07 Apr

James Beard Public Market could be Portland’s home championship

The NCAA basketball tournament, with its Final Four this weekend, isn’t generally a big local story around here. It’s been a while since either Portland State or the University of Portland have been involved, and even with Oregon qualifying and early round games at the Moda Center, the tournament finals don’t generally offer us home-town rooting.

But every spring, we do get that opportunity.

Last month, the annual announcement of the James Beard Award finalists gave Portland a direct rooting interest. The Best Chef in the Northwest nominees included Greg Denton and Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton, from Ox in Northeast Portland, and Justin Woodward of Southeast Portland’s Castagna, while the iconic Karen Brooks of Portland Monthly contends for the prestigious Craig Claiborne Distinguished Restaurant Review Award.

And unlike sports titles, Portland actually wins James Beard awards. Chefs such as Greg Higgins, Vitaly Paley and Naomi Pomeroy have won the Northwest title, and Gabriel Rucker has been named the best young chef in the whole country. Last year, Andy Ricker of Pok Pok, Portland’s Thai gift to Brooklyn and now Los Angeles, won a Beard award for a food article.

Every spring, in terms of awards, Portland’s brand is more braising than brackets. It’s what we get more national attention for, and what drives a growing part of our economy.

So it makes sense for us to expand our food – and James Beard – identity. That identity is now in line to be bolstered by the James Beard public market on the Willamette riverfront, displaying our rising prominence in food and drink.
If not always a superstar in hoops, certainly in hops.

The public market, gaining momentum for more than a decade, is reaching take-off stage, with a location set at the downtown end of the Morrison Bridge. A few weeks ago, the City Council approved a zoning change to allow buildings as high as 250 feet to be built over the market wings at the bridgehead, dramatically changing the financing outlook. Along with various forms of federal financing, the project is bidding for $10 million in lottery-backed bonds from the state, with a campaign to culminate in Market Day at the Capitol June 22.

Shortly, the Norwegian design firm Snohetta, designers of the National September 11 Memorial & Museum at New York’s World Trade Center, will begin an eight-week effort to develop concepts for the market. A process that began in 2000 now has the goal of actually opening the market in 2018.

The James Beard market would bring together multiple national and Oregon food themes: the farmer’s market explosion, posing the question of why people wouldn’t want to buy from farmers daily, instead of once a week; the boom in eating locally, written in restaurant menus that now give the biographies of carrots; Portland’s rising prominence in the national food firmament; the prospect of a downtown crosscurrent of food stands, restaurants, bakeries and cafes. It’s another opportunity to demonstrate the powerful links between urban and rural Oregon; Ron Paul, executive director of the market effort, estimates that it would create 200 jobs in Portland and 100 in rural Oregon.

The market, says Paul, would help “develop the kind of vibrant food culture that we deserve,” a goal that Portland has been steadily – you could say “dramatically” – approaching.

It would also give Portland a high-profile display window both nationally and on the Willamette. We can’t keep putting all the responsibility on Rudolph’s red nose, and the constantly changing neon lettering around it.

Pike Place market has become a national symbol for Seattle, a mandatory photo shot for tourist brochures and network TV coverage of Seahawks and Mariners games. The Ferry Building Marketplace in San Francisco, a more recent development, has become a major attraction even for people not looking to catch a boat to Sausalito.

To Paul, the James Beard Market will be different from either. Unlike Pike Place, it will be entirely a food market, leaving the souvenir/craft trade to Saturday Market down the street. Unlike Ferry Terminal, with weekly farmer’s markets, James Beard will have a permanent produce presence
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After a first century as a timber offshoot, Portland’s prominence now is as a repeated James Beard Award contender, a place that imports chefs and exports pinot noirs and offbeat Thai chicken wing concepts. This identity is a big part of what now draws visitors, who need something to do between lunch and dinner.

And if Portland ever does have a basketball triumph, the James Beard market would be a great place to celebrate.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 4/5/15.

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