Chef Ben Bettinger Tells All

Okay, so maybe Ben didn’t tell all, but he did tell me what it’s like being named Restaurant of the Year when your kitchen is barely four months old, he revealed his early affinity for melted Brie and apple sandwiches, and he admitted that while he works at one of Portland’s premiere cocktail hotspots, after a long night in the kitchen he drinks Coors from the can.

IMG_2430After nearly a decade spent in the kitchens of some of Portland’s most respected restaurants, 30-year-old chef Ben Bettinger has come into his own at four-month-old Beaker & Flask, a much-anticipated cocktail bar and restaurant that garnered a significant buzz around town leading up to its rather prolonged opening on June 25th.

From the looks and taste of things, Beaker & Flask is living up to the hype. And of course, it didn’t hurt that late last month, the Willamette Week named the fledgling eatery its Restaurant of the Year.

Ben was kind enough to take time out of his incredibly hectic schedule (as in, 14-hour workdays, six days a week) to answer a few questions about the life of an up-and-coming young Portland tastemaker.

I met Ben in Beaker and Flask’s beautiful dining room, which looks a lot different at noon on a Friday than it will six hours later, with the sun shining in on the empty curved banquettes that line the front windows, not a soul at the spotless bar. Sublime blared from the speakers, masking the sound of the door opening, so it took a minute for a lone cook working in the kitchen to notice my arrival. Ben came in a second later, schlepping a box of Pellegrino. Ever the gracious host, he offered me one, then we chatted a bit.

And although we were interrupted by Brian Spangler waxing poetic about the blood sausage mac ‘n cheese, and I later broke a priceless Le Creuset cocotte while touring the kitchen and had to slink out in shame to the mocking laughter of bartender Timmy Davis, it was a great time.

Beaker & Flask was named Restaurant of the Year by the Willamette Week, despite being less than four months old. How’s that feel?

I’m just trying to make it through day by day at this point, it’s been an exhausting week. I don’t really count covers but we’re doing upwards of a hundred a night, and we’re a 62-seat restaurant. Friday and Saturday nights were always good but now Monday night is like a Friday night. Who knows how long it will carry on like this, but being a new business, it’s definitely a huge help being four months old and getting a boost like that. It’s great.

Did you take some ribbing for the Willamette Week calling you babyfaced in their review?

It’s been pretty entertaining. I’ve definitely gotten lots of jokes from the kitchen and everybody I talk to has got a good kick out of it. But hey, I’m 30 years old, I feel like I’m getting old, so if I can still be labeled as a baby face, I will take it. I hope the same is true when I’m 40. Babyface, whatever, it’s fine.

I’m sorry to ask this but based on the WW’s comment on your muscles, would you mind sharing your workout routine?

Workout routine. (laughs) That’s the funny thing, I can’t tell you the last time I worked out. I think I was more surprised by that than the babyface. I’ve probably lost 20 pounds since I started at Beaker. It’s hard if you’re going in at noon, on a late day, and getting out at one in the morning. I don’t have the motivation to get up at nine to work out.

Thanks to the recent WW writeup, we all know you’re a Vermont native. How’d you get to Portland?

My family was on the West Coast and I wanted to come out here. I’d been to Seattle a couple of times and I figured Seattle would probably be the spot that I landed, but my sister had just moved to Portland and I stopped here to visit and within the first few days of visiting I was like ‘this is the spot’. I checked out Western Culinary, it was a great one-year program, I could get in, it was intensive, it all worked out so perfectly. And I fell in love with Portland.

Seattle’s loss, our gain! You’ve worked in some of Portland’s best kitchens, including Paley’s Place, Clyde Common, The James John Cafe–which one left the most of a mark?

Definitely Paley’s. I spent six years there, and those years were so educational. Culinary school was a springboard into the best restaurants, but once I got into Paley’s, in the first few weeks of my internship I learned more than I did in the year of school. Within two years I was able to take over as the sous chef, and for me, that was the beginning of learning the managerial side of a running a kitchen, having a crew beneath you, not only pushing yourself but pushing six guys or gals and keeping them motivated and inspired. I think that’s where I found my passion for being a teacher and showing people the ways and teaching people new things but at the same time pushing myself as well. Paley’s was an absolutely amazing experience.

Has Vitaly Paley been in to Beaker & Flask?

He came in opening night and he was just in a few weeks ago. He and Kimberly are huge supporters, they’re family to me. They’ll always be very dear to my heart.

Your menu here at Beaker & Flask is unique, unusual. How do you describe your cuisine?

I don’t really know how to categorize it. It’s kind of Euro-Portand. It’s definitely got European influences but I’ve been training here in Portland for the last 1o years so the influence of Portland has a strong play. I think I found a nice little niche that Portland likes.

What was it like writing your own menu?

Over the years at Paley’s I was able to develop a repertoire of menus and ideas in my head but this is the first place that I wrote the whole menu, so it was definitely challenging. More challenging than I would have imagined. With all the anticipation of opening, I had so much time that I created a summer menu, then we didn’t open, a fall menu, we didn’t open, a winter menu, we didn’t open, and finally a spring menu. When we finally opened, the hardest part was narrowing the menu down to 15 items, there were so many things I wanted to do.

What are your favorite dishes right now?

The chanterelle mushrooms with smoked bone marrow is very popular and really tasty…the grilled pork cheeks with pickled octopus and braised peppers, the beef dish–it’s a grilled shoulder tender with a celery root puree, a root vegetable gratin made with turnips, celery root, Yukon potates and yams, and a foie gras mousse with aged balsamic. I don’t sit down very often at the end of a night and eat, but I sat down and had that the other night and it worked so well together.

Beaker & Flask has some of the best cocktails in town, so what’s your drink of choice here?

Tim (Davey)’s been making me this cocktail that isn’t actually on the menu, with House Spirits’ Krogstad Aquavit and their new barrel-aged aquavit (Gammal Krogstad), with bitters. I don’t know what it’s called. I leave the cocktails to those guys. Normally I’m drinking Coors out of the can at the end of the night. Their cocktails are so amazing. Like Sal’s Minion, they make coconut water ice cubes, with a little pineapple syrup, and rum, and the coconut water slowly melts into it. Kevin has a really cool creativity with culinary aspects, like bringing coconut water into something. Who would think to make coconut water ice cubes?

At this point in the interview, the door opens and in walks Brian Spangler of Apizza Scholls fame. He sets something down on the counter and turns to leave, but Ben shouts, “What’s up, big guy?”

“Ready for a big night?” Brian replies.

“Totally,” Ben says.

“The mac with the blood sausage,” Brian says rapturously, then kisses his fingers, “I could eat slabs of it.”

And then he’s gone. “Great guy,” Ben says, “He comes in here every couple weeks.”

Interview resumes.

Where did your love of food come from?

I’ve always had a thing for food. I don’t know where I got it from. My mom tells stories about me baking bread with her when I was four. Me and my buddy put on a fake cooking show when I was 10. It’s bizarre because I was a total athlete, all I did was play sports, but food was always important to me. As a kid I was a very adventurous eater–my mom just reminded me recently of when I was quoted in the Burlington Free Press, which was the major newspaper in my town…I think it was sixth grade, they came to our school and talked to us about what our favorite sandwiches were, and as an 11-year-old kid, mine was melted Brie and apple. And the editor called my mom because she was like ‘your son said he liked brie and apple sandwiches, is this serious?’ and she said ‘yes, he eats it all the time.’

Do you have to cook Thanksgiving dinner this year?

We’re going to close here. (looks a little relieved) Not sure what’s happening yet at home, but I’m sure there will be a giant feast of sorts, so I’m sure Andrea (Ben’s girlfriend) and I will collaborate. Even if I say I’m not going to, by the time it comes down to it, I get involved.

What do you cook at home, if you cook at home?

I used to cook at home, but at this point Andrea is trying to do the cooking, which is awesome because she went to culinary school, but for the first six months that were were together she never cooked for me. Now that I’m so exhausted I’m happy for her to cook for us.

What about eating out? Where do you go?

Of course we want to get out and try new places on that one night a week I have off. We have so many friends in this business and you want to go support all your buddies. Apizza Scholls is a staple for Sundays, we try to get to all the ethnic spots like Good Taste in Chinatown, and we hit Biwa quite a bit.

After a 14-hour nonstop day, how do you unwind?

Unwinding usually starts with a beer here at the restaurant and then going home and watching some amusing television for an hour then falling asleep. I just started watching Madmen, we’re six episodes in. I try to turn my brain off, enjoy time with Andrea.

So, you’re a roaring success…what’s next?

I’m still a young chef so I’m going to evolve. I’m creating my style, taking what I’ve learned from school, from reading, from Paley’s and Clyde, from everywhere, and developing my own style. I think this is just the beginning for me.