You’re gonna love this one! Megan Sanchez, a local-to-Portland chef, vintage icon (with a closet that could rival the best of us), and creator of all things beautiful talked to us this month about, yep you guessed it: mostly food ;-). but also, having vision (different than bringing a vision to life), the importance of a good veggie char, and even more so the importance of community, respect, and surrendering to the lessons life and other teachers offer you along the way. We loved chatting with Megan, her pup Nino, and sipping on her homemade ginger-turmeric tea. Can we do this every month?
Megan, we’re so happy to get to talk with you today! You and your business partner, Alec, have made quite the name for yourselves in the Portland food scene. Güero is the iconic NE 28th go-to for young and old folks alike, people on a budget and people looking to get fancy, and accommodating more than a few dietary restrictions. How have you curated a space that’s so versatile and welcoming? What are some of the most alluring aspects of Güero’s energy, in your opinion?
Well first, thank you! It makes me so happy when people share their impressions of the restaurant and they sound a lot like the original dreams and goals for the space. The welcoming part is the best part, and that bit is pretty straightforward. We've had wonderful success in hiring really kind and thoughtful people. When you've got a dream team of forty warm and engaging folks, they create a natural sort of magnetism for guests. I know because when I'm away I miss their energy and get work FOMO. The versatile aspect is a story with more chapters. Güero has been an extremely personal project from the beginning, nearly 10 years ago. We made the food we liked to cook for ourselves, decorated with objects from our homes, showed up to work in the clothes we wanted to wear (I did a lot of cooking in flowy dresses and camo Crocs in the early days), played the music we always listened to, worked with the people we wanted to spend all week with. It was never polished but it was always dynamic. Over time as the team grew, the values and tastes of a very diverse and ever-evolving group of individuals became a part of the DNA of the restaurant just as much as Alec's and mine had in the beginning. So I think the range of folks we're able to serve and experiences we're able to offer is a reflection of the fact that we ourselves are young and old, practical and extravagant, party-goers and homebodies, students and grandparents, locals and newcomers, etc., and we're aiming to provide the many different things we feel comforted to find out in the world.
At Güero, you’ve managed to bring an exquisite vision to fruition in an ever-changing, adaptable arrangement of colors, smells, and life. I know you’re working on another big project right now, so I imagine the “vision” is telescoped in and out of focus seemingly every day– but can you share how you’ve been able to execute your vision in the past? Where do you find inspiration, and how do you hone in on design, functionality, and feel of a space?
When it comes to restaurants, I don't know this for sure, but my hunch is that you can only have one baby. Güero has been that total extension of self which is why it is so special to me and others. It took on the nature of real, beautiful, messy, unpredictable life - there wasn't a master plan, hardly a plan at all; it's always been a matter of try everything, put out fires along the road to finding out what works, and revel in the joy of things falling into place when they do, seemingly by magic! There were intentions, but no predetermined vision. It was more daily editing and fine-tuning, and I love the outcome. That said, with a bit more experience under our belts, in the future we'd love to build things that forecast needs, support us in our work, and ultimately offer the community something that speaks to more specific desired experience. With all the many iterations of our first restaurant, we really took our community along with us on a long journey of self-discovery. And bless them for coming with us and shaping the result in such positive ways we couldn't have imagined alone. For future projects, we hope to set people up with a really unique starting place to start their own journeys in our spaces through imaginative and enveloping design, inspiriting things to consume, and nurturing and connected hospitality. I'm inspired by travel, fashion, the way old people and farmers cook. I like to pay close attention to non-restaurant spaces that flow nicely and then imagine applying the lesson. I buy a lot of old design books exploring architecture or the homes of fascinating creatives. Witnessing up close the lives of friends who are uninhibited makers, out of the box thinkers, audacious dressers, or brilliant hosts inspires me the most!
You’ve spent much of your life in and out of the kitchen in various countries, food environments, and training in a variety of trades. For those who don’t know, Megan grew up in a bicultural household, spent time learning (eating, drinking wine, y’know) in France, and worked at a cheese farm in Vermont, among other things. Can you share with us a few highlights (or key ingredients for a good meal) that you’ve learned along the way?
A quick list of helpful lessons I picked up in those past lives:
- Glam gigs are cool, but the work that's humbled me the most (definitely animal husbandry and cooking) is the work I've been most grateful for and rewarded by.
-France and Mexico offer the same essential culinary lesson: well-executed simplicity is the purest luxury.
-My mom's trick: If you don't know what to make for dinner, start sauteeing an onion. Now the clock is running, and you'll panic a little. But then you reach a flow state and one way or another dinner will be on the table in 15 minutes. It might not be restaurant worthy but, hey, you did better than a box of mac and cheese.
-My trick: Make a pot of beans. I dunno, I just feel like Martha Stewart when there's something quietly working on the stove for hours. And after I feel ready to make anything and feed anyone.
-Char that eggplant harder for the good baba ganoush.
-You can't have good cheese without good grass - everything/ we all/ it's all connected!
-Don't overcompensate, but probably/definitely fake it 'til you make it.
-My dad is my hero in the kitchen and in general. If you ask him about life he'll say something simple and perfect like "people just want to be loved." He does things with love and an impressive gladness and it's probably why his food tastes so good, so I try to remember that.
Lastly, I can’t speak with a chef and not ask for a favorite recipe! Can you share your favorite recipe for your favorite moment? Ideas: date night with a loved one (BFFs count), family-style meal with your closest friends and family, or something you can pack up and take out on a beach, by a river, or to the park?
Hm, when I think "favorite" I'm tempted to bring up involved dishes that evoke a lot of nostalgia for me, like my mom's mahshi warak enab (stuffed grape leaves) or my aunt's tamales. But really these days my favorite way to cook is easy and light. I get to eat all the fun stuff at work (hamburguesas and towering tostadas) so when I'm cooking at home there's nothing I love more than putting together a beautiful salad. I typically use anything I have so I rarely make the same one twice, but I'll share the one I made from everything in my fridge the other night for a few hungry friends. I think it came out pretty well and that you could be proud to take it to your next potluck or park date!
First I tossed carrots thinly sliced on a mandolin and some gorgeous pink radicchio in some relatively sweet white vinegar and a pinch of salt. Then I made a vinaigrette with two parts lemon, one part olive oil, a spoonful of whole grain mustard, thyme, salt and pepper. I added some white beans (see how helpful a pot of beans can be!), sweet turnips, a variety of chopped olives and pickled mushrooms, heaps of parsley, and a can of tuna which I dressed in the vin before tossing with the rest of the salad. At some point I looked up from chopping and noticed the ravenous look in my friend's eyes so it was a game time decision to make it a panzanella with soft-boiled eggs. The eggs (optional) got boiled for 8 minutes and half a day-old baguette got ripped up and toasted in the oven before it all got tossed together and showered in a layer of Jasper Hill's Alpha Tolman cheese (a love affair I started in my cheese days, but most any alpine or buttery/fruity/nutty semi hard cheese will work great here). They loved it and I hope you will too!
Megan on Instagram: @meganouveau
Güero No. 1 Tortas: guerotortas.com
Photos by: @lmarissaboone