It’s been almost two years since the wife-and-husband team of chef Katy Millard and Ksandek Podbielski opened Coquine, a charming 30-seat restaurant discreetly tucked away atop Mt. Tabor, on a quiet residential corner in southeast Portland. And despite earning heap loads of acclaim along the way — including two James Beard nominations, one for Best New Restaurant and Best Chef, Northwest — Millard remains as warm and approachable as ever.
What also hasn’t changed is how Coquine seamlessly transitions from a casual breakfast and lunch nook to bustling neighborhood restaurant come evenings, and more importantly, Millard’s fastidious dedication to cooking “the way I want to eat.”
Recently, I sat down with Millard at her restaurant to chat about why she loves being away from the fray of other area restaurants, why the art of subtlety is important in Portland’s culinary landscape, and how the legendary salty-sweet Coquine Cookie came about. Our conversation has been condensed and edited.
The first time I visited you was right after you opened. I kept thinking, “This is pretty out there, location wise.” How and why did you decide on Mt. Tabor?
We found this location after looking at a new building. As you know, there’s lots of new buildings in Portland right now. While we very actively pursued other spaces, none of them felt right. We happened upon this space through a broker who was selling existing restaurants. My husband and I also live in the area, quite close to here. It was a little café before. We walked by it many, many times and thought we could do something amazing with the space. When the broker said it was available, we looked at each other and both knew. We made an offer on it the next day. There was no question. It felt right, and it’s always felt right. I feel like we’ve been here forever, yet no time at all.
Do you think your offbeat location’s worked in your favor?
Totally. My then boyfriend (and now husband) surprised me with a trip to Manresa a couple years ago. We only had two days off. We bought plane tickets, took a cab from the airport in San Jose to Los Gatos. We got dressed, and walked from the hotel. The thing about Manresa is that it’s hidden. You don’t expect it to be there. It’s a three Michelin–starred restaurant in the middle of this neighborhood in this tiny little town. The meal was gorgeous, but my favorite thing was just getting there. The trip. The anticipation. Getting on a plane, walking to the restaurant and being surprised by the actual location. It made it even more special, and we wanted to recreate that somehow.
How? Open a restaurant at the top of a hill, with this gorgeous drive up the hill — so people might not know where they’re going if it’s their first time. We wanted it to be unique.
“It’s not French food. It’s pasta. It’s dashi. It’s a Spanish riff on shrimp and grits.”
You were doing pop-up dinners before opening Coquine. What were some of the biggest challenges you faced transitioning from pop-up to brick-and-mortar?
I didn’t expect it to get so busy so quickly. We originally planned on being open for dinner five days a week, to keep it small and manageable. But the restaurant here before us did breakfast and lunch. And there’s foot traffic in the summer, and it’s gorgeous here in the morning. We thought it would be a mistake to take away the coffee shop and café away from the neighborhood.
I thought we could be a place for the neighborhood for breakfast and lunch, and more of a destination for dinner. And now it’s a beast I can’t control. I didn’t expect that. I am elated by the reception we’ve gotten from the neighborhood. I didn’t except national attention, while selling as much food as we do from this tiny kitchen.
Let’s talk food. How would you describe your style?
By all means, my cooking is inspired by the seasons. It’s also inspired by my childhood, my travels and the communities that I’ve been lucky to be a part of. I can’t fit my cooking neatly into a box of French, Italian or New American — mainly because I have a very eclectic background and upbringing.
I was born in Southern Africa. My mother is Portuguese. My father grew up in Southern Africa as an American. But I spent the biggest chunk of childhood of my life in Mobile, Alabama, when we moved to the States. So, I’m a Southern girl from two continents. I went to college in Michigan. I lived in New Orleans for a while, then went to France for five years. I moved from France to San Francisco, where I got influenced by California cuisine and Asian food — which I didn’t experience much before. And then I moved here. I’ve been in Portland for almost six years.
If you take a look at the menu here the food is imbued with French technique because that’s where I learned to cook. But it’s not French food. It’s pasta. It’s dashi. It’s a Spanish riff on shrimp and grits. My food is as eclectic as the combination of thoughts and experiences that make up me.
I cook what’s inspiring to me. I cook what I feel like eating. I cook the way I want to eat. I’m very lucky there’s a market for that.
What do you love cooking with most, and why?
I love vegetables. They offer possibilities of flavor and texture that meat doesn’t offer. Chicken is chicken. There’s different ways to cook it, but at the end of the day it’s still chicken. Carrots, for example, can be a soup, a puree, a sauce, a base for a pasta. You can make them into pastas, and you can roast them. It’s harder for me to get writer’s block with vegetables. Don’t get me wrong, I love meat. I’m not a vegetarian, and never will be. But vegetables are inspiring. The different flavors you can get from just a couple varieties of carrots, figs, and peaches? Plus, they’re fun and pretty – and perhaps more feminine than a hunk of beef.
Portland’s culinary landscape is well, crowded. What are you trying to bring to it?
Subtlety. My food is very simple, maybe deceptively simple. But there’s a lot more going on in the background than people know. I try to take things off a plate, rather than putting things on it.
And while I appreciate technique, I’m more inspired by a raw product and the possibilities it presents — rather than the newest Cryovac or sous vide technique. Portland is very (and gloriously so) imbued with people who cook very flavor-forward food. So there’s lots of pork belly, bacon and big, bold flavors. I love that stuff. But what I want more than anything else is not to have a shtick. I want to cook food people want to eat every day. I wanted to bring to Portland the kind of restaurant I could eat at every day.
Okay, I have to ask about your chocolate chip cookies. I don’t like chocolate. I don’t like cookies. But I really dig yours. What’s your secret?
Maybe that I’m not a pastry chef? It’s very much a savory chef’s take on a chocolate chip cookie, and a happy accident. I was working at a bar in San Francisco, where they needed a dessert for the bar menu. Desserts in bars are hard, because who wants to eat dessert at a bar? After a long time of thinking, I thought cookies.
But if I’m going to make a cookie, what will be the flavors — especially because people mostly drink in bars? I drink whiskey, and whiskey is good with chocolate. I wanted to recreate those deep caramelized flavors, that drunk or high people would enjoy. So I set out to make the perfect chocolate chip cookie. I tweaked my recipe, so it would have a high proportion of brown butter and brown sugar, all those flavors present in whiskey. And that’s where the cookie stayed for a minute.
While cooking for a catering company, I was asked to do a really big event, and grossly overestimated the amount of smoked almonds I’d need for a salad for 700 people. So I had two gallons in my pantry for a month. When I was asked to do another event, I wanted to keep it simple, so I decided to bake the cookies. But then I looked at those smoked almonds in my pantry and thought, “Chocolate and smokey things are nice together.” I baked them with the smoked almonds, and it was the happiest accident in my life. I think the cookies are 10 times better with the smoked almonds.