In 2006, I ate at a restaurant in Portland, Oregon called Alberta Street Oyster Bar. I was with my husband Din and a friend who ran a popular food website. Though the friend liked to stay anonymous, the Portland restaurant world was at the time still small and insular, if a comer on the national food scene, and it’s possible the servers recognized him and alerted the kitchen. But I’d put money on it being our finishing a three-course meal, realizing we wanted to eat it all again right away and thus reordering - the only time I have ever done this in a restaurant - that had the staff whispering to the chef.
Eric Bechard - tall, rangy, looking amused - came to our table, not so much to talk about the food as to talk with people who seemed to get what he was doing and appreciated it. I liked Bechard instantly, he was wry and easy in his skin and had glittery eyes that seemed to indicate he got the joke and the meaning of important things. I recall his knowing who my husband was, which made sense. They were both men in their 30s who’d recently started Portland businesses where they hand-crafted the goods, Bechard as a chef, Din as a coffee roaster, seen here at one of his cafes.
I think I saw Bechard only once more before he left Alberta Street Oyster Bar and opened a restaurant in nearby McMinnville in 2009. Not long after, he started what appears to be a six- or seven-year odyssey of touching down in various Northwest cities, opening places and closing them (or not opening them at all) before dropping off the map. The most recent information I can find on Bechard is his 2016 landing in Astoria, Oregon, a town on the Columbia River whose three-block-long main street, the last time I was there, featured many bashed-in and empty storefronts, in part because of the obstinacy of the eccentric Flavel family.
I can understand why Bechard thought he saw opportunity in Astoria. The location is awe-inspiring and terrifying - check out this video of bar pilots trying to guide cargo ships - and empty enough to set your dreams spinning. I’ve spun them myself. In 2013, when my husband owned four cafes in Portland, a hotelier invited us to his yet-to-open hotel in Astoria: might Din consider launching a cafe in the lobby? We had the entire hotel to ourselves that night, there wasn’t even anyone at the front desk, but what fascinated most was a crows-nest apartment atop a gothic building across the street. I was working on a book at the time and told Din, if he opened the cafe, we could maybe rent that apartment and I could write there part-time and keep an eye on the staff. How we wound up seeing the apartment that night, I do not recall, but we did, and it turned out the woman who lived there did so with about ten cats and assorted carpeted climbing trees that we needed to wend through to get to the window with the view of the river, black and omnipotent.
I saw the movie Pig this week and immediately thought, This is based on Eric Bechard, and I thought this because I remembered him coming to blows with another chef over a pig back in 2010. That’s Bechard on the left.
That the story had the makings of a Portlandia skit - after a pork cook-off at a fancy hotel, Bechard “shit-talked the fact that an Iowa pig (the winning pig, in fact) was used in the competition rather than an Oregon-bred oinker” and had a punch-up outside of a strip club with one of the other chefs - is not what interests me here. What interests me is that Bechard seemed to be hewing the path to which Nicolas Cage, playing a Portland chef who has dropped off the map, consigns himself.
I don’t know how other people who watched this movie saw Cage’s character, maybe as eccentric, or heroic, or lost, or sad. I saw him as a man fighting for one thing, one thing: the right to be uncompromising based on what you’ve learned with your heart and your head and your hands. You can tell someone who has baked 10,000 loaves of bread, You are not allowed to bake bread because we, the people, have decided you are not the bread-baker, other people will now make bread, and by the way? Fuck your bread, but also, we will take your recipes, we will steal your dignity, your ability to make a living, because it’s easier to do these than to do what you do; yes, chef, you have skills, but we will shit on those skills, sometimes stealthily, sometimes in public, we will take what you love and try to destroy it, we will slit you from throat to nut-sack and feast on you, and we will enjoy, we will, seeing your eyes on us as we feast on you and then, throw down our spoons and walk away, but you cannot stop him from baking bread.
When did I cry watching Pig? Not during location shots of Portland, a place I lived for fifteen years but which now seems more like an idea of a place than an actual location, though many of the locations I did recognize, the Burnside Bridge, the Steel Bridge, Huber’s restaurant, the diner where Cage asks to use the telephone, the foursquare house he visits, the one he once lived in, which looked very much like the house we lived in before the people came with their spoons.
How does a man fight? With his fists, certainly, but this is only a way station. He fights by showing you what he knows how to do, showing you even when he is covered in blood and grime. “Good-bye, chef,” a former employee of Cage’s says to him, after she gives him the salted baguettes he has her asked for, and I broke down. She knew who he was, knew despite everything everyone had come to take from him. And I cried as Cage meditatively prepared the meal for his presumed enemy. Feeding people is tapping into love; there is absolutely no separation, it is Cage’s super power, if you will, and why the character who is about to deliver what he assumes will be the coup de grâce to Cage, nevertheless weeps over what Cage has placed before him.
“I remember every meal I ever cooked,” Cage tells him. “I remember every person I ever served.”
Cage is wounded, very deeply, but he gets up and he walks on. What he has earned cannot be taken from him. I do not know where Bechard is, or if the writers of Pig took inspiration from him. I do know what he is able to do. I’d eat it again twice.
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This was so good. So, so, so good! I'll always take more of your stories of people. Thanks.