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On the Menu: Asian flavors marry natural bounty in Oregon
fivespice chef Jon Beeaker created a menu that gives Westerners a taste of other cultures
Joan M. Lang
August 01, 2005
a sophisticated pan-Asian menu at fivespice in Portland, Ore., has been an
education — for the customers, the staff and even the owners.
Chef/partner Jon Beeaker was eager to introduce diners to the exotic and
authentic food he’d fallen in love with on travels to Hong Kong, Macao,
Thailand and Vietnam. Rather than creating a fusion menu, however, Beeaker
wanted to marry these Asian
influences with the bounty of seasonal local ingredients from the
Pacific Northwest. And that took some doing.
you’ve traveled to Asia and seen the culture firsthand, and see how the food is
really prepared, you come to realize how Westernized it is here,” says Beeaker,
a native of Rochester, N.Y., who came to Portland to attend culinary school and
never left. “Asians approach mealtimes in a completely different way. You
really have to experience it to appreciate that.”
structure of fivespice’s menu is different from the Western norm. Rather than
starting off with appetizers, customers find a selection of “Street Hawker
Fare” patterned on the popular street snacks that are an integral part of the
hustle-bustle lifestyle of urban Asia. Items include chicken and beef satay,
Vietnamese Grilled Calamari, dumplings and Grilled Shrimp and Grapefruit, foods
that are dispensed from carts and in open-air markets all over the region.
these traditional snack items are intended to be shared and sampled as part of
a larger meal that might also include soup, noodles, curries and such entrées
as chicken, pork or seafood cooked in a clay pot, Lamb Shank Randang, Lacquered
Salmon and various daily fish specials — all meant to be eaten family style, as
they would be in Asia.
thought it would be cool to educate our customers about how other people eat
and live,” explains Beeaker. “When Asians sit down to an actual meal, it’s much
more relaxed than ours, a time to socialize and be with friends. Sharing food
is part of that.
a lot of time discussing the way the menu would be structured,” he adds. “We
considered arranging it by price only, so that customers would understand that
a $3 item was sized as an appetizer, and the $18 would be a main course. In the
end, however, we decided it would better to stick to a somewhat more
still underwent some changes within a few months of its January 2005 opening. In
his zeal to share information with patrons, Beeaker loaded up the menu with
descriptions and detail about the ingredients, the cooking techniques,
everything the customer was about to eat.
important to me to tell people where their food is coming from, but I overdid
it,” admits the chef.
spring/summer menu change, Beeaker cut back significantly on the descriptors,
handing more of the education job to the serving staff instead. He also deleted
some items that just weren’t selling, like Vietnamese-style shrimp wrapped
around sugar cane.
starting to get some repeat business and knew what was selling and what
wasn’t,” he says. “The shrimp was one of our favorite items, but at some point
you have to put your ego aside and ask yourself why you’re breaking your butt
to prep all these things people aren’t even ordering.”
smaller, more streamlined menu, Beeaker had to prepare the waitstaff to help
customers order. He conducted three intensive, six-hour sessions with servers to
explain and sample all of the ingredients, then cooked the entire menu for them
so they could taste everything.
have a topnotch staff who have learned our menu, learned our food and got
completely excited about it,” says Beeaker. “And that means they sell it
But a menu
driven by server training requires constant maintenance.
night, I prepare the nightly specials and a few regular menu items for the
preshift meeting, so [the waitstaff] are always working with the food,” Beeaker
hugely popular at fivespice, accounting for more than half of the sales mix,
even though it represents only about 15 percent of the total menu real estate.
Chalk that up to the fact that Beeaker buys only local, wild-caught product
(the only farm-raised seafood is Mexican shrimp).
is to focus on ‘conscious’ food — organic, natural, line-caught, sustainable,”
he says. “It makes purchasing a little more challenging, but here in the
Pacific Northwest, we have such a bounty of beautiful ingredients, and people
really expect it.”
specials do particularly well, including halibut, black cod, Columbia River
sturgeon and every possible variety of wild salmon in season.
perennial favorite from the menu is the Seafood Hot Pot, prepared in the
traditional clay pot called a canh, which is widely used in Vietnam to cook all
kinds of stews. Shrimp, scallops, calamari, clams and fish are braised in a
flavorful hot-and-sour broth seasoned with roasted chile paste, tamarind and
galangal (similar to ginger), garnished with fresh cilantro, tomato and
pineapple. When the waiter lifts the cover off the pot at the table, the
wafting aromas tend to get everybody’s attention. Spectacular as it is,
however, the item was created for reasons of utilization.
all these fish trimmings and scrap, and it drives me absolutely crazy to waste
them,” says Beeaker. So the kitchen uses whatever fish is available that night,
as well as shrimp and scallops that are already used on the menu in other forms
(seared scallops on a bed of Asian greens and fresh mushrooms with black bean
sauce is one of fivespice’s top sellers), and Beeaker brings in local clams and
calamari to bolster the presentation.
Vietnam, the hot pot is prepared at the table, with the live whole fish slipped
into the simmering broth,” Beeaker notes.
planning another trip to Asia at the New Year.
“There are a lot of lessons to be learned doing
this kind of food,” he says. “It takes constant education, balance, training. I
educate myself first, then pass that along to my servers, and they pass it
along to their customers. It’s an ongoing process.”