Home is Where the Hearth Is
For Portland chef Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton, food is a family affairGabriella Gershenson
February 14, 2019
The James Beard Foundation is committed to supporting women in the food and beverage industry, from chefs and restaurateurs to entrepreneurs dreaming up new ways to make our food system more diverse, delicious, and sustainable. Our Women’s Leadership Programs (WLP) presented by Audi, provide training at multiple stages of an individual’s career, from pitching your brand to developing a perspective and policy on human resources. As part of the Foundation’s commitment to advancing women in the industry and Audi’s #DriveProgress initiative, we’re sharing stories from female James Beard Award winners, Women’s Leadership Program alumni, and thought leaders pushing for change. Through #DriveProgress, Audi is committed to cultivating and promoting a culture that enables women to achieve their highest potential by removing barriers to equity, inclusivity, growth, and development.
Below, Gabriella Gershenson traces James Beard Award winner Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton’s journey, from savoring the dishes cooked by her grandmother during childhood summers in Ecuador, to channeling those flavors to critical acclaim at her Portland restaurant, Ox.
Chef Gabrielle Quiñónez Denton grew up in Los Angeles, just a few blocks from the ocean. But most summers, she’d skip the beach and board a flight to Quito, Ecuador to visit her family. “At the beginning of every summer, I was like, ‘Oh man, I have to go to Ecuador? I'm missing out on all the fun!’” says Quiñónez Denton, who goes by Gabi. Inevitably, she would become so attached to her family and Ecuador that she’d have a hard time leaving. “By the end of summer, I would be calling my mom begging her, crying, asking her if I could live there.”
Her close-knit, multi-generational family was just part of the appeal. Ecuador is also the place where Gabi developed her love of cooking. Her paternal grandmother, Rosario Albuja, spent the bulk of her days feeding the family. “She knew what all my favorite dishes were, and so she spoiled me with what she had to give—her talent in the kitchen,” says Gabi. Some of those dishes included empanadas, a tripe stew called guatita, and yaguarlocro, a milky potato soup made with fried pig’s blood. “It's not like there were lots of Ecuadorian restaurants in L.A.,” says Gabi. “The primary place where I got to eat Ecuadorian food was in the home.”
Following 10 formative summers in Ecuador, Gabi went to study at the University of California at Berkeley, where a major in cultural geography and minor in conservation of natural resources led her to vegetarianism. Her new lifestyle brought her back into the kitchen (sans pigs blood), where she cooked plant-forward meals for herself and her friends. While at school, she also worked in restaurants, and loved the culture and camaraderie.
After graduation, Gabi started an unfulfilling job as a teacher's assistant. Still searching for her purpose, she wondered where she would be happiest spending her days. “I'm really glad I asked myself that, because I don't think I would have chosen cooking otherwise,” says Gabi. At 26, she enrolled in culinary school, and graduated at the top of her class. “It was so apparent that it was the right thing from day one.”
Gabi took her first cooking job at the now-closed restaurant Terra in Napa Valley, run by husband and wife Hiro Sone and Lissa Doumani. She had read a glowing description of it in The Food Lover’s Guide to San Francisco by Patricia Unterman, and was drawn to how the couple incorporated tradition into their unique European–Japanese menu. “This was back in 1999, and [Sone] was utilizing every part of the animal,” says Gabi, who had long since left her vegetarianism behind. She was happy to see foods like tripe on the menu, which she had enjoyed in Ecuador yet rarely encountered in the U.S. She approached Sone for an externship, was accepted, and was eventually hired. It was at Terra that Gabi met her future partner in work and life, Greg Denton. “It started off as a solid friendship,” she says. “It took a while for us to realize that there was something more there.”
After a few years, Gabi worked her way up to sous-chef, and Greg was the chef de cuisine. When Sone and Doumani were out of town, they were in charge of the restaurant. “That's how we fell in love, cooking together.” After a few years, they left Terra together, and went to work in Maui, an experience that ultimately left them hungry to make heartier, seasonal cuisine. “We wanted to cook food that wasn't going to sell in a resort-style vacationland,” says Gabi. “There wasn't going to be blood sausage on the menu in Maui in those days. Or sweetbreads, or beef tongue.” On the recommendation of her mother, the couple checked out Portland, and took to it immediately. “It was winter. It rained. It even snowed a little. After living five years in perfect 65 to 85 degree weather, we just fell in love with it,” says Gabi. “We made it to the last farmer's market of the year and couldn't believe what was on offer at the end of November. We decided then and there that we were going to move here.”
Gabi and Greg spent a few years working at the restaurant MetroVino while dreaming up the restaurant that would become Ox, their Argentinian-style steakhouse. (They also squeezed in a courthouse wedding.) “A hobby of mine is to fantasize about the restaurant I want to eat at, and to write that menu,” says Gabi, who drew upon the Argentinian–Italian barbecues of her childhood in L.A., where grilling off cuts like skirt steak and flanken took center stage.
The couple opened their first restaurant, Ox, complete with a wood-fired grill, in 2013, and won the James Beard Foundation Award for Best Chef: Northwest, three years later. “It really blew us away,” says Gabi. She was especially excited to serve Ox’s signature smoked beef tongue with ensalada Rusa, a riff on Argentinian lengua a la vinagreta, at the ceremony’s reception.
Ox continues to thrive, and Gabi and Greg have since opened another restaurant, Bistro Agnes, their tribute to classic French cooking. “It's the restaurant we crave,” says Gabi. As for the longevity of her professional and marital partnership, Gabi chalks it up to an early lesson. “What we learned back in the first days of our relationship at Terra was that we could not go home angry at each other,” she says. “So if that meant that we would sit in the car and argue for 45 minutes, we were going to do that before pulling into our home. We made sure that we left any issues at the door.”
Gabriella Gershenson is a freelance writer who lives in New York City.
The JBF Women’s Leadership Programs are presented by Audi.