One evening, I decided to look for the Field Dining Hall’s newest head chef on his smoke break which he took, in the grand tradition of off-duty cooks, outside, next to the dumpsters. As per friends and coworkers, he would be more likely to talk to me here. Whileoo preparing for my feature, I had been informed of his particular fondness for both cheese and nicotine, and had taken a journey into Downtown Portland’s smoke shops to find what I considered a suitable opening gift.
My gift of a selection of cheese-flavored vape pods was well received by the Bon’s newest Head Chef Ronny Ratt.
“Well to clarify, the term head chef doesn’t mean what it used to,” Ratt said, while puffs of gorgonzola vapor swirled around us. “Bolognese is still the big cheese, as it were.”
“This is the main chef of the Bon, Mr. Bolognese Farfalle, correct?” I asked.
“Yeah,” Ratt said, with a paw wave. “But because of my particular way of doing things, I get to be called Head Chef.”
“Because of the hair-pulling thing?” I asked, crouching down beside him and the large green dumpster.
“Yeah,” he said with a smirk. “Because of the hair-pulling thing.”
Ratt may not seem to many an imposing figure, but he assures me he stands a quarter inch above the average american rat. His gray fur sticks up at odd angles from long days under the chef’s hat of Farfalle, and his tail and paws bear the burns and scars of a long career on the line.
“I’ve been in the food service industry for a long damn time,” Ratt said with a grin. “Almost two years! And this is the first chance I have to really control a kitchen, cook my food. I am the master and commander here — these people put up or shut up. It’s what I learned on the mean streets of the Pearl.”
After getting his start at a pop-up restaurant which explored innovative uses of fungi and a successful tenure as sous-chef for the Portland State University dining hall, Ratt was scouted by Bon Appétit to shake up their dining hall’s culinary efforts.
“I think they needed a fire lit under their butts,” Ratt said. “They needed a new direction. When I’m up there in the hat, and I feel those sweaty strands between my paws, I know I can make that chucklehead do the grunt work. He’s not the sharpest knife on the block.”
Ratt’s partnership with Farfalle is the core of the kitchen, according to staff.
“We really work so well together,” Farfalle, a nervous-looking young man with red hair, told me. “I feel like I would be falling all over myself without him.”
Between menu-planning, running the kitchen day-to-day and having his own prep station, Farfalle has plenty on his plate. After hiring Ratt, he has been able to share some of the responsibility, and Ratt has taken over menu planning almost entirely.
“Every day I wake up, rummage through the trash, and just breathe in the scent,” Ratt said. “It’s my playground, my inspiration..
Ratt inhaled deeply after and I followed suit, the rich bouquet of garbage making my eyes water. Ratt seemingly took this as emotion.
“I know,” Ratt said sagely, “Food is just beautiful. There is so much feeling there — it’s gotten me through some tough times. The death of my mother, the flooding of my home, even my recent breakup.”
He proudly showed me a tattooed soy curl he got to cover up an old flame’s name.
“Camilla,” Ratt said, tugging down his stained miniature chef’s coat. “She was a crazy old bird. It could never have worked out, a chicken and a rat, but it’s still a sorry thing.”
I asked him why he was cooking so much chicken then, standing from my crouched position and stretching as he started back towards his personal entrance, a repurposed mousehole.
“It’s like free therapy,” Ratt told me. “Chopping up all those birds? Well, sometimes we all need that catharsis.”
For tonight, Ratt recommended the chicken tenders in particular. As I sit down amid the din of students, pushing aside my salad and crazy cake to dig into my plate of tenders, I am more excited than ever about the direction of the Bon. It is now in capable paws.