The Bold Toro Bravo: Art for the Eyes, Mind, and Taste Buds

Morgan Vogel Chinnock

Toro Bravo Cover
You’re going to have to actually cook. If you want to learn to bone a fish, bone some fucking fish! You gotta do it, and do it again, and do it again. You’re probably going to fuck up a few times, but that’s part of the deal. There’s nothing more rewarding than succeeding, and finally mastering what you’ve set out to do.

—John Gorham and Liz Crain

I like Toro Bravo, a book of stories and recipes from the Portland restaurant of the same name, by chef John Gorham and writer Liz Crain. I like it so much, I bought a copy for my dad’s lovely girlfriend for Christmas. That says a lot—Toro’s recipes are rooted in rich meats and cheeses, while I cook vegan at home and eat mostly vegan everywhere else (though out of curiosity, I will at least taste just about any food that’s put in front of me, especially things prepared with passion).

Here’s what I like so much: the book (published by McSweeney’s in October 2013) is a work of visual art. The square hardcover binding is gorgeous, textured and loud. The full-page photographs by David Reamer are at once gritty and aesthetically pleasing. Movement and color fill the pages. Besides many beautiful photos of prepared recipes, there’s a two-page collage showing off close-ups of staff members’ tattoos. There are shots of patrons taking a first bite of olive oil cake, fire under pans in the kitchen, steam rising from pots, servers taking orders—even a shot of the restaurant’s “Get a Life Marching Band” at the staff’s annual Fourth of July barbecue, complete with the motto “We eat better than we play.”

As far as the writing goes, Gorham and Crain convey the chef’s personality naturally on the page. They don’t hold you at arm’s length with formal language—they pull you right into the kitchen, at Gorham’s side, and he makes himself free to cuss and share his opinion and poke fun at the sous chef standing over there and rave about how good this cheese is and scold and encourage you, whenever he feels like it. And this makes you feel at home. While Gorham and Crain include technical cooking terms in the recipes, they’re not snooty about it—they’ll throw out a term, and then explain it, which makes you feel as if they trust you to be smart enough to know the specialized names of things, but aren’t going to punish you if you don’t yet. This makes the book accessible to novices as well as, I would imagine, appealing to expert chefs.

Gorham also writes here about his painful upbringing, laying out the details of his own difficult childhood, and how food and the culinary community brought him a sense of belonging, which flowed into the vision for Toro Bravo. But with all the story’s depth, it’s nowhere near sappy. Full of Gorham’s sass, blunt honesty and humor, it’s simply heartfelt and real.

Inspired by Gorham’s many trips to Spain, Toro’s cuisine is the chef’s bold personal spin on Spanish flavors. In addition to travels abroad, Gorham has lived in many places in the U.S., and this book introduces you to how the places and people he’s known have influenced his cooking. Gorham doesn’t make the book just about himself—he constantly gives credit where it’s due, to whichever of his cooks or business partners or family members thought up a dish or idea. Most of the recipes include a story that explains the seed of inspiration—the place where Gorham encountered a similar dish and wanted to improve it, or the kitchen mishap that led to the invention of a new taste sensation. Take this piece of the Chicken and Clams Cataplana recipe for example: “We prepared ours this way at first . . . but eventually we started searing chicken and adding that to the mix as well. That’s when people went apeshit over it.” As you move through the recipes, you get a tour of Spanish food traditions, of Gorham’s life, of staff relationships, and of the tastes of Toro food all at once.

Gorham chooses his ingredients for the specific tastes they add to the food, and this most often means the freshest local ethically raised meat or heirloom vegetables. He doesn’t skimp on quality for price, and his passion for amazing tastes leads to more sustainable buying choices, both for the farmers and animals involved. This philosophy rises naturally but clearly from the recipes—no soapboxes necessary.

The recipes include how to make just about everything from scratch: an array of charcuterie, pickled vegetables, salads, paellas, lots and lots of sauces, noodles, the house beer, preserved lemons—even how to butcher a chicken. Each recipe celebrates the art and painstaking science of food, explaining nitpicky details that will produce just the right flavor. Gorham and Crain tell you which ingredients you can substitute, and how, and which ones you must buy and prepare exactly as described to replicate Toro’s tastes and presentation. These tips anticipate the types of questions I normally have when I’m cooking from a recipe, and they make me feel as if I’m standing in the kitchen with the chef. For example, “This sauce is all about fresh herbs, so please don’t destroy one of my all-time favorite sauces by reaching for your spice rack,” or “If you’re only going to spend time seeking out one of the three [chilies], I’d say pony up for the nyora. It’s a sweet, mild, really tasty chili,” or “If you wait any longer than two hours [to serve the salad], you risk the avocados looking like shit.”

Gorham and Crain take the time to really explain the chef’s connection to each dish, his passion for it, and the reasons behind the recipe’s instructions, which might include the story of how he came to stop believing in cold-shocking vegetables, or why using a certain chili puree in dishes “is a really great way to introduce a surprising, extra layer of flavor that’s hard to pinpoint.” Gorham is also generous with his many-years’-gained cooking techniques, and I’ve gleaned new tricks to try, varying from how to salt and oil wooden cutting boards to a better way to braise vegetables, tidbits that I’d never learn unless someone told me, and that flow naturally out of the book’s recipes.

Toro Bravo is about relationships between people, places, and food. That’s why I like it so much, because I believe at its core food should be about connection. The book is a tapestry of flavors and colors and stories and personalities from the life of a good-hearted guy who had a shitty childhood and the bravery to seek out what he really wanted: a community of people who love good food. And the recipes are an invitation for you to join him, in your own way.


Toro Bravo
John Gorham and Liz Crain
McSweeney's Books, 2013
ISBN 978-1938073571

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