October 16th, 2002 Roger J. Porter | Special Section Stories
 

Hail To The Chef

Lucere's Pascal Sauton is routinely charged with being a nice guy. And sometimes nice guys finish first.

     
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Lucere executive chef Pascal Sauton tells his staff, "Do it with love."
IMAGE: basil childers

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Few chefs have the opportunity to take a fading restaurant and effect a major metamorphosis, putting their successful stamp on atmosphere, spirit and menu as French native Pascal Sauton has done this year with Lucere, the revivified and newly named dining room at the RiverPlace Hotel. After running Esplanade for almost three years, Sauton shut it down for several months, after which Lucere was born with a refurbished look, bright as its name. In the six months since reopening, the restaurant has drawn a new clientele with a menu that comprises a lineup Sauton terms "Grand Cafe"--homecooking taken up a notch or two but never masking its roots in the countryside and the family kitchen.

There are plenty of interesting chefs in Portland, but few carry their years of training with such a sweet countenance. It could have been otherwise. When Sauton apprenticed at a restaurant in France, he learned to put towels in the seat of his pants, since any mistake was followed by a swift kick. In Lucere's kitchen, where Sauton is likely to implore his line cooks as they sauté an order of skate fish, "Do it with love, men," nothing could be farther from that mood of early terror.

Sauton, who comes across as a teddy bear though he's a serious man with a boning knife, admits, "I'm all about being happy in the mouth," and that means taste and verbal sweetness, both of which he conveys to his cooks and his servers. Heidi Yorkshire, a local wine writer, expresses a common feeling about him: "No one could be less of a prima donna; for Pascal only his food counts." And Cory Schreiber, chef at Wildwood, appreciates how fully Sauton has "brought himself into the community, working wonderfully with everyone and giving himself to fund raisers with graciousness and generosity." A couple of hours I recently spent in Lucere's kitchen at the height of the busy dinner hour demolished any ideas I had of frenzied hysteria and operating-room tensions behind the scenes. Sauton presides with equanimity and aplomb; even his call to a tarrying waiter, "Aux moules, aux moules!" ("To the mussels!"), sounds more like an invitation than a order.

At the heart of a complex operation is a patient teacher, a role Sauton deems equal to that of cook. He encourages waiters as much as cooks, moving among his troops like a general giving assuring instructions. Each evening he conducts a "lineup" with the servers, making certain they not only taste new dishes but know about the ingredients, as well as their producers or growers. He's taught the servers to interrogate one another--"What's a triple cream? Where is ours from?"--ensuring they impart reliable information to diners. And he works especially hard to convey to the entire staff not just his recipes but a personal vision.

That vision constitutes a blend of tradition and innovation. "Portland is a candy store for chefs," Sauton marvels; the resources are here in abundance, and he employs classic methods while seeking new turns on old ways. He'll work long hours inventing or varying a traditional dish; he recently spent weeks developing a tian d'agneau--braised and shredded lamb molded with ratatouille, baked and unmolded on a plate surrounded with tender white coco beans--a ProvenŤal inspiration adopted to the Northwest larder. It's startlingly good and has become one of his most popular new items. Sauton loves slow cooking, and his food reflects the pleasures of stocks nurtured over many hours. Though a man of great culinary learning (ask him about guinea fowl and he'll discourse as if lecturing the Académie FranŤaise), he carries his gastronomical erudition lightly, an intuitionist and never a pedant. He loves complex dishes, but his heart is with simplicity: "What could be better than Oregon late-summer tomatoes on Pearl bread with homemade mayonnaise?" Recently, when he scored some fresh sardines, he did nothing more elaborate than grill and serve them on sourdough bread with Brittany butter, fleur de sel, arugula and some onions he had pickled. Sauton will shop in the Portland Farmer's Market, find some beautiful cabbage and ask himself what goes well with it. "Good butter, smoky bacon and partridge," he'll muse, adding with conviction, "Ah, beautiful carrots came into the market today, and BOOM! my dish was born.""

Sauton, 44, has been in the States 15 years, coming to Portland after an invitation to cook a dinner with his friend, Heathman chef Philippe Boulot; the two Frenchmen went fishing together, and Sauton was hooked on the city and its food. As a boy, he spent summers with his family in a small Brittany hotel, hanging out in the kitchen, foraging for mushrooms with the chef and deciding on his career. His parents put up mild resistance, but he held his ground, for he loved the idea of making the food that had made him happy. The stove was more a Siren than the nearby beach: "That's where the real action was." He envisaged the professional kitchen as his theater, a staging area for performances; and he's already imagining teaching the art to his infant son.

Sauton encourages Portland diners to be more adventurous. Can he sell them skate and sardines, given Portland's somewhat conservative tastes? Gradually, yes, because his enthusiastic servers impart Sauton's own exuberance and encourage diners to be adventurous. Sauton acknowledges, ironically, that it's the French who are often fixated on tradition, unwilling to try other cuisines. Creatively bridging the two cultures, Sauton is an inspired translator, delighted to bring to Portland his heritage but equally content to use what Oregon offers the lucky man who cooks with openness and wisdom. David Machado of Southpark puts it succinctly: "Pascal is a real gentleman in the true sense of the word. And he is a consummate professional, simply one of the best chefs working in Portland today."

 
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