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Ricky Bella is cooking up a story
The I-5 Corridor spent an afternoon with the head chef of Southeast Portland's Palomar.
Ricky Bella will tell you he’s not a storyteller, but inside the compact kitchen at Palomar, a cuban-inspired cocktail bar in Southeast Portland, it doesn’t take long for the head chef to start contradicting himself.
It’s just past noon on a bright Friday in early September, one of the final true days of a fleeting summer. Much to his chagrin, Bella is fresh off a run to and from the Hawthorne Bridge with business partner Ricky Gomez, the award-winning bartender behind the restaurant. Now is when, with dinner service looming some four hours and change in the distance, Bella’s day kicks into gear.
The 33-year-old shucks corn and fries tortillas to make corn chips. He lays out equipment, scrawling and delegating tasks on a small white board tucked off in one corner, and otherwise prepping in anticipation for the rest of his kitchen staff, a group seven deep who will trickle in at various junctures throughout the ensuing two hours.
As Bella tackles the bevy of tasks, each repeated hundreds and hundreds of times previously, the spigot opens and the autobiographical anecdotes flow.
They splay every which way, and often reach momentary pauses.
A delivery man pokes his head into the kitchen; Gomez approaches for a word about a potential menu change; a close friend, and fellow member of the industry, drops by to catch up; staff scurry in, in need of a gentle directional push to get their shift underway.
Bella never strays too far and seldom requires a prod to get back on track, no distraction proving significant enough to sideline the points he attempts to illustrate.
The St. Johns native has manned a multitude of roles in kitchens across Portland for the better part of two decades: Paley’s Place, Jojo, Bullard, Imperial and Bit House Saloon. His language is as colorful as the menu he’s helped craft at Palomar, and his ever-growing social media reputation precedes him. He’s eclectic and candid, forthcoming about how he’s grown in this city, and how the city has grown around him.
Storytelling is second nature to Bella, whether or not he concedes it. But here, 17 years deep in a career which began somewhat fortuitously, he’s slowly noticing others want to listen.
The onset of Covid-19 met the height of Bella’s career in a head-on collision.
He was the Chef de cuisine at Bullard. It was the best food he’d ever served. The restaurant appeared on national radars, including for James Beard awards. Emails flooded in from the people who mattered.
But as the pandemic ravaged every inch of the food industry, Bella’s hours increased. He worked more than ever and saw his paycheck sliced down the middle in an effort to keep the restaurant afloat as a group of 20 chefs were laid off.
“I spent all that time in a basement with no windows,” he said. “I felt like I was in a tomb in Egypt or something. My mental health got really, really bad. Maybe as bad as it's ever been.”
He lived five-and-a-half miles from work. In deep desire for a decompression method, he started walking to and from work. It added two hours on both the front and back end of his already-13-hour day.
“A lot of times I would just walk home and try not to cry,” he said.
Reflecting three years later, as he repeatedly criss-crosses the Palomar back of house at a measured pace, he now knows purpose was extracted from that low point. It pushed him, however indignantly, to reprioritize his career.
During a time in which the national restaurant industry underwent what Bella called a “small cultural revolution,” he was busy re-defining his values. His level of tolerance for what is, and isn’t acceptable surrounding his career.
“Nothing will change your perspective faster than working 60 hours a week in a fucking basement,” he said. “All just to sit around and look at the books and see that you still lost money that week. That'll ask you what the fuck you're doing with your life real quick.”
Bella has resurfaced, and then some, since his time at Bullard concluded. In 2022, Gomez brought him on board to breathe yet more life into a Palomar menu that, while once viewed as a mere accompaniment to one of the more highly-regarded collections of cocktails across the city, was racking in more money than Gomez had expected. The owner intended to capitalize on it.
Gomez now represents one half of a working relationship which Bella called his most comfortable to date. And while Palomar was Palomar long before Bella’s fingerprints found their way onto the menu, he’s helped spur its continued expansion and evolution.
It’s an interesting time to be a chef in Portland, a scene that’s become increasingly diverse in the last decade. Through a fascinating social media presence, Bella gives his following a raw look at what that’s like here in 2023.
“I shit post on Twitter…,” he said. “For better or for worse, my social media presence brings in a lot of business, for whatever reason.”
Bella will post just about anything, but he’s gained much of his traction through multi-media posts that capture life in a kitchen: dishes he’s cooking, the techniques used for such meals, moments along the back-of-house line and whatever else his daily life drums up.
There’s a certain celebrity that comes with the role of chef in a city that’s making waves nationally, even if it comes with some baggage.
When his wide-ranging content doesn’t encompass his experiences in, or adjacent to, the food industry, they often capture more broadly the life of a born-and-raised Portlander — the good, the bad, the ugly, and everything in between.
Trail Blazers banter is, naturally, one of the mainstays.
He was elated when Damian Lillard was moved on Sept. 28 to the Milwaukee Bucks.
And, for the record, he’s not a general manager Joe Cronin apologist, but he wasn't quite as out on him as some of the fans he interacts with on social media. The trade that brought Jrue Holiday, Dendre Ayton, and picks to Portland further remedied Cronin’s standing, although when it comes to sports, Bella’s one to formulate his own opinions.
“Joe Cronin was handed a big steaming pile of shit,” Bella said, “and it hasn't gone well, but contextually speaking, what else could he have done? … He adopted a mutant blob.”
Of course, there’s still a publicity angle to it all. Bella knows his presence online, and otherwise, is helpful for the restaurant and its business, even if all he’s doing is, well, being himself.
“You’ve got to sell your ass,” he said. “You’ve got to put on the lipstick and sell what's gonna sell.”
As for what Palomar is selling, the restaurant is switching things up a bit as fall approaches. In addition to its normal dinner services, its pop-up rooftop taqueria will be replaced with a Sunday night fried chicken dinner as well as some brunch services.
There have been some changes for Bella, in his own right, as of late.
At the tail end of August, Bella launched his own Substack.
He envisions it, first and foremost, as a platform for him to dish on the issues plaguing the industry that has consumed half his life, and to help those on the outside glean what it’s really like to be on the inside. In other words, it’s a window for him to share how he re-defined those values a few years back, and what that looks like for him now.
Bella still feels silly calling it writing. As he put it, he’s not a writer, he’s just writing stuff. But it reached the point where a five-to-six-Tweet thread seemed inordinate, and since he decided to go sober several years ago, he’s had more time on his hands. This has helped fill it constructively.
“It's been a lot of crawling around in the dark,” he said, “just throwing stuff at the wall.”
The reception’s been a warm one. His first 100 subscribers rolled in quickly. He's worried he’ll run out of things to write about, but hear him speak and there’s a sense he could keep it going for as long as you’ll listen.
Turns out his audience enjoyed the two-part preface he posted to start the Substacks’ content rolling. They want to hear more about his story — the one about the kid from North Portland who grew up poor, dropped out of high school and later stumbled into the food world by way of a job as a dishwasher — before he opines about his contempt for various aspects of industry; a shared dialogue on some of those realizations he came to during Covid-19.
“I think it's specific to the restaurant industry,” Bella said, “that we have this weird, fucked up life behind the curtain for these people, and these people don't know what it's like past that curtain… Everything we're doing here is for a non-industry person.”
It’s in the disconnect between the two where his qualms so often arise. His goal is to be a middle man, of sorts. It’s a balance he’s still finding, just like his writing voice.
“The first 100 things that you do creatively, in any field, are just going to be a cheap knockoff of either your mentor, or the people who do it that you [look up to],” Bella said, referencing his admiration for the late Anthony Bourdain, who’s style he’s made a concerted effort to avoid imitating.
Bella never wants to be the guy on the soap box. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. The urge visits often.
He’s worked in the cooking scene since he was 17, and is still quite young by most measures, but he’s got a bit of an old-school feel to him regarding the way he’s traversed the industry, and believes others should.
“I didn't really give a shit about food, even for the first year or so that I was cooking. I just didn't know it. I didn't understand. I didn't get the appeal because I'd never really eaten food that was that good. I grew up poor. I grew up eating fast food and shit that came out of a box… Probably 35 percent of my adolescent dinners were a box of Kraft Mac & Cheese.”
Taco Bell was a staple, too. Still is, even as his palette has aged and adapted.
It wasn’t the expensive ingredients which allured Bella, nor was it the creative outlet the industry could one day provide. It was those little thrills, and the journey towards mastery of the simple things; cutting an onion, per se, but doing it as fast as possible, eliminating every wasted motion.
That’s what hooked him.
“I'm a bit of a boomer when it comes to this mentality,” Bella said, “[but I think] you should absolutely get really, really, really, really fucking good at cooking before you even think about like, now I'm going to tell my story and like, express myself through this plate of food, or whatever. That shouldn't be your concern for several years… You don't really have anything interesting to say yet.”
It took quite some time for Bella to start talking through his food. Even longer to start telling his story through written words.
He’s still adjusting to his eager audience.
— Written by Shane Hoffmann. Visuals by Linus Brush-Mindell.
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