A gastro- cocktail bar that is one of the first of its kind, Botanist Bar PDX offers a unique experience, great cocktails, and delicious small plates in Portland’s Pearl District.
Botanist hosts one-of-a-kind special events every week. On Wednesdays, you can experience a 4 course experimental food night with a different dinner menu every week. Tuesday is experimental drink night, with a 4 drink menu that includes a mystery drink— if you guess all 4 ingredients in it you win a betting pool starting at $50.
Behind this vision are two Oregon Culinary Institute alumni.
Taylor Figueroa is the Co-Owner/Partner at Botanist Bar. He graduated from OCI in 2012 with a Culinary Management Degree. Derek Boaz is Chef de Cuisine at Botanist, where his role includes helping come up with the food that appears on the menu. He is also a 2012 OCI grad with a Culinary Management Degree.
We sat down with Taylor and Derek to talk about their experience at Oregon Culinary Institute and to learn more about Botanist Bar PDX.
What brought you to OCI? / Why did you choose OCI?
Taylor: Taylor made his culinary school decision after going to the Le Cordon Bleu restaurant and finding that the food was just not good. He then tried OCI’s student-run restaurant and it was so much better. Taylor says he “I always wanted to be a chef,” and chose Portland specifically for school.
Derek: Derek first went to a 4-year school where he got a literature degree, though he decided didn’t want a masters or to work for the government. To Derek, “cooking felt like an adventure” and after school, he was living in Salem trying to get a job in a restaurant in Portland— getting callbacks for restaurant jobs but no offers as he did not have any culinary school experience. Going to Oregon Culinary Institute was a good way to move to Portland and network in the culinary industry so he could work at the restaurants he wanted to be at.
What were your goals coming into the program? Have those changed?
Taylor: His goals were to first be head chef by 25, then to own his own place by 30.
After OCI, Taylor was head chef by 21 at Vault 244 and then went on to become an owner at his bar Botanist at 25. He did the management program which taught him the back end of culinary management, so he learned how to do numbers, costing, recipe making, etc. where most people just learned to cook.
Derek: His goal was to line himself up with kitchens that required culinary school. He thought he knew how to cook before OCI but learned he had no clue how to cook in a top professional kitchen until OCI. The culinary program helped him learn the language of the culinary world. His goal was to push what he already knew and how to communicate with those who knew better.
How would you describe your overall experience at OCI?
Taylor: “It was so great I wanted to take T-2 (term-2) twice.” The teachers were amazing (he talks to chef instructors) and helpful, supporting him throughout his whole time at OCI.
Derek: “F#@%ing wild.” Derek kept busy during his time at culinary school with 2 jobs in Salem, at urban farmer (4 days a week), and as a sorority house as a cook on weekends. One memory that stands out to Derek: “Chef Wilkie took me outside and told to consider my food after I made something ridiculous. I would stay up at night thinking about it. It was a conversation in passing that was a monumental turning point at OCI and something I consider to this day when making food. I can hear Chef Vidaya saying ‘That’s too much cinnamon’.” What he describes as a Jiminy Cricket experience, they were happy to help me be humble and shepherd my career instead of cultivating it. Letting him choose the path he wanted.
What is unique about the curriculum and how did that affect you after graduation?
Taylor: It’s really cool that OCI starts with the basics, and quickly evolves while making sure you understand the fundamentals like cooking rice and all the different grains— most people don’t know that kind of stuff off the top of their heads.
Derek: With so many moments when you have to use teamwork, he developed a group. Ten years later OCI grads are still helping each other, and he is still in contact with his classmates. Building relationships and networking, OCI set you up for that.
What is the environment like in the kitchen? In the classroom?
Taylor: In the kitchen it’s intense— the chef instructors push you, they make you work hard, and it’s nice. It’s not casual. In the class room they try to incorporate everything you learn into a food knowledge which is really fun, it made it more interesting to me. I hate writing but when the assignment is writing a blog post about what you just made in the kitchen I thought “Oh I can do that,” it makes it more familiar with what you want to learn about instead of just dry knowledge.
Derek: There are higher standards in OCI kitchen T1 and T2 than almost anywhere he’s ever worked except Gotham in New York which had standards (each station was carpeted and they had to prove a point on how clean the restaurant is). During Term 1 (T1) he remembers getting grilled about keeping his space clean and organized. Keep clean, keep in your space. It set me up to be able to work small, work clean so that he can work really well in small spaces. His current workspace is in a “one butt kitchen with two butts,” and OCI prepared him to be able to work in a space that size. As for the classroom experience, he had an expectation for OCI of what college courses were like from his 4-year college experience. It was jarring to have classes that were highly relational and collaborative. He describes 4-year college as “self-serious” which is very different than his experience at OCI. He could feel the ties in his field and amplify his experience.
What was the most useful thing you learned?
Taylor: Always better yourself. The knowledge of you are always having to work harder to do better. Don’t just try to beat everyone around you, you have to beat your own goals and challenge yourself, try to beat yourself. If you did it in five minutes today do it in four minutes tomorrow. His favorite quote from Chef Brophy was “no smiling in the kitchen it makes the food taste funny”. It took him a month after culinary school to understand it was a joke.
Derek: Networking yourself to the absolute maximum. I’ve gotten to meet and do cool things for incredible people just because I was friendly and ready to talk without any expectation. You don’t dislike food, you are challenged by it. Derek is so far removed from the idea of hating a specific food, and he attributes that to OCI. You have to know what food tastes like, you can’t have personal opinion when you are cooking for other people you have to have a professional one to make the most incredible food experience. Given a brand new respect for ingredients that challenge him. His favorite Chef Brophy quote was “Any job will go faster if you don’t do it so slow.”
What was your experience like working in the OCI restaurant? Did you feel it provided real-world culinary practice?
Taylor: Working in the OCI restaurant was the greatest because he had a class where people would call in all the time, which made it just like the real world. Constantly understaffed and having to do 2 people's jobs and still do a great job.
Derek: He was in a unique class (this is the only time this has ever been done) that went to T3 before T2. Because of the size of the class, a handful of students with restaurant experience were selected to go to Term 3 (restaurant) before Term 2. “It was a steep learning curve, by week 3 hit our stride. Diving head first into restaurant service. All of us had worked in kitchens before but never as structured and classic as the OCI restaurant.” Since then looking back it looks like a fantasy land because of the limited menu, structure, and support. There is a reduced number of curve balls which is good for learning.
What was it like working with the chef instructors?
Taylor: It was great to have as many chef instructors as we did. Everyone’s personality was helpful, from tough to believing. Chef Bikram would still get your hopes up where Chef Brophy was harder on us.
Derek: “I have a Facebook memory of me every year that pops up wearing oven-mitts and a welding mask trying to cook, to avoid touching the food to taste it in a Chef Brophy’s class. I’m thankful for all the experiences both good in bad that I had in my direct relationships with all the chefs, I felt the class sizes were great for building 1-1 relationships with the chefs.” The faculty bring varying and degrees of professionalism, background, and education to the OCI team, making it easier to work for all types of personalities that run kitchens in the culinary industry.
How do you feel OCI prepared you to enter the culinary industry?
Taylor: “I didn’t have kitchen experience before OCI, it felt like on par with other people in professional kitchens even though I had less experience. Lack of experience made me try harder because I had something to prove and I had school to rep.”
Derek: “It’s hard to say because I was working at the nines hotel and urban farmer while going to school so I felt like I was applying what I was learning every single day to my work. The externship program was really helpful to my classmates and was convenient for me to just continue on where I was working. It made my transition to professional kitchens seamless.”
About Botanist Bar PDX
Tell us about your cocktail bar!
Taylor: “Botanist at first was a mention of a friend of a friend that I worked around in Corvallis. He was the cocktail program manager at a bar that was a competitor, so I knew of Robbie, who is one of my partners, last year. I met him through a mutual friend Ian, who is now our front house manager. They offered me the job as chef, after looking at their business plan and sharing ideas a couple weeks/months after looking at the operation side they offered partner because of knowledge of back of house.” Now Taylor is the general manager and equal owner of Botanist, doing all the paperwork as well as working with food.
Botanist is one of the first gastro-cocktail bars. Most cocktail bars focus on cocktail program, Botanist focuses on the cocktail program and then incorporating food into it, using items 2 different ways in cocktails and food. It’s the same amount of effort— all the care that goes into crafting cocktails goes into the food as well. Neither one outshines the other.
Derek: Derek is new to Botanist, helping create menu items with care and creativity. He was working as an executive chef at a brewery and sat down with Taylor who talking about Botanist and he was offered a chef position.
“The common foundation we have from OCI has made it seamless to step into the kitchen with him again. The style of food at Botanist is very straight forward, well-crafted but not frivolous. It’s been really easy to distill the heart of it and put own spin on it. There is this incredible collaborative mindset that is indicative of the future of food services where chefs are as involved in food as cocktails. We have apple chutney in a pork dish which is paired with the big apple cocktail. Investment to find commonality between cocktail and food programs. Finding moments in the menu to offer a special cocktail for their experimental menu nights. It is all like several cogs turning all at once.”
Best and worst thing about running your own place?
Taylor: “The best part is knowing it’s for myself. There was a patio event and I slept at the bar to watch the tents for the event, was there for 48 hours straight. I would never have done that if it wasn’t my thousand dollar deposit on those tents. It’s nice to know that everything I am doing is investing in my own future. The worst part is probably the exact same thing, it’s my problem to fix when things go wrong. It’s fun, built a good team, push employees to do better. It’s cool to share your knowledge.”
What is your favorite thing on your menu?
Taylor: “My goal is to do 3 things I want to do and 1 thing I am testing out to put own the menu. Sometimes all the things are really good and I will work them into the menu later. At the experimental dinner nights, the menu comes with comment boxes for customers to share their thoughts. It’s fun to read the comments and be like “F you, you’re wrong!” Or “Wow that’s a really great idea.” It’s our own Yelp. We sell tickets on Eventbrite or customers can come in, either way you pay in advance, which allows us to know how much food to order and prepare. Each experimental dinner night includes 4 courses that are based around a theme. Corn, rabbit, salads, olives, etc. The next time someone comes in who has made a comment I will let them know that was a genius idea. Creating our own local fan base. We are selling out.”
Derek: “Each experimental dinner night we are trying to make the moment special.”
What is your advice to people looking to break into the culinary world?
Taylor: Set your goals high, it’s a great thing to be into and you have to really want to do it to make it. Be committed, you can do it but it’s not for the weak of heart. You just have to make sure it’s something you really want to do.
Derek: Before you invest yourself in this wild world of rock and roll and sweet food you have to come to terms with yourself that this job will physically destroy you. It’s gonna be rock and roll all the time, late nights, meeting people you would have never met before, incredible food, flavor, alcohol, great opportunities at great cost. In love with the physical pain and the rewards you get.
What does the day-to-day look like?
Taylor: “It’s a long day, you wake up to a bunch of texts and emails (ignore half of them and say I’ll get to it later but never do), teach employees how to do jobs in meetings, jump in the kitchen and kickass, clean it up and do it again. It’s a big learning curve in patience. Clean up all of Derek’s dishes because he likes to use every single one I own.”
Derek: “Day to day for me is insane. In addition to being Chef de Cuisine at Botanist which is 12hrs day 5 days a week, I also run my own catering company Events by Derek Boaz. I am a freelance photographer so I have a couple contracts with breweries in Salem and do headshots for friends, engagement photos and all that. I’m also on contract with wineries in the area to run their quarterly wine dinners and clubs. I also partners with a vegan and do 5 pop-ups a year called "A vegan and a butcher walk into a bar.” I run a food cart called Oregon SMoregon. I run a blog called NW Pizza quest.
My every day is stacked, managing Instagram (5 different handles), working on websites, writing menus for tasting events, taking a lot of notes on his little yellow notepad. Work at Botanist is half an hour of fiddling around with menu and ideas, then jam straight into fire and knives and then cleaning up and catching the last max home.
My skin crawls if I am sitting still. Part of being a professional chef is being a food photographer, being a father, managing events, creating networking partnerships between people, and cooking at the restaurant. You can’t not work for what you want in 2019.”
Final thoughts or advice for prospective students
Taylor: Set your goals high!
Derek: Don’t consider a job working the line in a restaurant as the only opportunity in food coming out of culinary school. Food is so crazy multi-faceted, your culinary school degree is much more applicable than just a line cooking job it’s a matter of taking a hold of it and running. Make your own moment.
Experience Botanist Bar PDX
Interested in checking out the hard work and creativity that Taylor and Derek put into Botanist?
For an experimental dinner or drink night, tickets can be purchased on Eventbrite, through Facebook, or on their website (prices change per menu). They plan on opening a patio this summer which Taylor says will be Portland’s best patio.