Story-Soaked Headnotes and Bacon-Wrapped Dates
Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull.
by John Gorham and Liz Crain
If you’ve ever been to one of Chef John Gorham’s restaurants in Portland, you know that his menus are a little stubborn. They’re not big on being shoved into one specific category. In fact, try describing one of his restaurants to someone who has never been, and the conversation goes a little like this:
“Have you been to Toro Bravo?”
“No I haven’t, what kind of food is it?”
“Spanish…ish. Well, and other stuff too. It’s so good. It’s just..well, have you been to his other restaurant, Tasty N Sons?
“No, what’s that like?”
“Good…breakfast. Lots of different…just go. You should just go.”
Suddenly, you’re bumbling and rendered speechless because the food you had was so memorable, yet you experienced so many different flavors and dishes it ends up being challenging to capture it easily into words. “Tapas restaurant” just doesn’t begin to cut it. Not surprisingly, Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull., co-authored by Gorham and food writer Liz Crain, isn’t just one kind of cookbook. The book manages to appeal to a few different kinds of cookbook readers:
• The “tell me a story” reader: The book’s opening section, TB Stands for Trail Blazing, is a roadmap through Gorham’s food memories in his various homes, everywhere from Jackson Hole, Wyoming to Ghana, Africa. This portion appeals to the cook who prefers story-soaked recipe headnotes and memoirs heavy in food descriptions and history.
• The Keep It Casual Cook: The first recipes listed are Toro’s smaller dishes, the Pinchos and Tapas, which are a better start for a home cook who has less people to serve or perhaps a little less time on in the kitchen. This is not to say this section isn’t informative: I learned that low and slow for a fried egg is key, and that I’ve been over-cooking chard for years.
• The Hardcore Foodist: Then there are the longer, more complicated recipes (Raciones and Charcuteria) that are fit for the foodist who prefers cooking to be “projects.” The one who already owns a smoker, grill, specialty cookware, a private spice closet, and doesn’t blink twice at page-long ingredient lists or a three-day curing process.
• The Toro Bravo Super Fan: Lastly, there’s she who has eaten at Toro more times than she can count and is dying to know the secret behind the ultra crisp-seared scallop that manages to be so tender in its middle, or wants to know how a bacon-wrapped date can be so special? (Hint: it’s Pimenton).
There is a recurring theme of “passing plates” weaved throughout the book, whether Gorham is discussing his past with his beloved Grandad Gordon, his tight-knit kitchen crews, or the philosophy at his restaurants (sharing is strongly recommended at Toro, and not in the rip-off 12 dollars for 3 devilled eggs kind of way). The book’s format mimics this idea as well, passing between memories, funny stories, recipes, and basic cooking fundamentals.
One of the highlights of the book is its consistently authentic tone. The first person narratives and headnotes are actually written in a voice that sounds like a real chef, not a cheerful writer paraphrasing one. The sentences are curt, clipped, and brutally honest: “I’m not gonna lie, this recipe is a pain in the ass.” And yet, hilarious and touching all at once. For example, the restaurant’s philosophy is that every employee has 4 days on; 3 days off schedule so they can all have time to recoup and then “Have a real weekend and be a human.”
Gorham and Crain manage to braid together their work so it is impossible to distinguish between writers. Their voices meld together seamlessly; it’s almost as if their conversations have been directly transcribed from long dinners with plenty of drinks and food flowing between them. The book finds a middle ground that many restaurant cookbooks struggle with: it’s not so filled with challenging recipes that you’re discouraged, and yet it’s not so simplified that you get the sense it has nothing to do with the real restaurant dishes.
John Gorham and his crew manage to inject soul into every single dish at Toro Bravo, and the book demonstrates how much detail, history and thought go behind every plate you’re passed. While the recipes are inspirational on their own, you also can’t help but ignite a craving to visit the restaurant, too. And if you haven’t been there, it’s so good..you should just…just go, okay?
Tune in to Paul’s discussion with John Gorham and Liz Crain on Late Night Conversation!
Kat Vetrano has a habit of mixing her writing with her food. She has a MFA in Fiction, for which she wrote a food-focused short story collection which included recipes, and is a contributor for SeriousEats.com and Dailyblender.com. She lives in Portland, Oregon.