In Portland, there are two major players in the food playground, the vegetable – buzzing farmer’s markets, inspired vegan restaurants and dedicated gardening – and the almighty meat, with nose-to-tail cooking, butchery classes and charcuterie found in nearly every corner of the city. Chef Ken Gordon is, and has been, a colossal part of the carnivorous scene in Portland, with his restaurant Kenny & Zuke’s, a New York-style Jewish deli known for “sandwiches as big as your head”, a popular destination for locals and tourists alike. While the thick cut, addiction-inducing pastrami is a main staple for many, the “Body By Pastrami” t-shirts adorning the wall have begun to hit a little close to home for the chef, as he’s found himself, quite publicly, as a food lover trying to balancing the love of food and his own personal health.
When Gordon was diagnosed with diabetes earlier this year, he vowed to heal himself the good old fashioned way – through diet and exercise – penning a weekly article in the Oregonian to track his progress. Recently, he let me in on his journey and how he’s hoping to change himself, his restaurant, and maybe even the minds of other chefs in Portland.
Q: Since you started your lifestyle change, you’ve added a more health-conscious section to the Kenny & Zuke’s menu. As a huge fan of K&Z and of healthy eating, I’ve found myself trying to build healthy meals from your menu hundreds of times. What made you decide to make this choice?
A: I thought if I was going to be writing about healthier alternatives, I had better put my money where my mouth is. I’m determined to get a lot of other Chef’s and restaurants around Portland to add some things to their menus as well. They needn’t get rid of the “good” stuff, just offer a few options. And I’d like to see Asian restaurants do the same, like offering a brown rice option, or buckwheat soba noodles as an alternative to white rice noodles. It really takes so little.
Q: I’ve noticed from your column that you’re no stranger to writing. Do you have a background in it – or writers you look to for inspiration?
A: My mentor and uncle – whom I’m visiting this week in L.A. – is a 95 year-old, ex-communist, playwright. I learned a bit from him about the art, as well as about baseball. But I’ve always written – I still write letters…who does that anymore? – and enjoy the craft. I write a lot of letters to newspapers – they’re usually a bit too, shall we say, strongly worded – and submit opinion pieces from time to time. I’m also halfway through writing a murder mystery set in the restaurant world, but I’ve been halfway through writing it for seven years now – life sometimes intercedes. I love good suspense novels – Michael Connelly, Elmore Leonard, Walter Mosley, Robert Parker, Robert Crais…my favorite might be James Lee Burke, who would be brilliant and poetic no matter what he wrote. And I adore Calvin Trillin!
Q: Are there any restaurants in Portland (or elsewhere) you’ve been able to count on for healthy meals without sacrificing flavor?
A: Absolutely – mostly Asian, or Asian-inspired. Biwa, I love. Tanuki, ditto. Mi-Ho. Woodsman Tavern – Jason does this trout poached in this amazing broth, plus all the oysters and seafood, great salads and vegetables. And the hams, which are salty – not a big problem for me – but pretty lean.
Q: What’s something you’ve learned on your journey that surprised you or that you didn’t know before?
A: How much salt and sugar is in Hoisin sauce! Jesus. I’d eat pho and slather everything with it – not anymore. Also, how many people are dying for help with their diets and want good tasting foods and recipes they can indulge in and still eat a healthy diet. I’ve answered about 300 emails since my column started, and this is a recurrent theme in 75% of them.
Q: What advice can you give to other food lovers trying to live a healthy lifestyle?
A: I think living a healthy lifestyle is all about appropriate moderation – fitting an intelligent diet to your needs and health profile. I think that diet people want you to think that they have the answers for everyone. But there is no “one” way. What works for one person is not necessarily right for another. The important thing is finding something that works and isn’t too restrictive, and sticking with it.
To read more on Chef Gordon’s health journey, you can read his column here.
*Front photo credit: Allison Jones; photo on this page: Ken Gordon