Portland's vegetarian dining game-changer
For chef Aaron Woo of Portland's Natural Selection, a simple beet or carrot is a chance for culinary magic
At a weekly menu meeting, Natural Selection owner-chef Aaron Woo volleys ideas back and forth with his sous-chef, Chris Soffner, in a rapid rally.
They consider adding some brown butter flavor to a squash soup. “But how do we make it vegan?” asks Soffner. Woo, undaunted, comes up with a hazelnut pear butter. The pair then move on to discuss an Israeli couscous stained red with beet juice, gnocchi with dehydrated chard, and chanterelle agnolotti garnished with chocolate crumbles—all the while considering weather, produce availability, and the price of microgreens.
In this tiny restaurant, Woo is serving vegetarian, vegan, and gluten-free meals so innovative that he is even entrancing enthusiastic meat eaters. The story of Natural Selection is in part a familiar one about seasonal cooking. Woo works closely with Oregon and southern Washington farms that deliver directly to the restaurant. But that farm-to-table connection is only the beginning. Woo, 43, is something of a jock—a guy who’s been known to follow up 14-hour days at the restaurant with late-night soccer games. That athleticism seems to inform his cooking: He expects all those carefully sourced veggies and fruits to perform. “I want them to do something different and adventurous,” he says.
It’s relatively easy to make a big impression with, say, lobster, but it’s arguably more challenging to wow diners with something as prosaic as a carrot. Throughout the culinary world, though, vegetables seem to be displacing pork and foie gras as a proving ground for culinary magic. Call it a backlash to the “put some bacon on it” trend. But particularly in the West—the birthplace of hippie classics like the sprout and avocado sandwich, as well as California cuisine—chefs like Woo are embracing a new vegetarian wave, one that brings the intensive techniques of modernist cooking to the service of produce.
Before launching Natural Selection, Woo cooked at the storied Clarklewis in Portland and opened what he calls “a comfort food vegetarian joint” called Vita Cafe, which he still owns. He is not a vegetarian (in fact, his dad is a butcher). But before debuting Natural Selection in March 2011, he spent several months on a strict diet to help treat a hyperthyroid condition called Graves’ disease. His experience with the limited vegetarian options—“I was so bored!” he says—left him with a desire to offer diners something more dynamic than seitan stir-fries.
For inspiration, Woo launched out on an eating tour of Oregon and Northern California. On that trip, he had a mind- and career-altering meal at Napa Valley’s Ubuntu, one of the first vegetarian restaurants with a modernist bent. “There was no veal stock, gelatin, or braised meat, but still the richness was there through technique and thoughtfulness,” says Woo. He was so impressed that he gave up his veteran cook’s pride and interned, or “staged,” in Ubuntu’s kitchen for about a month, under chef Aaron London, who was then in his mid-20s. “I was the old dude doing intern work, schlepping everything around,” Woo says with a chuckle.
For Woo, a vegetable is just as interesting to play with as a hunk of pork belly. “With meat it’s a little easier,” he explains. “You’ve got textures that are fatty, succulent, juicy, and crisp all in one.” At Natural Selection, he continues, “we’re trying to get all those elements, but with vegetables.” Take a carrot: “We can juice the carrot; we can dehydrate it to make our savory ‘soil’; we can confit it in oil and make a super-smooth carrot butter; we can fry it into carrot chips.”