The Chef, the Octopus, His Timer, and Her Starring Role

Ask del Alma Executive Chef Conor Claffey-Koller why he cooks, and he won’t spin stories about the power of fresh ingredients or how he’s going to change the future of food. He’ll say, “I’ve always loved it. It’s always what I’ve done.”

This is a chef who’s most exuberant when he discusses his four-event timer—“I can’t live without it,” he said. (He has three.) This is a chef who, when asked about kitchen tools, will nod to his chef’s knife and then turn the conversation to the versatile vacuum packer, a device that can speed up everything from pickling to marinades to octopus chips.  This is a chef who says, “That’s just careless,” to the idea that he’d have burns all over his arms. What really hurts are his back and feet, he says. Every six months, he gets new shoes.

The sensibilities in Claffey-Koller’s kitchen are of practicality and efficiency. The towels are neatly folded, but some are stained. The pans are clean but not brightly scoured. The extensive master prep list is hand-written on a smudged whiteboard. This kitchen prioritizes functionality, without being fussy or flamboyant about it.

From Pizza to Scallops and Sweet Potato Puree
Claffey-Koller traces his love of food to watching cooking shows with his dad and cooking with his mom, but he began his culinary career flipping pizzas in his hometown of Madison, Wisconsin. For college, he moved to Olympia, Washington, to study marine biology. He met his now-wife in the program, and her graduate studies brought them to Oregon State University. But Claffey-Koller found that he preferred the kitchen to academics, so in 2002, he attended culinary school in Portland.

Before he moved to del Alma in 2012, Claffey-Koller worked for 10 years at Big River, where he gained experience working with ingredient-driven, seasonal-based cooking. But equally important were his days as a short-order cook turning out burgers and fries.

“That kind of gives you the foundation of how to be fast,” he said. “You’re staring at 20 tickets.”

This experience comes in handy during the restaurant’s dinner rush, when none of the six to ten people in the kitchen stop moving. In addition to those cooking, a dishwasher carries tall stacks of dinnerware to and from a back room and an “expediter” calls out tickets as they come in and instructs the food runners and servers. Claffey-Koller floats among the stations, helping out where needed. At one point, Claffey-Koller and his sous chef, Daniel Mickelson, work side-by-side, arms crossing, to plate dishes, while the expediter calls out for a “follow” to help carry food to a table.

When the rush died down, Claffey-Koller said something to Mickelson, they both laughed, and Claffey-Koller turned to me.

“I’m sorry you had to see that,” he said. I looked at him, confused.

“That was messy,” he said. “Did it not seem that way?”

“Not to me,” I said. “Everyone seemed like they knew exactly what they were doing.”

“We pretend like we do,” he said.

Then he wipes off a counter. It’s
7:30 p.m. He’s not even close to done, but he’ll be starting all over again in less than 13 hours.

‘Preparation Is the Most Important Part’
As an executive chef, most of Claffey-Koller’s energy goes into preparation, which he sees as the most important element of a restaurant. He is the first to arrive at the kitchen each morning, around 8:30 a.m. Mickelson, the sous chef, will arrive around 9:30, and their prep chef will arrive around 10. Together, they ensure everything is ready when the restaurant opens for dinner at 5 p.m.

Today, Claffey-Koller is cooking usual items—simmering beef stock and some meatballs, boiling sweet potatoes for ketchup to go with the beef tenderloin and a purée for the scallops, braising beef brisket—but he’s also defrosting an octopus in a sink.

“It’s massive,” he said.

He had planned a single octopus special, but since the animal is so big, he thinks they can do more. First, they will char and serve the lower tentacles. Then, they’ll make a terrine—a sliced meat loaf similar to pâté—out of the upper tentacles. Finally, he’ll use the vacuum packer to make the octopus chicarrónes, “Basically an octopus-flavored chip.”

As he talks, Claffey-Koller is always moving. He’s opening two giant cans of tomatoes for the meatballs. He’s pouring black beans and water into a pot. He’s using two hands to lift the brisket off the grill. He’s marking a check next to each task on the whiteboard.

He easily describes balancing acid and sweet in a dish and rattles off the ways garlic and mushrooms come together with beef stock for a sauce, but when asked how he creates the specials, he smiled, laughed, and said, “That’s just creative work.” Or, he describes his training: “We just know how to cook. Over time you just learn what works and what doesn’t. You’re always learning. It’s not about how good you are, it’s about how much time you put into it.”

He moved to the other side of the kitchen counter.

“So yeah, I don’t know if the octopus terrine will work out,” he said. Failures happen, but he doesn’t want to “come across like we’re just throwing things on there,” he said. “These are things we’ve thought about and worked on conceptually.”

There is a matter-of-factness to Claffey-Koller’s descriptions that rarely breaks. Yet his co-workers praise his skill with local ingredients and creativity in presentation. And when the octopus is finally defrosted, and he grabs it with one hand and holds it above his head so the tentacles unfurl, Claffey-Koller knows what he’s doing. He’s putting on a show—though he won’t turn to face my camera. He’s more comfortable playing the role of chef and letting the food be the star.

By Maggie Anderson