To win a James Beard award as the best chef in the Pacific Northwest is quite an honor. It’s quite another thing to be the first ever in your home state to win the citation, not to mention doing so in the city in which you grew up.
That was the mantle bestowed upon Cory Schreiber in 1998. His restaurant, Wildwood, broke new culinary ground when Schreiber and partners opened it in 1994. My own review (in Portland Best Places) described it thusly:
Cory Schreiber never gets lazy in his quest to create explosively flavorful food. Driven by the seasons, Wildwood’s menu changes weekly but is always solidly Northwest, taking full advantage of local bounty. Schreiber and his loyal team let quality ingredients do most of the work, building dishes around beautiful shell beans, Chioggia beets, abalone, crayfish, and leg of lamb. Robust heirloom tomatoes make a wedge of snowy halibut sing, while a zingy gremolata massages lamb’s deep flavor.
Schreiber ran the kitchen at Wildwood until 2007, when he took what he described as “a self-imposed sabbatical.” Now 49, he has recently moved into the field of education, serving as artist-in-residence for the International Culinary School he has helped to establish at the Art Institute of Portland.
Cory is a fourth-generation Portland restaurateur. His great-great-grandfather, Meinert Wachsmuth, was an immigrant oyster farmer on the Northwest coast. His great-grandfather opened a raw oyster bar in downtown Portland in 1907 to help promote the family business. By the time Dan and Louis Oyster Bar hit its stride in the years following World War I, the cafe was known as the place where shellfish came straight from the sea to the plate, a concept well ahead of the times. The restaurant remains in the Wachsmuth family today.
At once erudite and intense, Cory began cooking in the family restaurant at the age of 14. When he was 18, he left home, working at hotels in San Francisco and Boston, then major restaurants in Chicago and California’s Marin County(the Lark Creek Inn). He returned home in 1993 after three years as executive chef at San Francisco’s famed Cypress Club restaurant.
“My family mantra was always getting food locally, growing your own food, keeping it simple,” Schreiber told me. “From the 1960s to the 1980s, the American food industry shifted to ‘cheap food fast.’ We said, ‘Whoa! Let’s slow it down!’ I think what we did at Wildwood was to define Northwest cuisine. We laid the ground for others who followed.
“I like to stay a little ahead of the curve whenever I can,” he said, tongue firmly in cheek.
Schreiber is the author of two cookbooks, Wildwood: Cooking from the Source in the Pacific Northwest (Ten Speed Press, 2000) and Rustic Food Desserts, with Julie Richardson (Ten Speed Press, 2009). After decades spent educating the public about farm-to-table cuisine, he is now enjoying his move to culinary education.
“Teaching makes me reanalyze the basics of my profession,” he said, “even as I strive to develop the passion of a new generation. Restaurants, after all, teach you everything about life: the artistry and creativity, yes, but also business and service … and risk taking.”