“Vegetable forward cuisine is definitely the next big thing,” says Aaron Adams, the owner and chef of Portland’s Farm Spirit restaurant. “We like to joke that we are so vegetable forward that we don’t even use meat at all.” Open since June, Farm Spirit offers multi-course all-vegan dinners, featuring locally grown food. Aaron stresses that the restaurant is customer focused – similar to the style of a Japanese tea service – with diners sitting at a 14-seat counter in full view of the chefs and the preparation of the meal. Guests and the chefs can talk throughout the evening, which has one seating beginning at 7 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday. After getting an early morning jumpstart on his preparations for that evening’s meal at his restaurant, we caught up with Chef Aaron Adams for a phone interview as he drove to the Coast to forage for some seaweed.
A vegan himself since 2004, Aaron says most of his guests are not vegans, and some do not even realize they are at a vegan restaurant until they ask for milk for their coffee. Formerly with Portland’s Portobello Restaurant, Aaron says the counter-style seating allows him to provide the quality of food he wants within the constraints of a limited start-up budget. “We have eliminated the back of the house people without losing any of the quality service,” he explains. “We have pared it down to the essentials – food and beverage pairings. I can remunerate chefs well and attract top people, as a result.”
Aaron says he appreciates the opportunity to interact with his guests. “I am enjoying it immensely,” he says, adding that a recent visit from some French guests had him blushing. “They were just so nice,” he says. “They said this was the best food they have had here, and they were not vegan.”
Aaron has developed close relationships with local farmers for his menu items. Three growers he relies heavily upon are Dancing Roots Farm, Black Sheep Farm and Groundworks Organics. His December tasting menu is filled with mushrooms, winter squashes and root vegetables. “The character of the menu changes as the season changes,” he says, adding that he also is making use of canned tomatoes and pickled vegetables he put up at the end of the summer.
Describing his menu as “Cascadian horticultural cuisine,” Aaron says he bristles when he reads the phrase “local whenever possible” on a menu. “It’s always possible to be local,” he says, “but if your menu stays the same for six months, you are not doing it locally. Menus need to change with the seasons.”
After a whirlwind start that includes sold-out reservations on a regular basis, Aaron and his Farm Spirit team are taking a two-week break in January to plan new techniques, new menu items and a new Sunday brunch. “We will be doing tons of cross-training during those two weeks,” he explains. We will be learning about breads and fermented beverages…We will be setting up our own science lab right here in the restaurant.”
As he talks, Aaron reveals his passion for plant-based, locally sourced food and for his new restaurant. He concludes by saying, “I just want people to consider the idea of eating a plant-based diet – or at least of reducing the amount of meat they eat – for the environmental and the ethical reasons and then to see that it is possible to eat really well.”
Images: Nikki Unger-Fink