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Bluehour’s New Executive Chef: Kyo Koo

Saturday, September 27, 2014

 

Chef Kyo Koo

I’m meeting Bluehour’s new executive chef, Kyo Koo, inside Bluehour’s café area, right across from the open kitchen where the line-up of cooks is preparing for a busy Friday happy hour.  Guests are sitting comfortably in Bluehour’s familiar interior of large velvet floor-to-ceiling curtains and clean, modern decoration. 

Since this restaurant’s opening 14 years ago it looks as if things haven’t changed, but I’m dead wrong.

Bluehour’s French and Italian influence is being retooled in focus, ingredients, and most importantly, the introduction of Kyo’s serious attention to the dining experience.

Kyo is a native Oregonian with strong Korean-American ties that are not only one of the reasons that keep him here, but also influence his work. His mother has been a significant presence in his culinary career. 

Kyo showed cooking promise early on:

“I was always the one to have friends over at our house, and not having a lot of money at the age of 13, I would make something for them…something simple like meat in a Korean marinade, or if I wanted to get fancy I would make pizza dough from scratch.

"My mom had a lot of basic cookbooks, and I liked trying new things. I always thought I was just goofing around.” 

After graduating from culinary school in Seattle, it was clear that all this “goofing around” paid off in an occupation sprinkled with intense curiosity for food and restaurant culture.  

After reading an article in “Saveur Magazine” about Andoni Aduriz, head chef of Mugaritz, labeled as one of the best restaurants in the world, Kyo knew he had to go to Spain:

“I had just never head a chef talk about food like he did and I did a little more research and knew I needed to go work with him.” 

It was this year-long stint in Basque country under the tutelage of Adruiz during which he developed a deeper understanding and appreciation for fine dining. 

“The way that Adruiz likes to focus on the food and extract emotion and make eating an experience of not only the flavors but what you are looking at and smelling and even where you are, that’s incredibly important [to me]," Kyo said. "It’s not about just giving a guest an amazing meal, but also an amazing experience.” 

After a year at Mugaritz, and working his way up to a Chef de Partie position, Kyo returned to the Pacific Northwest, eventually finding a spot at Clarklewis, a well-established Portland restaurant, before transitioning to another Portland institution in the summer of 2014, Bluehour, as executive chef.

Bluehour has undergone some restructuring since Chef Kyo’s turn at the helm. There’s heavy focus on what he calls “the little things” with front-of-house interaction, and creating an intense awareness for the guest.

“I want to bring it to its highest level. That is one of the primary things, as a chef, I am intent on.” 

Fine Dining 

And as many restaurants in the Portland culinary landscape, there are some serious questions in the field about whether or not Portland has any fine dining. 

Kyo seems to understand this, and tells me that is what he’s trying to establish at Bluehour, even more so than before.

Kyo further explains, “I want to basically reach a point where we are [interacting as] a Michelin-starred restaurant.” 

The introduction of a larger tasting menu is a great reflection of this intent: “For me a tasting menu embodies what a fine dining restaurant should be because it lets me and my kitchen let the guest experience textures and flavors.  In Portland, tasting menus are fairly rare – it’s a new experience for people, letting them see what 9-12 plates in a meal feels like.”

The food at Bluehour has changed gears as well, allowing Chef Kyo to become more creative and influence his menu with not only his childhood Korean influences but with Japanese food as well  -- leveraging his technique training; allowing for the simplicity of the food to speak for itself as he established in Spain. “It all kind of meshes together in my head” he says, “so, it’s fun.” 

As simple and clean as his dishes are, there is also an awareness for Kyo that if you are going to let the ingredients speak for themselves, you need to really spend time on them. This is seen in the handmade orzo served with amarillo ros peppers, heirloom tomato, pine nuts and parmesan, or a dish Chef Kyo is in the process of putting on his tasting menu of Spanish melon from Veridian farms dusted with katsuobushi:

“Something I’m very excited about that’s sort of in an unfinished state on our tasting menu is our katsuobushi (a traditional Japanese technique for curing, drying and fermenting tuna). We got a lot of Oregon albacore in before the season ended and decided we should try it.” 

This is a perfect reflection of his philosophy, integrating seasonal and local ingredients while allowing a diner to experience something exciting on the plate. It should also be noted that Bluehour has no Atlantic fish on its menu in keeping with Chef Kyo’s firm stance on product and maintaining a level of farm-to-table freshness within the bounty of the West Coast. 

This is also changing in the cheese program as well – deciding to provide only all American-made cheeses, keeping it as a more focused and composed program.

Chef Kyo ends our interview with a foie bon bon with peach and matcha, dusted with almonds and served on brioche. 

A waiter provides me with a fork and knife – an odd accoutrement for what is easily regarded as an amuse bouche, but I realize that even in this small gesture, Chef Kyo is saying to me “everything matters” – and that the littlest touches have a huge impact.

Amanda Benson received an MFA in nonfiction in California before heading to New York to study at the French Culinary Institute. She has worked in kitchens in both Brooklyn and Portland. She continues her education by eating and writing about food. 

 

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