Departure's Gregory Gourdet on That Word 'Authenticity'

When you see the world in your backyard.

February 16, 2016 ● 3 min read

Chef Gregory Gourdet leads the kitchen of Departure, a 
pan-Asian tour de force in downtown Portland, Oregon.  

I've been thinking about this for a really long time.

There are very specific things in the world, iconic ingredients and preparations, that can't be changed. In the modern world, when we start thinking about the ingredients that we have in our backyard, and dietary distinctions, some things are just going to be inauthentic. It's like gluten-free ramen: I'm sure they're fine, but ramen is a wheat noodle. So it's complicated.

In Thailand, you make things in a certain way, with a very delicate balance between the salty, the sweet, the hot, the sour. There are traditional garnishes that you apply to certain dishes. It's this type of rice with this dish, and it's this pickle, and it's this seasoning that you add after the fact. But going to Thailand for 10 days once a year is nothing in terms of learning how to make Thai food. I'm inspired by all of Asia, and by many parts of Europe, and parts of South America, and Haiti, and Mexico…it's like I don't have enough time to learn. It's a life quest.

I've always worked with Asian flavors—that really started when I was at Jean-Georges in New York. It was that 90s fusion, mixing French and American influences with lots of Asian ingredients. For a long time, I worked with all these amazing ingredients and just made up dishes. But as you get older, you want more out of your career. I wanted to learn what makes something delicious, and what makes something taste delicious and taste right. I want to learn both.

When you think about defining moments in life as a chef, you can think about flavor as a way that you get to certain points. Moments of clarity. I think that's why at least seeking authenticity is important. This sour sausage has to be right. The texture of the rice has to be right. The egg has to be just runny. It has to be over the right charcoal to get that perfect charred, runny, gooey, meaty flavor. Everything has to be in sync, and if anything is off-balance, then it doesn't taste the same.

So do you fly in the fish? Do you fly in the soy sauce? Is that the most sustainable thing? I don't know. I've worked in restaurants where money was no cost, and those things didn't matter. We served beautiful, huge asparagus way past the season because it was a significant dish on the menu. You can't do that these days with food costs continuing to rise, people becoming more aware of where their food comes from, and doing the right thing in terms of sustainability. So now I seek authentic combinations and flavor profiles, more than a dish that's authentic in all of its components. If I can get a dark curry at the base to taste right in terms of acid, and heat, and spice, then I’ll throw broccoli rabe in because it's spring, and I live in Oregon, and I'm cool with that; I will never look at a recipe, or see a dish, and automatically think I should make it the exact same way. It's my duty as a modern chef to speak to where I'm living. We’ll use a local fish, or get the galangal grown locally.

It’s also about what type of cuisine you want to do. Someone like Earl [Ninsom] at Langbaan is doing super old-school Thai dishes, and those have a format. I like to go for the most iconic, and I'm a flavor person, so I go for the boldest version of what we said we should make. We went for spicy ramen because I felt like it was the boldest interpretation of that dish for us, and it was really fun to make. We wanted to make everything by hand, not pop open a bag of pickled bamboo that was full of MSG, and preservatives. We didn't want that bag of fish cakes that has red food coloring, but: everyone has ramen with the little swirl. That's super authentic, technically. It makes it familiar in a lot of different ways, but it's a thin line.

When we travel, it's fine dining restaurants every night, because we see ourselves as a fine dining restaurant. It's street food throughout the day. It's the farmer's market. It's the street markets, and it's the restaurant supply store. How is service traditionally done in Thailand? We want to be able to offer that with our Thai-style dishes. What’s tea service like in Japan? I'll go somewhere on a trip, and I'll come back and change a dish. Maybe I talked to someone and this is wrong, so we change it a bit. 

You can have anything in your head. Any memory, any experience that other people haven't had. You can make a dish out of that. That’s why I'm always seeking out relationships, because I don't want to go to a country and miss something, or struggle because I don't learn languages fast enough. It's about culture, and just respecting what's out there. Because I live in America, and I can put anything on a plate, I don't necessarily want to do just that. I don't want to just teach my cooks how to make food for hundreds of people: I want them to learn the story.

So is it authentic? I don't know. Are there authentic elements? Absolutely.    

As told to Cassandra Landry