LAST WINTER at a Bellevue dinner party I met a chef whose face I knew well but couldn’t place. As I went through my mental Rolodex, John Gorham introduced himself.
Turns out I knew more about the man behind some of Portland’s most celebrated restaurants — Toro Bravo, Tasty n Sons, Tasty n Alder and his latest effort, the Mediterranean Exploration Company — than some people would be comfortable knowing. Including the fact that he has a chicken tattooed on his backside.
It’s an involved, inside joke directed at his fellow chef and business partner, Kasey Mills. I knew that because I had recently devoured “Toro Bravo” (McSweeney’s, $35), a raucous romp that delivers on its promise: “Stories. Recipes. No Bull.”
Written by Gorham, with help from his friend Liz Crain, it’s named for his first restaurant. “Toro Bravo” tracks a lifetime spent learning how to be a man, a cook, a boss and a father. Rife with profanity and long on humanity, it defines a chef who plays hard, works harder, finds opportunity everywhere, and shares it with those around him.
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In it, I learned that Gorham’s mother got pregnant at 14; that while she was addicted to pain killers and in and out of rehab, he cooked for himself and his siblings out of joy and necessity — and for his mother because he loved her.
At 12, he mowed lawns to buy personal luxuries like Heinz ketchup because his volatile stepdad was professionally married to the Kroger brand, a job that led to the incessant movement of their family throughout the South. Which helps explain why Gorham went to 21 schools before finding his way in the culinary world, a voyage that took him from North Carolina to Northern California, golf-club grills to Ghana.
John Gorham is a success story with a colorful back story, and he tells it like it is, sharing classic Toro Bravo recipes including this colorful grill-kissed take on one of my Toro Bravo restaurant favorites.
• He’ll be cooking at Seattle’s Matt’s in the Market Sept. 15 as part of the “Planes, Trains and Traveling Chefs” series. Reservations: mattsinthemarket.com.
Serves 6 to 8
2 pounds asparagus
2 tablespoons plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
4 slices jamon (Spanish ham), finely julienned
Kosher salt and pepper
2 tablespoons butter
1 preserved lemon, skin julienned
3 whole oil-cured Calabrian chilies (or ½ teaspoon dried red pepper flakes)
½ cup green and black Mediterranean olives, pitted and quartered (try a mix of Castelvetrano and Kalamata)
1. Start your grill. Prepare an ice water bath. Snap the woody bottoms from the asparagus spears, then peel about 1½ inches from the stem end.
2. Bring 1 gallon of water to a roiling boil with 1/3 cup kosher salt. Boil asparagus for 30 seconds to 1 minute, depending on the size, then cool in the ice bath.
3. In a medium saute pan over medium-high heat, add the 2 tablespoons olive oil and the ham; cook, stirring constantly, until nicely crisped. Strain, discard the oil and set the ham aside.
4. Drain and dry the asparagus, season with remaining olive oil, salt and pepper and toss to coat. Grill the asparagus until charred, remove to a plate and set aside.
5. Put butter in a medium saute pan. When it begins to brown, add the preserved lemon skin and shake the pan a couple times. Once the lemon turns a little white, and begins to crisp, add the chilies and olives, and give the pan another shake. Stir and allow the mix to bloom for about 20 seconds. Add the ham, shake and top the asparagus with the mix. Serve immediately.
— adapted from “Toro Bravo”
Nancy Leson is a freelance food writer. Reach her at email@example.com.