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Q&A with founder of Northwest Culinary Forum

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Saturday, July 01, 2006

PORTLAND – Robert Reynolds, chef, restaurant consultant and founder of the Northwest Culinary Forum in Portland, makes an annual pilgrimage to France with a small flock of students, the backdrop of his book published earlier this year, An Excuse to be Together. Once there, nestled in a small town, he proceeds to teach about cooking, quality food and its link to the land. Reynolds sees a lot of similarities between Oregon and France — and says it’s time for Oregon to step up.

Oregon Business: What’s the reputation of Oregon internationally? Do people in France recognize Oregon as a good place for food, for example, or is it more of a domestic reputation?
Robert Reynolds: There’s a quick and easy association with wine but beyond that they don’t know anything about Oregon.

Do they like Oregon wines?
You know, I don’t think it’s fair to ask the French if they like anything other than France. I’m sure they would just humor us: Oh, you make wine, how lovely. But I always bring a taste of Oregon with me when I go and I try not to bring things that they can make comparisons with, so I don’t bring pinot. I might bring something from the Rogue River Valley, a classic Bordeaux blend or something.

You formed the Northwest Culinary Forum about five years ago. What exactly is it?
The forum’s role is educational and its mission is to promote place, to promote Oregon. Whenever we do classes we bring in local people to underline the message of the ingredients and whenever we do dinners the role is always educational. I was talking the other night about this idea that people will say, “We want to eat things that come from within a radius of 100 miles.” It’s dawned on them: That’s what you can do here. There’s very little in the end that you had to borrow from somewhere else. That’s what we get to do here and that’s why Oregon reminds me of France. Tell me what we don’t have. We have everything here and we have everything really good here.

What can Oregon learn from France in terms of how to promote its food?
Do things right and really mean it. It can’t just be marketing; it has to be real. We tend to like hyperbole, but I just think that Oregon is positioned to claim the high ground, to say that we have the best and to really come through with it. The French have a system of appellation controllé, which is a guarantee of quality, and we don’t have anything like that. We’re trying to do a Brand Oregon and an Oregon identity and I think that’s the right direction, but we have to mean it. We can’t start sending out junk. 

You mentioned appellation controllé; why is that important?
The name of the thing is controlled by law. It’s like Champagne or Roquefort. If you don’t do it the way it’s written down then you don’t get to use the name. The French and the Italians base their culture on agricultural excellence. And the Italians are better than anyone in the world. You can buy Parmesan cheese anywhere on earth because they’ve succeeded controlling what it is and making it highly desirable. Parma ham is the same way or prosciutto. Where is our ham?

— Christina Williams

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