Meet the Maker: Katy Millard from Coquine

Jan 14, 2017
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Coquine is an unassuming gem, housed in a former general store in Southeast Portland, and it’s the kind of neighborhood restaurant you fantasize about. Sitting high up on Mount Tabor, amid the winding streets and towering cedars, it resembles a stumbled-upon Michelin-starred local haunt in a small French hilltop town. It’s warm and busy, full of regulars, and the food is thoughtful and elegant. Mounting piles of awards aside (Best New Restaurant accolades, James Beard nomination, et al.) Coquine is something else.

On any given day, you’ll probably see chef/owner Katy Millard bustling about as her son Hugo scampers in and out of the kitchen. Her husband Ksandek Podbielski runs the front of house. Coquine is bustling with neighborhood folks during the day, and with those of us who drive miles for a lovely lunch and Katy’s supreme chocolate chip cookies, which were featured in Bon Appétit and named “Cookie of the Year” by Portland Monthly. At night, the restaurant’s wait list stacks up with a good mix of Portlanders and tourists hoping for a seat at the table in the lovely community Millard has actualized.

“My goal when opening Coquine was to have an ambitious neighborhood restaurant–but I didn’t want fine dining,” she says. “I wanted to create a place of community for my family and for the neighborhood we lived in. I’m very much a proponent of the village that it takes to do anything.”

Millard took a meandering road to Coquine. Born in Zimbabwe (when it was still Rhodesia) to an American father and a Portuguese mother, she grew up in Mobile, Alabama, and attended business school in Michigan. She fell for cooking while working in kitchens to put herself through college. But when she first went to Paris to learn to cook and ate dinner at Restaurant Guy Savoy, it changed her life.

“It changed everything I thought I knew about food. I was in love. I said, ‘I’m going to stay here until I’ve spent my last penny. I will learn to cook like this’,” she says. “So I asked him for a job.”

After several years of working in kitchens in France, and a stint working for Daniel Patterson in San Francisco, she moved up to Portland to be close to farms and her sister.

Everyone she met and worked for kept telling her to open her own restaurant. “I knew I wanted to open a restaurant because I was sick of working for other people,” she says. “And I had become–and still am–a little bit ornery and militant in my food values.”

After hosting pop-ups, farm dinners and supper clubs for a couple of years, she and her husband opened Coquine.

We caught up with her to talk about what’s filling her up, her staunch food politics and the importance of community in everything.

What were your goals when opening Coquine?

I think we’ve lost our communities and a sense of a village. I think the fact that we don’t walk anywhere has contributed in many ways to the fact that we don’t know our neighbors. We don’t know anything about the people who live around us much less the town that we live in. So I have these lofty ideals of what I want Coquine to be.

We never set out to do breakfast or lunch. Dinner was always our goal. We wanted somewhere comfortable, with approachable food. Somewhere I wanted to eat everyday. But we found this restaurant (which was formerly a cafe called Songbird) by happenstance at the right place at the right time, which is how I knew it was meant to be. This spot chose us. We’re very lucky to be here.

It was a little cafe and it’s the only place up here, in this neighborhood. I just got this terrified feeling thinking the neighborhood is going to hate us if we take away their breakfast and lunch spot. What are they going to do? Where are they going to go for coffee? So we threw together lunch menu and breakfast menu.

It’s a lot to do out of this tiny little kitchen but I think our restaurant is growing into what it needs to be and what the neighborhood needs, which is also what I wanted it to be.

Tell us more about what you call your ‘militant’ food politics and values.

I have an enormous distrust for the military industrial complex that is our food system. I think processed food is one of the worst things that has ever happened to America.

When we start manipulating food by processing it or refining it too far, I think we lose what we need to build a healthy society and healthy bodies. And the fact that we have allowed enormous corporations to feed us and poison us for a profit, I think is the biggest crime in the world.

I am committed to a fully-visible food chain. I want to know who grows my food. I want to know who raises the animals that I eat.

So how do you buy your food here in Portland?

At the farmer’s market or directly from farmers. We work with lots of farmers that deliver straight to our door. They grow things specifically for us. All of our animals are pasture-raised and humanely treated and I know exactly where they come from and what they ate while they were alive and how they were killed. It’s very important to me.

What’s feeding you literally and spiritually, or are you focusing mostly on raising a kid?

My son Hugo has so much more influence over my life and brain and heart than I would like to admit. I was talking to someone about this recently – she was saying everything on our menu has such great textures, and I was thinking about how I pay much closer attention to texture now that I have a kid. If there’s something that he doesn’t “like” it’s always texture, none of it is flavor.

Oregon influences me in what I cook and what I eat. I love working with people who are passionate, and the farmers we work with get really excited about what they are growing.

I’m also really into the natural history of food and the natural history of cooking and how historically, cooking created a sense community, a village and a hearth. I think it’s a pretty wonderful thing.

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Cinnamon Coffee Cake with Stumptown Coffee Streusel

Cake Ingredients:

All Purpose flour 1 1/4 cups

Baking powder 1 1/4 tsp

Baking soda 1/4 tsp

Salt 1/2 tsp

Ground cinnamon 1/2 tsp

Unsalted butter (softened) 5 tbsp

Granulated sugar 3/4 cup plus 1tbsp

Zest of half of an orange (added to the sugar, and mixed with fingers)

One large egg, beaten

Vanilla extract 1 tbsp

Creme fraiche or sour cream 3/4 cup

Streusel Ingredients:

All purpose flour 1/4 cup

Almond flour 1/2 cup

Granulated sugar 1/4 cup

Unsalted butter, cold, cut into small pieces 4 tbsp

Salt 1/4 tsp

Roughly chopped hazelnuts 1/4 cup

Ground Stumptown coffee 1 tbsp

Preparation:

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and generously butter an 8 inch square cake pan. Cover the bottom of the pan with a piece of parchment paper that hangs over opposing sides (so you can lift out your cake easily when it’s done). Combine all of the streusel ingredients except the butter in a medium bowl, and stir to combine. Add the cold butter pieces, and rub together with your fingers to create marble sized chunks. Put in the fridge until the cake batter is ready.

To make the cake batter, sift together the dry ingredients (the first 5). Put the butter and sugar (with orange zest in the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment. Cream on medium speed for 3 minutes, or until light and fluffy, scraping the bowl every now and then if necessary. Add the egg and vanilla and mix on low speed until incorporated, scraping the bowl as necessary. Add the dry ingredients in three parts, and the crème fraîche in two parts, alternating them, on low speed just until incorporated. Scrape the bottom of the bowl, and give one final fold with your spatula. Spread into the buttered pan, and top with the cold streusel. Bake for 45-55 minutes, or until golden brown and a cake tester or toothpick comes out clean. Cool for ten minutes on a wire rack before gently lifting out your cake to cool completely, if you can wait that long.