There’s an episode of Portlandia in which Carrie’s on the phone, trying frantically to square away a babysitter for Fred. It’s important: she has a business dinner at Toro Bravo, which—if you’re a Portland denizen—you know is no joke. Any meal at Toro Bravo, the Spanish-inspired, family-style restaurant in the city’s northeast, is a singular, special thing. It’s food that’s generous and from scratch—cooked with a lot of attention and even more heart.
Which is why we’re so very excited to be publishing the Toro Bravo cookbook, co-written by chef John Gorham (who helms not just Toro, but two other popular Portland joints, Tasty n Alder and Tasty n Sons, too) and local food writer Liz Crain. (It’s available now.)
This book IS Toro Bravo: beloved recipes, behind-the-scenes stories, step-by-step guides on how to butcher chickens and MacGyver fridges. I feel extremely lucky to have been the book’s editor—to have gotten to know John and Liz, and eaten unladylike amounts of chorizo in the process. These two were endlessly fun to work with, and unequivocally game whenever I made any of my many, many demands. Book printed, job finished, I made them do this one last thing: pick each other’s brains about their favorite books and what it was like to write this thing. Here’s what happened.
LIZ: What do you think makes a good cookbook?
JOHN: It’s pretty basic—a book that inspires me to cook. Generally, I don’t cook exact recipes that much. When you came today, I was making those elBulli olives from a recipe, but I think food has a soul of its own. You have to put your own soul into it. If there’s science involved in a recipe, I’ll definitely follow the science, but I’ll play around with techniques and ingredients to make it my own. I’m looking more for inspiration than exact measurements. Any cookbook that makes me think, I want to go cook that right away—those are the best cookbooks. How about yourself?
LIZ: I really like narrative cookbooks—good stories. I love Sandor Katz’s books for that reason. He digs really deeply into his life and how he came into fermentation. Joe Beef, Mission Street Food, Au Pied de Cochon, which you introduced me to. I like all of those cookbooks for the stories. They’re just as useful to me as the recipes— lot of times more useful.
JOHN: I’ve never been inspired to make anything from Au Pied de Cochon—it makes my gallbladder hurt just looking at it—but it’s fun to read, and I can see the love that they have, and how much they’re into it. I feel the same way about Mission Street Food. Man, no way am I going to ever grind burgers the way they do. I actually believe fully in emulsifying the meat a bit, anyway. But again, you see their excitement and it gives you that urge to go out and cook something of your own. Both of those books really do that.
LIZ: What are some of your favorite cookbooks?
JOHN: One of my all-time favorites is Fernand Point’s Ma Gastronomie. There aren’t any recipes—just some ingredients and a little talk of technique, and that’s it. You have to figure it out yourself. It’s a really inspiring and uplifting book, written by a guy who loved food. I love Paul Prudhomme’s Louisiana Kitchen. I read the introduction to that book probably once a year. The recipes in that book are phenomenal. Everything comes out amazing, even though it’ll kill you. I love the River Café books from London. And of course the first Chez Panisse book. Paul Bertolli wrote that one, and it’s always been an inspiration. I’ve always looked up to him. When he wrote a blurb for our book, that was so exciting for me. What are some of your favorites?
LIZ: The Vij’s cookbook—not the cooking at home one, the elegant and inspired one—is my favorite Indian cookbook. Everything that I’ve ever cooked out of that has been perfect. All of Sandor Ellix Katz’s. I use Wild Fermentation all of the time. It’s really inspiring to me for fruit wines, cider, and miso. I love Nigel Slater’s writing. Tender goes through all of the seasons of he and his partner breaking ground in their London plot. I love all of the Alice Waters’s books as well. James Beard’s books. I love his seafood one.
LIZ: What is your favorite part of our book?
JOHN: Honestly, it’s the Acknowledgments, when we get to thank everyone. It was really fun to get to thank everyone who’s been a big part of this. How about yourself, what’s yours?
LIZ: Probably the timeline: that behind-the-scenes look at what made you a chef and what fueled Toro and continues to fuel Toro. It’s crazy to see all of your different travels and read about the twenty-one different schools that you went to before you graduated from high school. Talking through all of that during those long lunches for the book was really special for me.
JOHN: What did you find to be the most challenging thing about writing the cookbook?
LIZ: The recipes. All the narrative parts were really fun to write; I loved going to all of those long lunches with you and listening to you talk about your past and about Toro. Once we got to the recipes, though, everything was much more technical. Coming up with the right language and making the recipes accessible to the home cook took a lot of time and patience. They were tricky. What about you, what did you find the most difficult part to be putting the book together?
JOHN: Time management. Testing those recipes took so much time. When we first decided to do the cookbook I was really cocky and thought, Oh man, recipes? No problem. We are so locked and loaded with recipes. We have recipe books for everything that we do. Consistency is one of the pinnacles of what I believe in. But when we pulled those recipes out, I quickly realized that there was so little technique and so few steps written out in them. I just expect my cooks to know both. I give them the recipes with seven items and the amounts and they already know what to do. So our recipes weren’t nearly as locked and loaded as I thought.
LIZ: And there are so many things that are specific to Toro that we had to figure out how to get across to the home cook. Your curing room is perfect for your pickling and fermenting so we had to figure out what would work for the home cook.
JOHN: Exactly—it’s all so particular. When I open a new restaurant I know the food doesn’t yet have what it’s going to have in six months. It’s going to taste different. The temperature and how you use your room all contribute to the flavors of your food. For a while, we served the Toro burger at Tasty n Sons. People would come to me and say, It’s just not the same. And I would say, Man, we are making the bacon, making the romesco, same buns, same equipment… But I would go over there and would have it and totally get what they were saying. It’s what’s in the air, too. Seventy-five percent of your taste is through your nose, so if the room doesn’t smell the same, the food is going to taste a little different.
LIZ: If your Granddad Gordon was alive and he could come to the book launch party what do you think that he would do at it?
JOHN: He would be at the front door with a martini or a glass of champagne in his hand greeting everyone and pointing me out: Here’s my grandson. He would definitely be there front and center, making sure that he said hello to every person.
LIZ: What would he be wearing?
JOHN: Oh, a tux. Without a doubt. For something like that, he’d pull a tux out. I wish I could dress the way he dressed. I wish I had the finesse and time to pull that off. I always said that when I turned forty I’d wear a suit every day and I didn’t. But I don’t. I’m too much of a comfort fiend. That was his thing. He always dressed to the nines.
LIZ: Do you think he’d like the music?
JOHN: He also lost his hearing in one ear in World War II and probably wouldn’t even notice.