That Portland has become a major foodie town to rival the best of them is no secret. The great Pacific Northwest is home to some of the country’s finest local bounty. Many a chef has traveled from far and wide to partake in the splendor that our region has to offer. And there are some big names here, as a result.
We’ve talked to a lot of these big names since launching our featured restaurants column, and one consistently comes up as chefs and owners mention people they have partnered with: Bruce Carey.
The Gallery Owner
In what may be a surprise to some, being a successful restaurateur was not on Carey’s radar in the beginning. Nor has he ever had formal training as a chef. Growing up in San Francisco, Carey didn’t feel the draw of the restaurant business until he was almost through college.
With a Master’s Degree in Arts Administration, Carey could have been on a trajectory that would land him at any number of upscale galleries around the country – or world – but instead chose to jump into what he calls a “rigorous business.”
Fortunately, he’s got an explanation. “I guess one of the many reasons I got hooked on the restaurant business is how the lines cross between visual art and culinary art, and the similarity of pleasure you get from each. I am not the creator, not the artist. I am the gallery owner,” he says.
A Culinary Conversion
The day Carey points to as the moment he fully converted from expressive to culinary art was the moment he and his friends Monique Siu and Chris Israel opened the legendary (but now defunct) Zefiro in 1990. Since then, he has taken the Portland food scene by storm, even as he has watched it grow and evolve.
“Suffice to comment on one key factor among many: that the growth is largely due to the way the Portland public has so enthusiastically embraced the pursuit and appreciation of good food as a basis for a higher quality of life,” Carey explains. “Now on Tuesday – or any night of any week – you eat with expectations of a deeply nourishing meal, not just to feed. That’s a base expectation of almost every – Portland regular – person who walks in our door.”
Coming to expect more than just a standard feeding is driven by the wealth of excellent ingredients that local restaurants have at their disposal, something not lost on Carey. “Hard to escape cliché’…” he says, before continuing. “It’s a never ending pursuit of best quality, and yes, almost all the time that best quality ingredient comes from right here,” he finishes.
And although Carey explains that some of his chefs are more “hell-bent” on buying from local farmers than others, he assures us that the best quality always comes first.
A Small Empire
Since opening Zefiro all those years ago, Carey has gone on to build a small restaurant empire in Portland. Not only does he strive to bring a new level of excellence to his own projects, but he has gone out of his way to help new chefs and save storied Portland names.
One such example was when he purchased the venerable Clarklewis in 2007. David Howitt, who was the lead investor at the time, was also a friend of Carey’s and called him to see if he would be interested.
“I knew what it needed to firm the foundation,” he says, “and since I respected its founding principles and just liked it so much, a deal was made. Changes to the back-of-house systems were imposed, lighting and new chairs were put in place right away, but most everything else stayed the same or evolved slowly. It’s an adopted baby, but my baby nonetheless.”
And it’s a baby that Carey has taken great care of since taking it under his wing. Added to his current stable of Bluehour, 23Hoyt Restaurants and Saucebox, and you have the makings for a minor restaurant empire.
A Lesson in Humility
But don’t think it’s gone to Carey’s head. He remains clear on what his role is, and it isn’t as a business mogul. “I’m just the facilitator of good times,” he says. “I love creating a sexy environment and putting together a team of like-minded people who acknowledge the power of good food and drink to make people feel better.”
So with Carey and his stable of restaurants firmly established on the restaurant scene, what’s next? As he says it “there may be something in the works,” but it will depend on his partner Joe who “does all the work, I just show up to take the credit,” he says. “I’m thankful to be presented with opportunities for growth, but we are very careful with the prospect of expansion.”
Whatever he ends up deciding, Carey can rest assured that Portland foodies will be waiting with baited breath. Because if any of his current restaurants are any indication, whatever he does next, it’s going to be good.
For more information on any of Bruce Carey’s restaurants, click on the links below. And be sure to join us back here next week where we introduce you to an evening at Bluehour.
William Bessette – PortlandMetroLive.com Contributor
William Bessette is an author, journalist and blogger who’s been writing professionally for over eleven years. When he isn’t writing or eating, then writing about eating, expect him to be outside enjoying the natural splendors of his home in the great Pacific Northwest.