If you were to make a film about Gabriel Rucker, chef and co-owner of Le Pigeon in Portland, Oregon, it might be called The Natural. Because that’s the phrase, usually interspersed with “creative,” that critics and colleagues use time and again to describe the 32-year-old Rucker’s way with ingredients. Only 25 when he was taken on to turn around the French bistro (formerly called Colleen’s) in 2006, Rucker wowed diners with his dishes such as rabbit and eel terrine and elk tongue stroganoff, along with twists on classic squab and duck confit. The very same year he was named Portland Monthly’s Chef of the Year and The Oregonian’s Rising Star. In 2007, Food & Wine named him among their Best New Chefs.
For the Napa, California, native, it was a massive turnaround from the days when he had dropped out of Santa Rosa Junior College (first the school’s math classes and then its culinary program). But the young chef just wanted to get out in the world and start cooking, which he did at restaurants in Napa and Santa Cruz, daring to experiment and keep his cooking personal, not imitative. Heading to Portland in 2003, he landed a spot at noted farm-to-table restaurant, Paley’s Place. And not long after, he caught the attention of Naomi Pomeroy, who invited him to join her Gotham Building Tavern.
It’s been a wild run for Rucker in just a decade. With the success of Le Pigeon, he opened Little Bird Bistro in 2010, where his former Le Pigeon sous chef Erik Van Kley is now running the show. The James Beard Foundation named Rucker its 2011 Rising Star Chef of the Year, and in 2013 its Best Chef/Northwest. And his 2013 cookbook, Le Pigeon: Cooking at the Dirty Bird was nominated for an award by the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP).
Rucker seems to take it all in stride. “If you’re a good chef—and you want to stay present—your style is constantly evolving,” Rucker has said in an interview. “I’m not pushing any boundaries. I’m just having fun with what we do.”