The following interview was made possible by the NW Tastemaker, a culinary travel publication forthcoming from Northwest Travel Magazine. To read more interviews with the best chefs in the Pacific Northwest, visit Northwest Travel Magazine and TableTalkNorthwest.com.
Aaron Woo, Owner and Executive Chef of Natural Selection and Vita Café
Chef Aaron Woo upped the standard of vegetarian dining in Portland when, in 2011, he opened Natural Selection, the ultimate fine-dining restaurant exclusively serving vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free meals. The menu changes weekly and never features more than eight dishes at a time, and diners can choose from two four-course fixed-priced meals or order a la carte. Dinner can begin with Roasted Beet Tartar with blood orange, frisee, avocado, and chili oil and end with Chocolate Quinoa served with sesame, ginger, orange, banana, and coconut sorbet.
Interestingly, Chef Woo eats meat. He became fascinated with vegetarian food after battling Graves' disease, during which he maintained a strict diet and became disillusioned with lack of creativity that he found in vegetarian cooking. At Natural Selection, Chef Woo weaves modern cooking techniques; French, Italian, and Spanish flavors; and a passion for finding new uses for vegetables and grains. His past cooking experience includes working at Absinthe Brasserie, La Folie, Stars, and PlumpJack Café.
1. How do you describe Northwest cuisine?
As cliché as it sounds, Pacific Northwest cuisine involves the serious use of local and seasonal products. It goes beyond the so-called historical idea of the "slow" food movement, and it is also more complex than the multi-faceted idea of Pacific Northwest chefs indulging in "local" and "seasonal". We have so much more than just locally raised and/or farmed animals and veggies. We have grains, nuts, coastal foods, mountainous foods, desert foods, etc.
Beyond that, we have an incredible amount of culinary craftspeople that utilize our local raw ingredients to produce processed foods that our Pacific Northwest chefs utilize in various stages of their cooking processes, from accompaniments, to seasoning, to building final food components and dishes. Examples are condiments; pickled-cured-fermented-preserved items; salts and seasonings; beer-wine-spirits; etc. Although this happens in many pocketed areas and regions across the country, here in Pacific Northwest, it's a common, everyday perspective and utilization. It can seem extreme when you compare it to the rest of the country as a whole.
2. Who are six of your favorite purveyors that you regularly work with?
Dancing Roots Farms
Hale Ka A Greens
Pro Vista Specialty Foods
Peak Forest Fruit
3. When you go out for a nice meal, what are two or three of your favorite spots?
Lindo Michoan Food Cart
Old Salt Market
4. Who are two other Northwest chefs that you admire?
Jason French. Aside from the fact that he has an amazing palate, Jason's time, efforts, and commitment to the culinary world are of a true dedicated chef. He has the personality of a PR/marketing pro, along with the passion of a true culinarian.
Trent Peirce. Trent's perspective on modern flavor combinations and techniques are on par with the best in the country. His ideas and focused menu give you a fantastic insight into what's possible with food when creativity and technique are blended well.
5. In your opinion, is there an area of Northwest cooking that doesn't receive enough attention?
I can't say that I am on top of the culinary media enough to voice an accurate depiction of what doesn't receive enough media attention. But, IMO, the media (in Portland anyways) gives far too much attention, criticism and accolades to restaurants and chefs before they prove themselves—good, bad, or otherwise. For me, it borders on over-sensationalizing and gossiping more than reporting on those restaurants, chefs and trends. Reporting on restaurant before it hits its stride and figures out its place can prematurely set up both patron and operator up for disappointment—among other things.
6. Looking toward the future, what are you most excited to do in the kitchen?
What I see happening is the Pacific Northwest "growing up" in regards to being connected more like the "big" cities. The connections, availability, and distribution networks are becoming much more consistent with the quality and uniqueness that makes this area special. It allows more chefs and restaurants to raise the "bar" of what's possible and expected on a regular and daily basis—not just a few special places, not only for those who can afford to spend a certain amount. This transformation contributes to an overall desirable quality of life, making the area less stratified and much more "typical" or "everyday"—something I/we love. It's a great place to be.
3033 NE Alberta St
Portland, OR 97211
Portland, OR 97211