in an Italian restaurant and I worked in an Irish bar. I'd always dabbled around the industry, and it really fascinated me from the beginning.

 

Paul Kix:   

When you get the idea for this book years later, Gabriel Rucker at Le Pigeon in Portland, he's the first person you contact. Why is that?

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Well I ... when I was trying to figure out what this book was about, I kept coming back to patient zero of this movement being Portland 2006. If you looked at like what the national food media was writing about, about Portland, it was really Le Pigeon that put it on the map from a national perspective. I was like, "I really, really need his story in the book", but I had no connection to him. I didn't know him, and so I basically like cold called him.

 

Paul Kix:   

Really?

Kevin Alexander:           

Yes. It was ... just explained to him my thesis. Like here's what I think about this time, I think you should be one of the main characters in this book. What do you think? And he was like, "I'm in." Bless his heart because if he had just said, "No, I'm not interested," I'm not sure that this book comes together.

 

Paul Kix:   your book where you're describing Rucker's early life. I just had this image of a scene from, of all things, Rocketman, the recent Elton John biopic. Did you see it?

 

KEVIN ALEXANDER:   

I haven't seen it.

 

Paul Kix:   

Okay. I'm not ruining anything by saying this.

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Yeah, don't spoil it for me.

 

Paul Kix:   

Yes. I'm not going to tell you how Elton's life turns out. In the movie early on, there's a young Elton and he's reading sheet music for a symphony and his mother chastises him for not going to bed, right?

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Yup.

 

Paul Kix:   

He turns off the light and then he gets a flashlight out and he keeps reading the symphony music as he's imagining himself being the conductor leading it. Rucker, okay, so he wasn't reading sheet music, right? But at the same time, what was it that he was reading at an early age?

 

Kevin Alexander:           Cookbooks. He was obsessed with cookbooks from an early age, and he always found them fascinating. His brain just works to your Elton John point. It just works in a way that I've actually never talked to anyone else whose brain works like Rucker's, to be honest.

 

Paul Kix:   

Help me understand this. What is it exactly about food that he loves? What was it? And let me rephrase that. What was it exactly about food that he loved from an early age? Because I think that that idea of what he loves probably evolves with time, but I want to start at the beginning. What is it when he's reading those cookbooks, what is it as he's absorbing all this that he loves about food?

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Yeah. What he loved is just he loved the process, the craftsmanship. He talks about being at a bagel shop in high school, and it was like the hip place to have a job, but those are all the front of the house people. What he wanted to do was be in the back with the older folks who are actually making the bagels. He was fascinated by that craftsmanship. You see that throughout his story. When he's working at the Silverado Country Club, he just wants to see what are they doing with Foie Gras, and just like what is the process, how does it look, how can he do it? He just seems obsessed with that process.

 

Paul Kix:   

Okay. His obsession with food, however, it doesn't necessarily translate into academic interests.

 

KEVIN ALEXANDER:

That is an understatement, but yes.

 

Paul Kix:    

He got that job at the bagel shop in high school and he loved it. I think it's ... what I took away from it was that he kind of loved the renegade scene around restaurants too. Right? Is it fair to say that?

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Oh, absolutely. Yeah.

 

Paul Kix:   

Some of that is the drinking, some of that is a drugs and Rucker gets into ecstasy and you write, "Rucker never does anything half-assed, and so he jumped drugs first into the rave scene, spending as much free time as possible, either rollerblading or hanging out in a place on Height street." This didn't afford a ton of time for a stellar academic career, so when Rucker graduated from high school, he took his talents to Santa Rosa Junior college. A housing shortage on campus meant he lived 20 minutes away in Cotati, Sonoma State student housing, in the Youngs house, like after the psychologist, right?

 

Kevin Alexander:           

I think so.

 

Paul Kix:   

Yeah. It was a four bedroom setup with two kitchens, two fridges and two bathrooms. Through the glory of God, Rucker's three roommates happened to be two Japanese exchange students who barely spoke English but had a fascination with rave music and weed, and he also lived with a house DJ from LA. Their set up also included two sets of turntables and a random pot dealer named Drew. It was quite a time to be alive. This book, much like you Kevin, has so many great one-liners. Why did you set it out to make this book funny too?

 

Kevin Alexander:           

I didn't. I think you know me well enough that I really can only write in a specific style. I don't have any ... I don't have range as a writer. I just have my voice and I have to stick with it. What I find myself doing is I obsess over the details. I probably ... I think I talked to Rucker over a hundred times.

 

Paul Kix:   

Whoa! Seriously?

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Yeah. We had a steady phone date where he would call me on his drive back from work almost every day, and I would just kind of go over things over and over. I think it was a little bit therapeutic for him, but he was also just incredible, like the chance, you know, as a reporter to just, "Okay, what are the details of this? Tell me this again. What were you wearing?" All of these little details like who are those people in your dorm? All of that. I obsess over details like that. I love to get them exactly right, and I love lists. I love to set things up in a very specific way and list everything.

 

Yeah. I think it's really more about my limitations as a writer that I have to write in a specific voice. I remember doing a freelance piece for our mutual friend, Rachel Baker, at Elle. She was trying to give me feedback about, she's like, "Well, you know the voice of Elle, like this is what we do and this is how we are shaped." I was like, "Rachel, you know me, you know I only write one way, okay? I don't know what you want me to do here." Yeah. I think it's really the fact that I can't write in any other way, so it has to be in this specific manner with this specific voice.

 

Paul Kix:   

Part of the reason that ... look, I'm going to be straight with you. I was a little bit hesitant to pick up your book because I was like, so many books about food end up having this level of self seriousness about them, and I didn't think that was going to be the problem with yours, but so often when I read food reviews or whatever, it takes on just this pretentiousness and it's like, "I know more than you do." I just hate it, right? It was such a relief to pick up this book. Okay, you say you only have one speed, but did, I guess what I really want to know is do you think that the way that you write sets you apart from other writers in the food writing world?

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Yes. I would say-

 

Paul Kix:   

I don't want you to necessarily trash your colleagues, but I think that-

 

Kevin Alexander:           

No. I mean, they're all garbage, let's be honest. All other food writers are garbage, I'm the only good one, you heard it here first. No, but-

 

Paul Kix:   

You are the James Beard award winner.

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Honestly, I'll say two things. One is, I always wrote as a reaction to what I characterize as the New York food mafia. I was always ... I was never a part of it. I was never like, a, I never lived in New York, so it's hard to be part of the New York food mafia and not live there, but also for the exact points that you make I was always annoyed by that insularity and the "in the know" version and this [hottieness 00:14:27]. As a food writer, I started out being like, "I want to attack that." I'm not interested in, "I desperately want to be included in everything. I'm very insecure," but at the same time I like ... my only angle was to go at it and, just like you, I want to entertained. If I'm writing something, I want to be engaged with it, I want to be entertained with it, I want to like it, and you can't like it if you're just getting into like odes to Brussels sprouts in this dramatic, self-serving way.

 

Paul Kix:   

 Rucker, you were saying a minute ago, he goes around various restaurants in California, he's learning from a lot of people, and you have this line where you're like, does he literally dream about the dishes he wants to make?

 

Kevin Alexander:            

Oh yes.

 

Paul Kix:   

Is that how obsessed he gets?

 

Kevin Alexander:           

That's the thing I've never heard before. He would go to sleep reading Thomas Keller's French Laundry cookbook. He would have these very clear dreams where he would dream about a finished dish, like a dish that he'd never seen before but knew what it looked like, and so his goal would be to work backwards from his dream and try and figure out how to build that dish in the kitchen. I've never ever heard anyone talk like that, but if you look at his style, if you look at the dishes that he makes, you can see that that's clearly what's happening. He's like, "Well, what if I put like Fritos in this Foie Gras dish? What if I ... ?" He just has these mad scientist vibes and these visions and honestly, it's unlike anything I'd heard from any other chef.

 

Paul Kix:   

 We've covered already how he's not academically interested in almost anything else, but he is deeply interested in this. I also think it's important for the listener to understand he doesn't come from any sort of chef or culinary or Epicurean background whatsoever. His parents are blue collar. He grows up in a working class neighborhood.

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Yeah. He grows up in working class Napa. His mom's a teacher. I think his dad is a machinist, completely a blue collar working class, has no connection to the food world in any way, and it's all just comes out of his brain.

 

Paul Kix:   

He ends up hearing, as he's going around all these restaurants, if he wants to get into something cool, he needs to get out of California, he needs to go to this place in Portland called Paley's place. Why is it that people are telling Rucker that Portland might be the town he should go to? What exactly is it that makes Paley's place so cool?

 

Kevin Alexander:

For one, Portland is cheaper than San Francisco. You can never discount that fact, especially when he went out there in the early 2000s. Basically, Paley's place was part of this early Renaissance in Portland that came before the national media really started to pay attention. In the late 90s, there were a few influential chefs that started to come into Portland and created this world. Vitaly Paley, he was born in the Soviet Union. He was a classically-trained pianist. He had been in New York for a little while. He came out to Portland, he opened his own place, and it was like, took its food seriously, took chances in ways that other places didn't take chances, and it became this training ground for a lot of the chefs that ended up kind of making the mid-2000s Portland food scene, including Rucker.

 

Paul Kix:   

You describe how Rucker was never flustered as a cook at Paley's no matter how crazy it got.

 

Kevin Alexander:           

He has this strange ability to, as it gets more chaotic, and other chefs talk to me about this, as the scene gets more chaotic, as you get deeper and deeper into the weeds, he calms down. He's one of those people who that makes him more calm and more calm. Jason Barwikowski, who is a chef that worked with them at Paley's, I think he described it as something that was like, if the pilot dies while you're on an airplane, Rucker is the person you want to fly the plane. It's just in his nature. He's not like a ... he's not a yeller. He's someone who absorbs that energy and is able to tamper it down, which is so, again, yet another very rare thing in a kitchen where skillets are being thrown at people's heads and all that.

 

Paul Kix:   

Yeah.

 

Kevin Alexander:           

That's yet another thing that separates him.

 

Paul Kix:   

Eventually, this reputation he has, it leads him to get poached and ultimately he's able to open his own place. It's called The Pigeon. Where'd the name come from? What was the idea behind it?

 

Kevin Alexander:           

For one, he had no idea what he wanted to name this restaurant. At some point he was just cooking with Tommy [Havitz 00:20:07], who is another chef in Portland. He looked at his arm and he had this pigeon tattoo on his arm and he was like, "Well, I think you've got a good name for a restaurant right here." As he had been pitching him on like, "What if I called it Lanterns or like Streetlights?" I don't know why he had these all terrible ideas. He was also like, The Pigeon, it's a French term that's used in kitchens and it means the lowest person, the person who has to clean the toilets and do all of the dirty work. For him, the idea of owning your own restaurant and having your own spa meant you had to do everything, like you had to get dirty, and so he liked the idea of Le Pigeon.

 

I should say, the other thing about Rucker that's great is he loves in jokes, and so the idea of calling Le Pigeon is like to Frenchify in that way. It seemed like it's fancy but it's actually not fancy. It was like a play on the idea of it being fancy.

 

Paul Kix:   

Yeah. They're serving some wild ass things like half-grilled pigeon with Bordelaise sauce. They also have pigtails and lamb tongues. There's this part, hold on just a second I want to read from this too. "Creative weird dishes just spilled out. To call it French would be technically accurate yet also absurd. It was more like French food cooked by a fastfood-obsessed, punk rock [gourmand 00:21:41], who spends a summer at Fergus Henderson, St. John in London. Here, again, I want to ask a question that's more crafty than anything else. It's your writing as much as the storytelling around Rucker and frankly, because we should probably say this, Rucker is one of many stories that you ended up combining here to tell this story, to tell this book well. It's the writing. There's this frenetic quality to it in the best possible way, and it's really lively. I'm just wondering about your influences in the food writing world or outside of it.

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Oh man! I've been waiting for this question my whole life.

 

Paul Kix:   

Here it is, man.

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Paul Kix is my biggest influence.

 

Paul Kix:   

Thanks.

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Yeah, all right. End of podcast. No. I honestly think this speaks back to, just to bring the listener back to the glory days of us at Boston magazine in the mid-2000s. What I found so unique later on in my life was that what we used to do, and this was something you did and James Burnett and some of the other folks that we worked with, is when there was an article in, maybe it would be in a national magazine, maybe it would be in another regional magazine that we really liked, like Texas Monthly, we would print it out and you would make copies for, I don't know what, like 15 of us or something. We would pass those around and then we would go to a pub and fight about it.

 

I was 22 to 25 during this period, and it was my first gig in journalism, and I didn't know the difference. That was an incredible awakening for me. We would constantly be reading other fantastic writers. This is a long way of saying I came up reading. Whether it was the Tom Junod or John Jeremiah Sullivan or David Foster Wallace or Susan Orlean, and a lot of those mid-2000s writers, I was incredibly engaged with them. It was all because we had this little cauldron of journalism where we would read through and then talk about it, and it was like I went to journalism school and I got my MFA, but I'd never had more engaging and relevant conversations about writing and what it means than sitting in a crappy pub by Boston magazine arguing with all of you about these stories.

 

Paul Kix:   

Yeah, there was as so much fun of those years. I don't want to get sentimental about it and this is basically going to be an audience of two that's going to be able to relate to this, maybe four or five and I think probably all the people that you and I who've been sitting around or were probably also be listening to this very podcast, but at the same time I don't want to indulge us too much except to say that, yeah, it was a formidable experience for all of us. Joe, our good friend, Joe Keohane, was actually, at one point, he told me trying to pitch ... this is going to sound so self-serving but I'm going to fucking say it anyway.

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Do it.

 

Paul Kix:   

He was trying to pitch some national publication on the idea of look at how small this circle is and look at all of the things that had all of us went on to do, "God, it sounds so awful when you say it aloud." It's one of the things that really makes me proud 10, 15 years later. Of all the gigs that I've had, that crew is the one that I still stay in touch with the most and I follow, make sure that everybody's doing well.

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Yeah. I think this is a like more to the point of just like the general listener. To be lucky enough, because a lot of us didn't know the difference, right? To be lucky enough, to be with a crew of people that are super passionate about writing and are really engaged with it and want to get in those arguments and want to push those ideas forward, that is the takeaway that I'm so thankful for, and I think that was really why a lot of people are in these great positions now. It's so energetic to fight and yell and argue about journalism. It's the geekiest thing in the world but we love to do it, and I didn't know anything different. God bless us. The last thing I'll say is, what I'd like to say all the time to our friends is for such a talented crew we really still managed to put out a relatively mediocre magazine.

 

Paul Kix:   

That was the thing. That was the thing. We had so much individual talent and collectively-

 

Kevin Alexander:           

It wasn't like we were just running away with national magazine award. So good for us.

 

Paul Kix:             

Way to go. All right. You were mentioning a minute ago about how creative Rucker got and how much, maybe if we want to tie it all together, how inspired he had been by people he learned from. You, again, have this line where he talks about trying to make this Foie Gras profiteroles I just want to, again, read it because it's just like, "Wow! He would add Foie Gras butter for both the caramel and the pastry, and suddenly they had a Foie Gras profiterole in which every element featured Foie. It was batshit crazy and over the top and a little bit silly, but the technique was impeccable. Thanks to dishes like the Foie Gras profiteroles, which became one of Le Pigeon signatures. After a few months you stopped being able to easily recognize, Rucker's influences and things started to just feel new.

 

By riffing on his previous riffs, the menu started to distance itself from anything else going on in Portland. What the basic question here is like only four months later, Portland monthly names Rucker, the chef of the year, and by the following year Bon Appetit and Food & Wine, and then the big boy, the New York Times reviewed the place. I think it was under the headline something like, "In Portland, a golden age of dining and drinking," and it features Rucker prominently. What does the Times piece do to Gabriel Rucker?

 

It blows him up in a way that he could not expect. He was 26 years old. By this time, I think he'd been named one of the best new chefs in America by Food & Wine. He was getting nominated for James Beard awards for Rising Star chef, but the New York Times, it solidified it. The New York food mafia, I think I say in the book something like it, it was now telling its audience this is a place to pay attention to. It put Portland on the map and it put Rucker really prominently on that map, but he was 26. It was like you're ... all of a sudden you've gotten all these national accolades, you're as high as you could ever be, but you're still just this 26 year old rollerblader from Napa. I think that that pressure forced him a little bit deeper into some of his addiction issues.

 

Paul Kix:   

Yeah, exactly. I wanted to actually go there next. He doesn't exactly handle the attention with grace and aplomb.

 

Kevin Alexander:           

No. It was almost like he was a rock star. In the rockstar way, he talks about ... he's like smoke unfiltered cigarettes like all while he was cooking dinner, and turn the music up all the way, and he wouldn't wear a chef's jacket, and he didn't like people to call him chef. He'd wear a hat with like a rat peeing and the words piss on it, which seems like a really cool hat. It was just like, it was all almost like attacking the traditional idea of the chef. All of that in reaction to the kind of white tablecloth fancy restaurants that normally got this accolade he was getting.

 

Paul Kix:   

Does he rebel in any way because he's trying to distance himself from the pressure that the establishment is placing upon him? Was he thinking, is that part of his game here? Because I'm trying to understand what has happened there psychologically or is it just that the dude likes to party?

 

Kevin Alexander:           

I think he likes to party and he's a people pleaser, so he wants to make the other, he wants to be the fun guy in the room. That was like a little bit about Rucker. He wanted to be like ... the drinking I think was where you get into the pressure.

 

Paul Kix:   

He had to keep ... what was it he had? He had tequila in water bottles or something like that? That he would just like drink while he was on the line?

 

Kevin Alexander:           

It would be anything. One of the things I think was called like Chilly Billy's, and it was a blueberry, like Stoli blueberry with ice in mugs. It was literally like, whatever they could get he would drink on the line. He was always, in those early years, he was always drinking on the line. I think part of that was the national pressure, and part of it was just sort of the lifestyle that these folks thought they needed to have. The industry at that time was very rock and roll, and sort of like, especially in Portland like, "Oh! If you're really cool, you're able to cook like this while you're a little messed up."

 

Paul Kix:   

Yeah.

 

Kevin Alexander:           

It was a reaction to all of these things at once, I believe.

 

Paul Kix:    

I think it stays like that for quite some time, this routine between waking, cooking, partying, repeating, but then he gets married, and then he expands to a second to a second restaurant. How does he take these responsibilities?

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Not well. The second restaurant was, once you have this landmark restaurant, a nationally recognized restaurant, you get a lot of pressure from folks being like, "Do something else, do something else", you get investor interest, people want you to open a place in Tokyo or Vegas or whatever. He wasn't really interested in that, but he recognized that he wanted the chef that worked under him, Eric Benclay, to have a spot that spread his wings. He just felt like there needed to be another restaurant.

 

Paul Kix:  

What is that restaurant like? What is it like? How does it differentiate itself from-

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Sure. It's called Little Bird. It's still open right now, but it's more of a casual restaurant. Like a little bit of a toned down French-ish lunch and dinner spot, like more of a casual place. But the problem was he had this other chef that he wanted to have the restaurant, and so he could expand his wings, but everyone was like, "This is a Gabriel Rucker restaurant. This is Rucker's second restaurant." That's often the narrative that happens with these chefs is, they start opening three or four restaurants and it's like, "Well, he's not cooking in there. Who's cooking in there every day?"

           

He started to feel the pressures of when criticism would come about that, "Wait, this doesn't really feel like a Rucker restaurant." He's like, "No, because I'm not like the chef in there." But then he was like, "Well, maybe I should be in there cooking, and maybe I should add more to it." He would found himself like going back and forth between both places and found himself stuck in the middle, wasn't happy with the situation and was drinking more and just found himself more and more like under the thumb of all of the various pressures from outside.

 

Paul Kix:   

The amazing thing is for like such a long time, the dude keeps doing well from an outward perspective, right? Like he's nominated at this point, year after year for a James Beard award. Finally, it wasn't like, excuse me, after being nominated for the fourth time, he heads to New York once again and he's not expecting to win, but Kevin, why don't you tell us what happens on that trip.

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Yeah. It had been ... I think you're right, something like four times, and at this point he just had this standard thing. They'd go into town, he and his wife, and the other partner, Andy Fortgay, and they'd stay and they'd just be there. He had no expectations that anything would happen. Then, it's this low point for him in terms of the stresses internally, he ends up winning the James Beard award, this national James Beard award. It's this crazy thing, and it's exactly to your point where externally everyone's like, "Wow! Here it is. He just keeps rising and rising. What can't this guy do?"

 

Paul Kix:   

He's probably not even 30.

 

Kevin Alexander:

Exactly. Internally, he's like, "The world is falling apart. I don't know how to deal with all this." That just added another layer of pressure and stress because now it was like, "Well, now you need to do a cookbook. Now you need to do all these other things." It just became a little bit too much for him.

 

Paul Kix:   

You do this great job of the dichotomies we've been talking about between this exterior life and the interior life, but what is it exactly? What is this pressure that he is feeling? Is it just the fact that he's now an owner and a manager and doesn't know how to serve in that capacity as the boss? Is it a host of factors? What's going on?

 

Kevin Alexander:

It was just each individual item. He's married, now he's got kids, more kids on the way, now he has a cookbook deal, and so he's got to get this cookbook done. Now he has two restaurants that are nationally acclaimed. Where does he fit in in those worlds? It was all of the pull from each of these factors. Again, we're talking about a guy who's barely 30. The pull from all of those factors just became way too much to handle. You could see he started to rely more and more on the drinking to steady him as a baseline.

 

Paul Kix:   

Is there some exterior thing happening too in terms of his reputation? He becomes the face of Portland in a way that Portland becomes the face of what is cool in the nation. Does he feel or does The Pigeon or Little Bird feel that it has to almost uphold some standard of the zeitgeist or something?

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Yes. I think that's really important to understand, that with that sort of with the Portland's culinary reputation on a national side, Rucker was the face of that. Rucker ... it was like, "Wait, if you go here, it's going to be rock and roll and the guy may drink," and like all the things we talked about before, and then it becomes a little bit of an act. People, all of a sudden you're getting national tourists coming in and just expecting to see this. It's almost like the whole deal of like, "Make me laugh, clown." You get that idea and it just became unhealthy at some point.

 

Paul Kix:   

Okay. What ends up happening? How bad ... actually, let's take this in order. How bad does it get?

 

Kevin Alexander:           

The lowest point for him was actually, ironically, when he was on his book tour right after he published his cookbook and he was in-

 

Paul Kix:   

I think it was successful too, right?

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Yeah.

 

Paul Kix:   

This is a successful launch.

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Again, externally it's like, "Man, like this guy keeps winning." He was in New York and he was cooking ... well, there was a book event at Spotted Pig. April Bloomfield was cooking, and all he was supposed to do was like be a host, walk around and meet guests who had come for the book launch, and just be friendly. He just got so drunk that he ended up being passed out upstairs on the couch for most of the event. He was so embarrassed the entire time, but yet everything that he did during that trip was either him drunk or hungover or steadying himself through a drink. Whether he was doing cooking demos or at a book event, it was all just based around alcohol, and that was the moment where he really realized that this was something that he had to tackle.

 

Paul Kix:   

How does he tackle it?

 

Kevin Alexander:           

He goes back to Portland and he still is drinking for a couple more weeks, but then he has a conversation with his father. His father had actually been, I think not in alcohol anonymous but in the drug-based one for many years.

 

Paul Kix:   

Yeah.

 

Kevin Alexander:           

He was basically like, "Dad, can you take me to a meeting?" His father was like, "Yes! Of course." But he also was like, "Look, if we do this, and I like see you casually drinking again, like I'm not going to be okay with it. Like if you're going to take this leap, I need to know that you're really willing to take the leap." He brings him to a meeting. He was a little nervous about the first meeting, but then eventually he found a place where he could really feel that he was home. It wasn't like he went to that meeting and he was changed. He tells a little story about how he gets back from one of the first nights where he stopped drinking and he's like, "I can't go to sleep unless I'm messed up."

 

 He knows that one of his friends had made weed butter in his freezer, and so he goes through the process of eating the weed butter, like the frozen block of weed butter, he's gnawing on it, and then he realizes what he's done and he throws it back up, and he does this for three straight days. Finally, he's like, "Okay, I just, I need to, I need to figure out a way to deal with this." He finds a morning meeting, he finds people to surround himself, and from then on he's been sober.

 

Paul Kix:   

What happens to ... there's a couple things I want to try to address here. What happens to Portland after Rucker gets sober? I guess what I really mean by that is like the Portlandization of America begins to turn against the city, with Portlandia, the sitcoms.

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Uh-huh (affirmative).

 

Paul Kix:   

What happens to the people who live in the city as the turn against like, "Oh, look at this cutesy farm to table, flannel wearing town, it's kind of gross now." How does Portland respond to that?

 

Kevin Alexander:           

In a lot of ways it did start to resemble sort of a parody of itself. There were just too many restaurants there now and rent was rivaling Seattle and San Francisco. The whole idea of it being like this chief creative place was no longer actually true. There were luxury condominiums being built everywhere. Everyone talked about how all the Californian tech workers were telecommuting from Portland and ruining it. Even Portlandia had its run and ended. It just started to become a lot of the things that it had originally been reacting against. But in the same way it grew up, like it grew up as a city.

 

This is the other thing that I am really interested in is urban development and the cross between revitalization and gentrification. That was a ... it's a theme throughout my book, but what I am fascinated by is what happens on the other end of this? If your ... 12 years later, what is Portland? Honestly, what it is now is it's just this grown up city with a great culinary reputation. Like it's not as cool because it doesn't have the exact punk rock vibe that it had in the early oughts. Everyone's a grownup now and Rucker, to that point, is a grownup. He was able to figure out that it wasn't about the drinking and the party that made Le Pigeon cool. It was about the food and his brain, and that he didn't need it to be clouded by all the other stuff, and he could actually turn into what Vitaly Paley was to him.

 

He could be a teacher more instead of just this mercurial rockstar. He could look at the younger generations and say, "Hey, this is how you do these things." That's how a city develops a longstanding culinary reputation. It's not as like hip and awesome and there's not as many bike messenger, polo games or whatever, but it still got ... it's now just intrinsically one of the best culinary cities in America.

 

Paul Kix:   

Do you see something of yourself in Gabriel Rucker?

 

Kevin Alexander:           

Yes, I do. He's much cooler than I am, and he's a much more skilled rollerblader, although I used to dabble. In some ways, he's who I wish I could be because he's cool and he's confident in a way that is like almost completely not self-conscious. Part of this is from dealing with addiction, but he's so honest and transparent in his answers. Even if he doesn't like it and he doesn't like what he's about to say, he can't help but be honest. I would like to think of myself like that, but I know that's not quite what I am. I think it's more like I wish I was like Rucker in a lot of ways. I wish I was more rock and roll but sadly I'm just pop music.

 

Paul Kix:   

Well, I was also wondering about ... if you mirror his professional achievements against yours, both of you guys start out on the fringe and like, this book is great and that you're a James Beard award winner now. If I'm making you blush, I'm intending to do it, but I do want to know, I'm wondering if any of that guided you. Was that part of the reason why you went to Rucker too? You are somebody who's like very much found a path for himself and I've been watching it from the sidelines for like the last 10 or so years, and again, I just want to, if even subconsciously, if maybe you went to Rucker because you saw something like a twin.

 

Kevin Alexander:           

A, that's really nice of you to say, but I wish that I thought about it that much, I should say. I wish that I could look to him. I don't think of myself like that. It's not because I'm humble, it's just because I'm like, don't necessarily have that much confidence. I didn't know that he would say yes and I was terrified that he wouldn't, and I think everyone in this book, I was terrified, would say no. But I think, as you're getting a little bit more national recognition and as after the book comes out, I just start to appreciate just what it means to have a little bit of a platform to be able to get to more people to know that maybe some people actually wait for a story of yours to come out so that they can read you.

 

These are the things that you and I did with all of these national writers 10, 12 years ago, so maybe my secret hope is that somewhere people are printing out or just downloading or putting on Tik Tok one of my stories, and that they're all going to a pub to drink white claw, spiked seltzers and talk about my writing. If they're doing that then I think my life is complete.

 

Paul Kix:   

 Let's hope they are man. Let's hope they are. Thank you. Thank you, Kevin, for coming on. The music for "Now That's A Great Story" comes from Jeff Willett. If you like this episode, please remember to rate and review it wherever it is that you listen to podcast. If you'd like to get a short weekly email from me, the details, what else I liked from the world of books and movies and TV and music, head over paulkix.com/newsletter and sign up. I'll be back soon with another episode. Until then, goodbye everybody.

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