Chef owner Scott Dolich reveals a Park Kitchen classic and the creative process that brought it to light

EDIBLE PORTLAND/Matt Mornick

Park Kitchen, along the Pearl District’s historic tree-lined green belt, is a landmark destination for its seasonal American cuisine. For chef owner Scott Dolich and his team, it is a finely-tuned culinary workshop. Scott walked me through Park Kitchen’s rigorous R&D process and how it yielded a local favorite menu item 13 years and counting: chickpea fries and seasonal ketchup.

“In late 2003, right after Park Kitchen opened, I was working in the kitchen full time, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner,” explains Scott. “It was hectic. There was no real organization to the restaurant. Me and a handful of people were working really hard, nonstop. After about a year, my wife and I took our first vacation through Europe. In Spain, we came across a dish called socca – a loose batter poured into a wood-fired hot pan. Basically a chickpea flour crepe. It blisters and puffs out and goes well with a variety of foods. It was delicious.”

Upon his return, Scott tried his hand with the chickpea crepe. Immediately, things went wrong. “We stayed late one night and made the batter. Once we put it in the dish, it was evident we screwed it up. It was too thick and lumpy. We put it in the pan and it immediately scorched. I was tired and set it aside in the refrigerator to clean up later. The next night when I removed the batter from the sheet tray, it held its shape, which was unexpected. I removed the scorched portion, cut little strips, and put them in the deep fryer out of curiosity. They puffed up into french fries. The taste was intriguing. So I prepared the remaining batter and served it for the staff meal with some pickles and leftover cuts of meat. Our team was into them.

“We explored and refined the texture and flavors with different seasonings. Over the course of a week, the dish was complete. It proved a wonderful example of how a perceived mistake evolves into something that can be truly great. Once we put the chickpea fries on the menu, we couldn’t take them off. People love them.”

This first experiment became the backbone of Park Kitchen’s ethos. “Exploration is the heartbeat of what we do,” says Scott. “A lot of the work is difficult and monotonous. Ninety percent of the work involves countless repetitive tasks. Yet that 10 percent to experiment and explore makes the 90 percent worth it.

“Every time we conceptualize a new dish, a dozen challenges arise,” he continues. “Our chefs have learned to not focus on the challenges, but to think about the final dish, its flavors, textures, and presentation. Once conceptualized, they work relentlessly. When a mishap happens, we set the dish aside. With time, you see it in a new light — and that in fact, it wasn’t a mistake at all. And almost always we end up with a dish we never intended to make, but one people love.”

Much of Park Kitchen’s menu is guided by Sheldon and Carol Marcovitz’s farm, Your Kitchen Garden, in Canby, Oregon. “Sheldon’s vegetables dictate what we can do year round,” reflects Scott. “We have a little liberty to adjust the supply, but most of the time we have to take what produce is on hand. This forces a degree of creativity, but it also guarantees the farm’s survival. Which is fine because our suppliers have become an integral part of what we do.”

Park Kitchen’s chickpea fries are made from cooked, mashed chickpeas, dehydrated and ground up. The batter has an earthy, elemental taste of chickpea – an unmistakable light sweetness with a crunchy outside, smooth inside, and creamy finish. It has the mouth feel of the ideal french fry.

Scott recommends pairing the fries with a local craft beer, like those from Breakside Brewery. “Ben Edmunds is one of the most talented and intelligent brewers I’ve met. He is creative and well versed on beer. His Breakside Stout is malty yet light, and is delectable with the fries.”