Catching Up with Renee Erickson On Her ‘A Boat a Whale & a Walrus’ Book Tour

"I had a plan of what my life was going to be like and owning a restaurant was not that."
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Last night, I drove down to Portland for a 16 hour whirlwind trip (thank you Jupiter Hotel for the last minute accommodations!). It's not something I would normally do during the week, but this was important: an invitation to attend one of Renee Erickson’s book launch parties.

Erickson (Walrus and the Carpenter, BarnacleThe Whale Wins, Boat Street Cafe) was the guest of honor at a “food book fete” at Elder Hall—a charming new venue next door to its sibling restaurant, Ned Ludd, both of which are owned and operated by chef Jason French. 

People arrived at the homey space in Northeast Portland to enjoy some snacks (courtesy of French and crew), drink some cider and slurp some oysters. Music was playing, people were mingling and friends were made. And it wasn’t long before the night’s theme became evident. This was not one of those formal “cookbook” dinners where the author spends all of their time in the kitchen wrangling recipes. Nope. This was a casual, communal affair to symbolize Erickson's memoir-esque new publication.

To introduce his friend, French spun a yarn about how he and Erickson met four years ago when she came in for dinner ("She ordered almost everything on the menu as well as several bottles of wine.") and how her style and aesthetic deeply resonates with him. 

“I think this book is going to be the beginning of a shift for a lot of cookbooks because this is a food book; this is a story of Renee, it’s a story of her community, it’s a story of the people who produce for her and it’s a story about her love of food and cooking and also about the success with her partners and with the people who have supported her over the years.”

Erickson, who had just stepped off a plane from L.A. the night before, talked briefly about her wide-eyed beginnings in the industry. And even though I remember interviewing her not long after she bought Boat Street, it’s hard to remember her being someone not synonymous with culinary stardom.

“Writing this book was really interesting,” she said. “I’ve been a chef for almost 18 years. I bought Boat Street when I was 25. I was an art student at the University of Washington. I had a plan in mind of what my life was going to be like and owning a restaurant was not that!”

Erickson basically needed a job to help her pay for school and ended up getting hired at Boat Street. It's a story that never really gets old. 

“I had planned on going back to school, but after many years of running the restaurant, I was given the opportunity to buy it, which I did. I sort of just dove in and figured out I didn’t really know what the hell I was doing. Thankfully, it was before Yelp and Twitter and everything else, because it would be really terrifying to do it now, I think, as a novice cook. So, I bought Boat Street and did that for a really long time and fortunately met one of my business partners who harassed me to open more. Walrus and the Carpenter was a long-time dream of mine, but something…when you cook all the time and it’s what you do and it’s what you love, it’s really hard to step away from that and not do that, but thankfully after doing it for 12 years, my body is really happy that I don’t stand at the stove all day.

This book is basically kind of a bit of a look back and also a bit of what has made my life successful as far as a restaurateur and a chef. The thing that mattered the most to me when I started thinking about writing this book was not writing a book of recipes and not a book about the restaurants, but a book about all the things that happen behind the scenes: incredible artists and farmers and family and staff and people who really make my restaurants really important and special places.”

Erickson is currently jetting around the country promoting her book (which you can buy at any of her restaurants, most bookstores and online) and will return home November 4. And check out her Instagram for more photos of last night.