Putting Down Roots in Portland
In September 2017, husband-and-wife team Daniel Batdorf and Erin Skipper left Atlanta behind to begin the next chapter of their culinary careers in Portland, Ore., landing at Tastebud, a restaurant fueled by wood-fired pizza and seasonal ingredients, a few months later. There, executive chef Batdorf and pastry chef/general manager Skipper work alongside a small but dedicated team to keep the menu as fresh as the locally sourced produce. We recently spoke to Tastebud’s tastemakers about their decision to relocate, how they balance their lives in and outside of the kitchen, and why Portland should be your new pizza destination.
A Natural Fit
When they started their cross-country drive, Batdorf and Skipper had $5,000 in savings and no jobs waiting for them on the West Coast.
“In the restaurant industry, and I’m sure in many other industries, it’s really performance-based, and it’s a really personal relationship between owners and chefs,” says Batdorf. “So to be able to get a job from across the country was really hard – not that we didn’t try, but those kind of jobs are more corporate and less like what we were looking for, so you really had to get here and show them what you could do.”
They weren’t sure where they’d end up once they were in Portland, but they knew that moving was the right decision. After all, they’d been planning their relocation since a visit two summers prior introduced them to the Pacific Northwest’s mountains and cooler weather. During that visit, a friend and fellow culinary professional showed them the city’s “exciting” food scene, but it was Portland’s plentiful local produce that amazed them.
“In Atlanta, we worked for a James Beard Award-winning chef who was really farm-to-table because she had her own farm and had a restaurant that would use a lot of that produce, so that was something that we thought was cool,” says Batdorf. “In Portland, 99 percent of the produce coming into my restaurant is from local farmers who either deliver it to me or I go to the farmers market, and that’s where all the food comes from. So, I think that’s something that’s way more accessible out here and is done more often out here because it can be.”
As hopeful future restaurant owners, they also appreciated the city’s open-minded food culture and its potential for growth.
“We feel like there’s a lot of inspiration, and the produce out here is just like nothing else in the world,” says Skipper. “I think that’s really what inspired us to move: the accessibility to really sustainable and responsibly grown produce and meats and knowing that we can run a restaurant using those things.”
Another major difference they’ve noticed is how Portland’s minimum wage affects the harmony between the front- and back-of-house employees.
“I think I made $4.50 an hour at my last serving job in Atlanta, and when you come out here, everyone makes minimum wage,” says Skipper. “That includes servers, and minimum wage is $12 an hour. So, servers make $12 an hour plus their tips, and it’s really almost like a livable wage. It’s kind of amazing to me that they’ve instituted this policy in this city where, if this is what you want to do, if serving is your passion and working in a restaurant is your passion, you’re able to make enough money to survive doing that. In the south, at my last serving job, there would be days when I would walk out with like $40 after an 8-hour shift, and that’s plus my $4.50 an hour. It’s just not a livable wage. No one can live on that.”
In their respective states, Atlanta and Portland are the most expensive cities to live in. Batdorf believes the higher minimum wage helps Portland restaurants build more positive relationships between front- and back-of-house staff.
“Back in Atlanta, there were restaurants you would go to and feel tension between the front of house and back of house because they had completely separated jobs and one was working just for tips and the others were just working hourly,” says Batdorf. “It wasn’t this kind of camaraderie that there is here, where everyone’s actually upfront paid enough to not have to stress about what the other side is making, and that’s a real thing that I’ve seen. It’s not absent here in Portland – there’s still proportionately more money made by servers than by cooks – but really, it’s less of an issue here.”
A Balanced Partnership
Batdorf and Skipper previously ran one of Anne Quatrano’s Star Provisions concepts and were excited to work together again in Portland, though it wasn’t something they initially sought out.
“I was actually a sous chef at Oven & Shaker [a pizza restaurant in downtown Portland], and the plan was for me to take over this summer as Chef de Cuisine and run that kitchen, but then this opportunity came up for us to work together,” says Batdorf. “It was too hard to pass that opportunity again considering we’d worked together in the past in Atlanta. A great GM and a great chef working together makes an amazing restaurant, even if they’re not husband and wife.”
“It’s nice to work with someone when you can trust their palette and also always trust they’re going to be honest with you if something isn’t working,” says Skippers. “It’s hard in any kind of professional relationship to trust that the person you have to work with closely is always going to be upfront and honest with you, and that, I think, is my favorite part about working as a team.”
The restaurant industry is notoriously hectic and demanding, but Batdorf and Skipper have found that working together can help them balance their professional lives and personal lives.
“It’s hard to separate work from home, but we are always actively working at that as well,” says Skipper. “It’s really just about finding balance and enjoying your togetherness in different ways. That’s kind of how I try to think of it. I say when we’re at work, we’re not husband and wife, we’re just work partners; and then when we’re at home, it’s a different kind of dynamic.”
“As a husband and wife team, we know that our work-life balance is going to swing toward the work side a little bit because we both work at the same place,” says Batdorf. “It makes our jobs easier, at the same time, because we’re in constant communication.”
A Pizza Paradise
In September 2018, an international pizza consultant called Portland “the greatest pizza city in America,” pointing to the quality of the pizza – and the ingredients – rather than the quantity available. The city doesn’t lack a variety of options, though.
“Whenever we came out here, I didn’t realize how deep into pizza this city is,” says Skipper. “We have James Beard Award-winning and -nominated chefs here who literally just make pizza and it’s just very exciting. I think this pizza is different from pizza you’re going to get anywhere else, but it’s also familiar and you love it right away.”
“I really think that’s why Portland pizza has become such a big thing,” says Batdorf. “It’s unique. It’s a mix of old school Italian, Neapolitan, and California styles of brick oven, wood-fire pizza… Add Pacific Northwest produce to it, and the seasonality is something we’re doing really well right now across the board, across town.”
Batdorf, who recently swapped out Tastebud’s peach pizza for a fall option featuring delicata squash, is as enthusiastic about Portland’s pizza culture as he is about supporting other pizza restaurants.
“It’s not competition; it’s feeding each other,” says Batdorf. “We go to each other’s restaurants. Our favorite pizza place is Scottie’s, this local guy who does by the slice or whole pizzas in southeast Portland that’s just amazing. We just went out to dinner with the former chef of Oven & Shaker, who does his own thing in McMinnville called Pizza Capo, and his favorite place is Scottie’s, too. But we all talk about Sarah Minnick [of Lovely’s Fifty Fifty] and what she’s doing. Her presence on the scene and on social media and in the culture right now is really elevating Portland pizza so that little guys like us can have a successful pizza place, too.”
However, it wasn’t just the pizza that recently scored Tastebud a spot in Feast Portland‘s Brunch Village. That invitation came only a couple of months before the September event, after one of its coordinators tried their sticky toffee pudding, a staple menu item and year-round dessert offering. The Tastebud team ended up preparing 1,100 servings of sticky toffee pudding and 44 quarts of butterscotch sauce topping.
Afterwards, Batdorf and Skipper were able to make new connections in their community by meeting other local chefs who participated in the event.
“[I enjoyed] trying to dig in deeper to the Portland food scene so we know more people and are able to support more people,” says Skipper. “There were a lot of restaurants there we didn’t even know about. Now we know, so we’re really excited to support other local people who have the same mentality as us with seasonality and supporting local farmers and local purveyors as much as they can.”
As they head into their second year as Portland locals, Batdorf and Skipper know the local food scene will support them, too.