Caroline Lewis is a Portland, Oregon, urban gardener whose company, Verdura Culinary Gardens, is dedicated to helping gardeners be more successful at raising their own organic vegetables. A licensed landscape contractor, Verdura installs raised bed gardens including trellises and drip irrigation systems, creates custom year-round planting plans, and offers vegetable garden coaching and maintenance programs. Caroline welcomes your comments and can be reached at caroline [at] verduragardens.com.

An ode to Robert Reynolds

The passing of a culinary luminary

By
September 5, 2012

Culinate editor’s note: The following tribute to Robert Reynolds is a slightly edited version of the one that was included in Caroline Lewis’s recent newsletter to her clients at Verdura Culinary Gardens.

August 27 was a sad day indeed, marking as it did the passing of a beloved friend, mentor, and source of inspiration, Robert Reynolds. Robert was, among many other things, the owner of Portland’s Chef Studio, from which I graduated with a culinary degree and a new lease on life in the spring of 2006.

If it seems unusual for the co-owner of an urban gardening company to dedicate a post to a chef, consider this: My company wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Robert. The fact that “culinary” is in our name is of course no accident; while we may be gardeners by profession, what people do with those vegetables and fruits in the kitchen is every bit as important to us as is how they grow them in their backyards.

The entire concept for our company came to Larry and me because we knew we wanted to work with food but not in a restaurant setting, and we were inspired by Robert to try, in turn, to inspire others to learn to love real food as much as we do.

To say that Robert encouraged me to think outside the box in defining my career is a huge understatement. The man knew what a box was, and wanted nothing to do with it his entire life (just ask his brothers Bill and Paul). Robert was an educator, restaurateur, poet, and a magnet for a huge and diverse circle of friends and admirers. He was charming, utterly irresistible, and unfailingly intellectually curious. For many professionals, would-be professionals, and home cooks alike, Robert was an inspiring, funny, maddening, generous, and patient teacher.

Robert Reynolds on a scooter.

What I learned from Robert was not about following recipes or practicing perfect 1/3-inch dicing technique. The daily classes were more along the lines of an apprenticeship in an intimate restaurant setting, in which each day we would explore the history, geography, culture, and cuisine of a particular region of France or Italy, and would then execute a four- or five-course menu to epitomize that region.

The real lesson, though, was not so much about regional cuisine as it was about learning to cook instinctively and to understand, as Robert termed it, the “construct” of a dish, an ingredient or a technique.

“Any fool can make a roast,” he once said to me. “It’s what you do with the leftovers that counts.”

And so, a generation of us who learned from Robert can now stand in front of a nearly empty refrigerator and can envision half a dozen dinners. We can cruise through the vegetable garden and create an entire meal from anything we find there. We understand what a custard is, so that we never need a recipe for a flan, a quiche, or a pudding. And we learned to become mindful about our cooking (“Stop. Before you cut that onion, understand where you want it to go.”) and competent in our technique (“The first 500 are really hard.”). Professionals and home cooks alike now share this deep understanding of ingredient, technique, and place that define what he taught us.

Those of us lucky enough to have studied with him know what a precious gift that was. Fortunately for the rest of you, the Chef Studio lives on under the competent stewardship of chef instructors Blake Van Roekel, Kristen Murray, Courtney Sproule, and Karen Bedi, as well as numerous guest chefs, farmers, and a wonderful lineup each season of supper club-type dinners.

While Robert’s passing has left an enormous hole in the universe, I believe that his real gift lives on in many ways: in the Chef Studio’s classes and organic garden, in his poetry and his writing in books like The Paley’s Place Cookbook, in chefs he inspired (including John Taboada, Kristen Murray, David Garcia, and many others), and in enterprises like our own little gardening company. At least in part thanks to Robert, all of us strive to share our knowledge, resources, and a genuine passion for truly delicious, honest food.

Recipes from Robert

It is really, really difficult to choose just a few recipes from those Robert gave me. But try his lovely hazelnut and tarragon vinaigrette as well as his playful take on strawberry shortcake. And to really see Robert’s genius in action, check out this video of him making his delicious souffléd omelette (I know; I was there!).

In thinking about what I might share with you that personifies the beauty and simplicity of Robert’s food, I remembered our lesson on tomato sauces. “The difference between a French and an Italian tomato sauce,” he told me one morning, “is only that the French add broth to it.”

Again, it’s the construct he’s referring to, not the specific recipe or which herbs are chosen or whether you use fresh or canned tomatoes. Those all vary by season and place. But the basic French sauce from Robert’s book An Excuse to Be Together eloquently demonstrates an essential difference between my two favorite cuisines, in that the Italians leave things as pure and simple as they can, while the French can’t resist dressing it up just a bit. Oh, and as Robert would be quick to tell you, add more broth and whisk in some crème fraîche at the end, and you have a perfect cream of tomato soup.

See how easy it is?

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