Meet Chris DiMinno, chef at Clyde Common in Portland, Oregon, where he’s committed to finding the best ingredients possible — from radishes to pigs. Keep reading our Q&A below to find out why he loves Portland food, the best cooking advice he’s ever received and what he can’t stop snacking on at 2 a.m.
What’s your food philosophy? How would you describe your cooking style?
My style is based on simplicity. Everyone says that, but it’s true, especially here in Portland. the produce and protein is so good, and the people producing it really care about it and want us to show it off, so that’s all I want to do. I can’t take credit for what I do; it’s all about the best produce and best meat, trying to do as little as possible to it.
What sets the Portland food scene apart? Why do you think there is so much enthusiasm around food in the Pacific Northwest right now?
Portland people will get behind a case, and when everyone’s excited, everyone will join in. It’s funny, when I first came to town before moving here, I was amazed at how honest the food was. I think that’s why it’s so good. In New York, there’s something for everyone; in Chicago there’s molecular gastronomy. In Portland, the food is the food your mom would have cooked for you if she loved you. It’s really simple and honest and straightforward, and people care about what they’re doing and you can taste it. Every single food niche you could want is here: the vegans, the crazy carnivores, the pigs’ feet eaters, the cheese-makers, the cattle farmers, everything. There are people who only grow baby radishes. What’s unique is that it’s all within a 30-mile radius; it’s so small and so big at the same time.
How did growing up in a big, Italian family influence your approach to cooking and eating?
I’m always trying to impress somebody because I’m one of five siblings, trying to stand out. My mother, to this day, still cooks for 400 people, even when it’s just her and my dad. When I first started doing larger parties at Clyde, I cooked for 1,000 people when it was just for 20. I had to eat dinner every night at the table at 7 — it was a big deal, an event, and that’s why I became attracted to it. It’s an important part of the day. That’s what my parents taught me.
Tell us about working with farmers at Blue Hill at Stone Barns — what did you learn?
Blue Hill at Stone Barns is one of the most amazing places in this country, and I was incredibly fortunate to be working there. All of the cooks work on the farm one day a week — it’s a requirement. In the beginning, it was a lot going to work on the farm in the morning in addition to prep work, but to see the entire process is awesome. Dan Barber’s philosophy is making produce as good as possible before it comes out of the ground. It was an invaluable experience. Now I can’t settle for mediocre product.
What have you learned working with vendors and farmers sourcing food for your restaurant?
I’ve learned not to waste anything! My dream was always to have a farm on the same land as a restaurant, which is not going to happen in Portland. But an hour outside of the city I work with a man who grows product just for Clyde Common, and I also work with other farmers around Portland. I like to hear what the farmer is excited about and based on that, I go to the drawing board and start using it.
How does working in a hotel restaurant (Ace Hotel) affect your style? How do you appeal to a wide variety of customers?
I say this with no arrogance: we are always busy. At Clyde Common the restaurant and hotel are two separate entities, but the hotel contributes a great amount of business to the restaurant and vice versa. Appealing to everyone can be a challenge from time to time. We’ve definitely had people look at the menu and get up and leave, because they don’t understand what we’re doing and want something more Americana. But I like to think we have something for everyone. Every once in a while I get a person from France or Italy who sees some sausage on the menu, flips out and gets two of them. It’s a different store every day, which is part of why I like doing it.
What’s the most-used ingredient in your fridge or pantry?
At work it’s olive oil. We go through gallons of great stuff from California. At home… is beer an ingredient? If not, then bacon. It goes into most of the stuff I make at home, and it’s quick to cook when you get home at 1 a.m. and only have time to scramble eggs and make bacon. I love putting it in tomato sauce over pasta. My mother makes a tomato sauce we refer to as “bacon sauce,” like an arrabbiata. I try to recreate it — I can’t really, but I do what I can.
What is the best cooking advice you’ve ever received?
“It’s all in the details.” I learned that at Blue Hill, where every little bit counts. Also, when I had a very short internship at Le Bernardin in New York, the sous chef came up to me while I was cleaning lobsters and just filthy. He gave me a disgusted look and said, “If you want to be a pro, you’ve got to look like a pro.”
Do you cook on your nights off? What do you cook when you want to relax?
I make phone calls to get pizza! No, every Sunday at my house I used to have family dinners and go crazy with that. I’d invite 25 people over here, and we started picking themes, like breakfast for dinner. We’d do lasagna, grilling, one-pot stuff. If it’s just me, I make a pasta or a braise every once in a while. I’ll east some and freeze it. Fajitas are huge — with sausage and peppers.
What’s your favorite late-night snack?
Nachos. I can’t help it. They are so incredibly bad for you but delicious at 2 a.m.