Interview by Megan Cole
Trying new and unusual dishes is often what food enthusiasts and critics enjoy most. Even though unique and creative food might be exciting, often what we crave most is comfort food and items that bring us back to distinct moments in our life. It’s comfort food and memories that Jackie and Adam Sappington’s Portland restaurant Country Cat is based on. By combining their mutual love for the food they crave with their passion for supporting local farms, ranchers and artisan food producers, the Sappingtons have created a menu that has diners’ mouths watering before they take their first bite.
Where did you guys get the inspiration for Country Cat?
Adam: The menu is based on the kind of food that Jackie and I were raised on as kids. We worked in white tablecloth restaurants for a long time, and in our own way we were both studying American food. When Country Cat was about to be born, so to speak, we wanted to bring in our taste memories and comfort food that our diners experience and bring it to the forefront of American dining, and that’s what we’ve done.
The idea for Country Cat really came from the food that you guys enjoyed growing up.
Jackie: It’s inspired by that, but it’s also inspired by the craft and the heritage of what we know to be American food. Adam’s from Missouri and I’m from Los Angeles, and a lot of it is taste memory from those family gatherings where grandma and aunts and uncles brought their favourite dishes. A lot of our dishes are inspired by those memories, but they are also based on what we have seen and love about American cooking. Sometimes dishes are also inspired by something out of a box, but re-imagined and more heightened.
How do you think what you’re doing at Country Cat fits with the progress of food? It seems like there is a move back to those food memories. We had the trend of the deconstructed, molecular gastronomy dishes, and now we’re going back to what we remember and what we are craving a bit more.
Adam: Comfort food has gotten back on the map because people want to experience what true American food is. In a recent Frances Lam article in the New York Times about Edna Lewis he really reinstated the fact that there has always been American food. Americans have always been wanting more, more, more, and there are all types of cuisines, but they aren’t often looking at what’s right in front of them on their plate, or what’s around them where they grew up.
Jackie: I think what comes into play is people are seeing the importance of knowing where your food is coming from. We source direct from farmers and ranchers, and that’s one key component. We also really want to enjoy and relish the artistry and craft of cooking and food production that’s here in America. We praise the prosciutto in Italy and the cheese making in France, but there’s major artisanal industry along the same lines happening here. People are really discovering and enjoying that, and we are wanting to bring what we do to the forefront. Our food and thought process and inspiration with Country Cat really falls in line with that, because everything we make at the restaurant is done in-house, from smoking meats to butchery, and all of our baking, and it’s really saying there’s craft to food and let’s celebrate that.
I read that you guys even make your own ketchup.
Jackie: Oh, yes.
Adam: Why not, right? We don’t churn our own butter yet.
What you guys are doing also embraces that whole locavore movement that Portland seems to be all about right now. Do you think what you’re doing with Country Cat would be received the same way if you were doing it in LA or Missouri?
Jackie: What we do at Country Cat is really pulling on the bounty of what’s around us, and if we were in LA doing that I know we would do the same thing. Those resources are out there and they are building more momentum. It’s there in Missouri, too. That’s the heartland, and so much of our food and our agricultural community started there. It’s sourcing those smaller farmers and ranchers that are slowing down the process and are caring about how they are growing a certain vegetable or how they are raising a certain livestock.
How did you guys end up in Portland?
Adam: I moved out in 1994 to go to the Western Culinary Institute and I never looked back. I stayed and it filled what I needed to do and where I wanted to excel, which was food, and be part of the whole farm to table movement that was going on in Portland.
Jackie: For me, I wanted to move out of Los Angeles. I love to visit it, but I was a younger lassie at that point and wanted to stay on the West Coast, but experience a different environment. I ended up going to school up here.
What have you noticed about Portland since moving there? It’s gone through quite an evolution and keeps putting itself on the map for a multitude of reasons.
Jackie: It’s been really exciting to watch this evolution of craft people in the food and beverage world. Adam and I met at [former Portland restaurant] Wildwood 20 years ago and at that point there were probably five or six chefs that were spearheading a growing movement of sourcing from local farmers and ranchers, and now it’s like, “Why aren’t you doing that?” While watching the industry over the last 20 years it’s been great to see the change in the accessibility and ease of getting local food, and watching people take an interest in it. Many of us and our colleagues do things because we’re interested in it and through the process we get an amazing product, whether it’s beer, or wine or food. People are able to do small, cool things here to keep their costs down as a stepping stone to something bigger. We’ve watched so many of these people and companies start super small and baby step to something bigger or stay smaller, however you want to take it, there’s that flexibility. With the livability of Portland it has allowed that, unlike other bigger cities where the financial constraints can be cost prohibitive.
You mentioned the food at Country Cat is tied to food memories. What are some of your favourite food memories?
Adam: Ham and fried chicken every Sunday night is one that stuck with me and inspired a lot of what we do at the restaurant. That dish in particular encapsulates what we do on the whole, where we break the cow down, render the fat from the cow, and take the chickens from the farm and debone them. We make the stock from the chicken bones and braise the collard greens in it. We soak the chicken in salt water for a day, buttermilk for the next day and dredge it and fry it, and serve it all together. That all really plays into the memory of eating fried chicken with my family and that grew into the idea of what the restaurant is.
Jackie: For me, I love making pie and ice cream. I remember my grandmother made the best pies ever and my love for pie carried on her tradition. She was amazing.