My Kitchen Their Table: Chef Chad Conley

Welcome to the February edition of My Kitchen, Their Table, an interview series with the chefs and culinary professionals who work hard to satisfy our small city’s big appetite. This month we’re featuring an interview with Chad Conley. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story throughout the rest of the month on Instagram, so stay tuned.


“It feels right.” That’s one phrase Chad Conley kept coming back to when describing some of his favorite dishes and restaurants in Portland. Whether it’s somewhere that feels “untouched by time” or “welcomes all walks of life,” the way a place makes him feel often creates a more memorable experience than the food itself.

It’s no wonder his own restaurants offer more than an excellent meal. The Palace Diner experience starts before you even walk through the door. With only fifteen seats, you’ll be waiting outside among several other eager customers. Inside, you’ll feel like you’re in an entirely different decade, but which one? Built in 1927, the original manufacturing labels and hood are still in place while the stainless steel was likely added in the sixties and the mixed tile work is reminiscent of the seventies, eighties, and nineties, depending on where you’re looking. As for the food, it’s familiar, yet surprising, and has just the right amount of grease. You can’t go wrong no matter what you order from his Instagram-famous tuna salad sandwich to buttermilk flapjacks that are so good Epicurious snagged the recipe.

Rose Foods is another time warp, outfitted with retro decor and inspired by a combination of a mid-century Jewish deli and an appetizing store. An appetizing is the lesser-known cousin to the Jewish deli. The two are distinctly different. A deli sells meat whereas an appetizing sells fish, spreads, and other foods commonly eaten with bagels. At Rose Foods, you can have both; whether it’s a pile of hot pastrami on tender rye bread or a housemade bagel with a schmear of cream cheese and smoked sable. In true appetizing fashion, you can also purchase containers of sour pickles, prepared salads, and other goodies to enjoy at home.

Both Palace Diner and Rose Foods are adored by locals and tourists alike, not just for the food, but for the memorable dining experience each provides. Whether it’s nostalgia, a glimpse into a previous era, or simply the warm and welcoming staff, there’s something about eating at Palace Diner and Rose Foods that just feels right.

THE INTERVIEW

AA: What is it, as a serial entrepreneur, that guides your decision-making about what makes for a good restaurant concept?
CC: It’s blend of intuition, inspiration, and experience. I’m not operating in a well-financed restaurant group that has the ability to put a lot of energy into research. The big ideas are guided mostly by moving in whatever direction seems fun and interesting at the time and doing a gut-check to see if I think that people will respond to that type of food and experience. I’ve been fortunate that my own interests have lined up well with the interests of Portland’s food scene.

AA: Where did you come up with the idea to serve a thick slice of iceberg lettuce on the tuna sandwich at Palace Diner?
CC: When I was working at Jean-Georges in New York City we did this raw fish dish with iceberg. I had to cut the head of lettuce into a cube and then sculpt perfect rectangular pieces from it and then we would drape a slice of madai on top, sort of like nigiri. So, when we started designing the tuna sandwich at Palace, we wanted to use that technique instead of shredding the lettuce or just using individual leaves. It adds a lot more crunch and height.

AA: Do you have a favorite menu item at Rose Foods?
CC: If there is one thing I eat often at Rose, it’s the whitefish salad sandwich. It’s different from most whitefish salad, which is usually really smooth and mayonnaise-y. Ours is chunky and very lightly dressed. It’s a lot more substantial.

AA: Where in Portland do you like to go out to eat with your family?
CC: Yosaku is one of our spots. We sit down and they’re pouring water and before we even look at the menu we’re like, ‘Can we please order a Kids Bento Box?’ It’s this tower of little dishes and a bowl of miso soup. The top is just the lid, but it’s also a shallow bowl. The middle has seaweed salad, edamame, and something sweet. The bottom has rice, your choice of protein, and a cooked vegetable. It’s inexpensive and fun for the kids.

AA: I heard you have a weakness for soft serve. Where do you go for it?
CC: The Dairy Queen in South Portland. It’s independently owned. They don’t participate in the national promotions you see on television. To me, it’s what soft serve ice cream should be. It’s thick, it’s runny, it’s just fake enough that it feels about right.

AA: What do you order?
CC: A small vanilla cone with chocolate dip. Occasionally, I’ll try something random just to shake it up, and everytime I’m like, ‘Oh, yea I should have gotten the usual.’

AA: Have you had Honey Paw’s soft serve?
CC: Yes, it’s really good. I go there when I want something fancier and more interesting. It’s different. It’s a little more dense. The flavors are really intense and they add fancy, crunchy toppings. There’s the classic and a seasonal one. I usually get both.

AA: Do you have a go-to restaurant?
CC: J’s Oyster Bar is a staple for me. I always get a dirty martini with extra olives. You get a full martini glass plus this mini carafe that’s basically another drink. It’s a lot of booze, but it feels like the right environment for it. It’s divey and luxurious at the same time.

AA: What do eat?
CC: I like to get a bucket of steamers, especially when I’m with people visiting Portland for the first time. You go through the ritual, like, ‘This is how you peel the clam, then you dip it in water, and then the butter.’ A lot of people have never done that before.

AA: There are a lot of places to get steamers in Portland. Is there a reason you go to J’s in particular?
CC: It has a little bit more of the soul of Portland. It’s on the waterfront. It feels sort of untouched by time and it’s also a very welcoming place. It feels nice to share space with people you might not otherwise. I like places that encourage that.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Editor’s Note: Since this interview took place, Conley began working on a third restaurant. Ramona’s is a Philly-inspired breakfast and lunch hoagie shop under construction at 98 Washington Ave slated to open this spring.

The My Kitchen Their Table series is brought to life through the hard work of food writer Angela Andre, and the generous sponsorship by Evergreen Credit Union and The Boulos Company.

My Kitchen Their Table: Chef Courtney Loreg

A new column launches on Portland Food Map today. Welcome to My Kitchen, Their Table, an interview series with the chefs and culinary professionals who work hard to satisfy our small city’s big appetite.

When it comes to Portland’s food scene, few people know it better than the very chefs immersed in it. Not only do they challenge themselves in their own kitchens, but they gain inspiration from their colleague’s tables around town. This got us thinking. How could we delve into the details of Portland’s best dishes – not just from the perspectives of the chefs who craft them, but from their fellow professionals as well?

Thanks to the generous sponsorship of Evergreen Credit Union, each month you’ll now find a new Q&A posted here on PFM. Photos and videos will continue to expand on the story throughout the month on Instagram.

In the first few months, you’ll see how Chad Conley prepares the ultimate tuna melt at Palace Diner, and where he takes visitors to show them the “soul of Portland.” You’ll learn how Bowman Brown makes Elda’s iconic lobster dish so succulent, and watch a chef he respects construct a dish that truly blows him away.

This series has been created with PFM’s new roving reporter, Angela Andre. Angela has a Masters of Arts in Food Studies from NYU, works in the seafood industry, and is a talented food writer and home cook. It’s been fun to work with her to pull this all together and we’re excited for you to experience the fruits of her labor.

So without further ado, here is the first Q&A, featuring Courtney Loreg, the chef at Woodford Food & Beverage. Check back tomorrow on the PFM instagram account (@PortlandFoodMap) for a story on how Courtney builds and broils her popular brisket burger. Then, stay tuned throughout the rest of the month to hear, see, and read about her favorite Portland restaurants and dishes.


Courtney Loreg may be from Kansas City, but she knows Portland’s food scene better than most natives. Loreg first moved here in 2001, shortly after Rob Evans took over Hugo’s and just before Five Fifty-Five debuted; long before our seaside city was named one of the best places to eat in the country. She’s not only witnessed Portland evolve into the food destination it is today, but has personally contributed to its growth and recognition.

Loreg got her local start at Fore Street where she served as sous chef for four years. In 2001, Fore Street ranked sixteenth in Gourmet magazine’s Top Fifty Restaurants of the United States. In 2005, she helped open Two Fat Cats Bakery where she assisted with recipe development and whipped up their famous whoopie pies. She then spent a couple years working side-by-side with Chef Krista Desjarlais at the beloved Bresca.

Today, Loreg is the Executive Chef at Woodford Food & Beverage. Established in January of 2016, Woodford F&B is an American brasserie serving hearty, fine food with a local twist in a warm and welcoming atmosphere. Woodford F&B has been featured in The Boston Globe, Zagat, Wine Enthusiast, and was named one of the best restaurants and best places for brunch in Portland by Condé Nast Traveler.

THE INTERVIEW

AA: You’re pretty well known for your burger. What makes it special?
CL: For me, the burger had to represent the casual, but more upscale restaurants I grew up going to in Kansas City where you could get a nice steak, but there was no shame in getting a burger either. So, I approach the burger the same way that I would approach any other dish. The treatment of the ingredients is special. The onions are grilled and marinated. The brioche bun is made locally by Atsuko from Norimoto Bakery. The pickles are housemade. There’s dijonnaise. And I make a cheese blend that I think is better than just a slice of cheese. It’s a mixture of cheddar, french cream cheese, shallots, white wine, mustard, and paprika formed into a patty that melts.

AA: It sounds like the cheese is a defining characteristic of your burger.
CL: The cheese element and ratio of meat-to-cheese is absolutely crucial. It’s gotta be, like, three-quarters meat and one-quarter cheese. So, I use a cheese blend and a slice of cheese. I have a tendency to go pretty hard-to-the-paint with cheese. I’ve never had anyone come back and say, ‘It’s not enough cheese.’ [watch chef Loreg make her excellent burger]

AA: What other dishes are you known for?
CL: I’m getting high marks for the chicken tenders (laughs). Which is also on purpose! I brine the meat and bread the tenders in house and serve them with my own honey dijon mustard. We’ve always said we wanted to be a restaurant where there would be no shame taking your kids there. You can still have an adult meal and not feel like you’re forcing your kid to eat something or worse, have them not eat anything at all. The point is for everyone to walk away having a great time and also maybe feel like they had a better meal than they thought they were going to. For me, I want you to be able to think “Wow, I did not expect that.” The whole idea of under promise over deliver I think is very real.

AA: How would you describe Portland?
CL: We have an embarrassment of riches. We have all of the farms and all of the things. You can throw a rock in any direction and hit a good cup of coffee or a good meal. You can go see a show. Go to the beach. You can drive. Or not. It’s very walkable. We have all the creature comforts. We’re doing alright.

AA: How would you describe its food scene?
CL: Portland is a destination and food tourism is a big thing here now, but it’s not formal. All of our fine dining options have to be looked through the lens of ‘Vacationland.’ People want to have a nice meal, but they also want to sit around in their flip flops and have their kids there.

AA: What is a particularly memorable dish you’ve eaten in Portland?
CL: I went to a six-course French dinner event at Hugo’s with guest chef Fred Eliot. He’s kind of getting known for pâté en croûte. He did a couple pâtés and one of them really struck me. It was chicken and sweetbreads and I believe it had morels in it. It was really beautiful and really delicious. I was like, ‘Wow, I never would have thought of that.’

AA: Have you been to any newer restaurants recently?
CL: I just went to Gross Confection Bar and it was really good, not that I was expecting anything less. Brant Dadaleares is enormously accomplished, obviously very passionate and driven, and just puts out delicious things. Also, I like the location. It feels very special. Every time I walk by there, there’s always people looking at his sandwich board saying to each other, ‘Should we do it?’ and you just walk by and you’re like ‘Do it. Just do it. Just go down there.’ [watch chef Dadaleares make a caramel cranberry upside down cake]

AA: What are some of your favorite dishes in town?
CL: Paulo Laboa’s pesto pasta at Solo Italiano. You can’t get out of there without having a great meal, but he’s known far and wide for this pesto and it is no joke. It is the best pesto pasta I have ever had. It’s a very refined pesto. There’s no textural element. It just becomes part of the pasta. It’s outstanding. [watch chef Laboa make his famous pesto]

AA: Are there any other dishes you think are the pinnacle of what they are?
CL: There are several dishes in this town that I think are absolute benchmarks. The turnspit roasted pork chop at Fore Street is probably the best version of that thing I’ve ever had. It’s something you’d never get tired of, even working there. I’d eat the scraps of it that were leftover at the end of the night. It’s one of those flavor memories that has remained in my brain. Any other pork chop is just a race for second place.

AA: What is another “absolute benchmark?”
CL: I feel like I’m stating the obvious, but… that biscuit at Tandem is awesome! I don’t say that very often. I like the savory one with local cheese, hot honey, and black pepper. It has great layers and it’s just sweet enough. It’s not bland, not like baking powder biscuits that I grew up eating. I’m from the Midwest and strawberry shortcake is cake! Even after the many years I’ve spent in New England, I still don’t understand the world of biscuit for strawberry shortcake. But that biscuit… I don’t think I’d be mad at you if you served me strawberry shortcake on that biscuit. [watch chef Briana Holt make her savory biscuits]

AA: Then I’m guessing you have some strong opinions on barbeque as well?
CL: Don’t even get me started on barbeque…

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.