Hot! Bob Pullen—Tattooed Food Cart Gourmet

RECIPES TO DIE FOR with Suzi Conklin

Tattooed chef Bob Pullen dedicates his life to cooking food that’s grown locally and cleanly, that is, without pesticides, hormones, antibiotics or genetic modification. His plans start here, with his food cart. And, because this is a man with plans, he has also got plans for more tattoos. Currently, Bob’s cooking and his tattoos come from two different paths, but there is a plan to merge them.

Bob grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, where Irma Rombauer penned, “The Joy of Cooking,” selected by The New York Public Library as “one of the 150 most important and influential books of the twentieth century.” Bob says that the only reason he’s a chef is to make people happy and, if his life goes as planned, food and ink will illustrate the journey.

His business card reads “Bob,” which friends think should be his company title. But fame doesn’t interest him. Instead, he calls his business “Know Your Food,” and though it’s clear he’s not crazy about the title, it aptly describes his mission. He wants to be on the front lines of the food revolution that is well underway in the Pacific Northwest, by taking his cart nationally. In the Midwest, where he grew up and where most of our food comes from, farmers still grow with corporate practices using pesticides and genetically modified, corporate-owned seed stock. Bob wants to host community food feasts in farm areas, serving locally grown, freshly picked produce and handmade condiments. He wants folks in other parts of the country to experience the connection between local food grown safely and the pleasure derived from the taste of such foods. “Those guys don’t get the same support as we do out here in the northwest,” says Bob.

When asked how a pierced, tattooed chef will be received in the heartland, Bob says, “That’s the point, food bridges all.” He sees it as the common denominator connecting people. But moving to the mid-west, or anywhere outside Oregon, is just a dream for the future. Right now, he’s happily ensconced in Portland, making elaborate French cuisine from a cart and catering special occasions.

As a kid, Bob loved food, but almost every night dinner was boring waffles or pigs-in-a-blanket. One day, he told his mom he wanted to make a grapefruit meringue pie. She took the bait, encouraging and assisting him. Even though his family made faces at the thought of it, they loved the pie. Their pleasure gave Bob the boost he needed. He immediately got the connection between food, and joy and hasn’t stopped cooking since.

Earlier, on the day of our interview, Bob had picked up some fresh pea shoots and lion’s mane mushrooms from one of Portland’s farmers’ markets. The pea shoots were for a hundred-person event he was catering that night. Bob’s menu included his own puff pastry with duck confit and pears, roasted beet salad and goat cheese garnished with pea shoots, sautéed mushrooms and braised buffalo/bison, which was actually buffalo tongue, though Bob wasn’t disclosing details. The bison would be served with smoky cheese, watercress and blueberry peppercorn sauce. This was just the type of gig Bob loves. He’d pre-planned and organized the food down to the presentation, leaving time to schmooze. He loves the whole happy scene of people interacting, while holding a plate of food that stops them mid-sentence. But, even though Bob dishes out elaborate French-inspired cuisine, he still loves comfort food. You can find him at home with a plate of White Castle burgers that he keeps in his freezer. Their secret, Bob says, is an infusion of steamed onions.

At one time, Bob was on the star track toward chefdom in one of St. Louis’s top restaurants. He’d left home at seventeen, shortly after getting his ears pierced and not long after getting his second tattoo. Both inking and piercing were taboo in his conservative household. He traveled all over the country, eventually meeting two chefs who’d been with Daniel’s, New York’s top restaurant, for four years. They were moving to St. Louis to open The Crossing, so Bob returned home to help them clean out the old building that would become the restaurant. He was hired as dishwasher. The dishwashing station was U-shaped, which allowed Bob to view both the line and the garde-manger section, where salads and desserts were plated. He was a quick study waiting for his moment. When the garde-manger chef kept phoning in sick, it took some convincing, but Bob assured the chefs he could fill in. They told him to make a salad; he did, and was immediately put to work. Soon he was getting trained for other positions. Even cooking school didn’t give him better grooming. There was talk of moving him up, all the way, but he was young and he had a brother.

Without hesitation, Bob will tell you how much his brother, Mike, means to him. The two are inseparable. Together, Bob says, each is “more complete, more powerful.” At seventeen, Bob worshiped his brother and his friends. When one of the guys showed up with a tribal tattoo, Bob ran out and got one too. It’s on his right shoulder is a native image of raven bringing light into the world. Bob was immediately hooked and soon he got more ink, another tribal image on his left shoulder. He hid the tattoos from his mom for as long as he could, but eventually let his guard down. Bob says it was the worse night of his life.

Mike was moving to Oregon to help start a snowboard manufacturing company in Hood River, and though Bob knew he was throwing away the opportunity of a lifetime by leaving The Crossing, he followed his brother and hasn’t looked back.

Today, they work together on future plans. Mike’s experimenting with bamboo growing, and he and Bob work closely on the goal of someday incorporating everything they’ve learned into a ranch for raising animals that Bob will braise, grill and sauté, while educating people about the value of locally raised food grown on the ranch. But that’s not the only vision.

Bob’s holding back on the tattoos for now and putting all his money into Know Your Food. Once he’s made enough money, there will be more tattoos. On one arm, he sports a tattoo of his wolfhound’s paw print. That arm is reserved for more pet prints. On the other arm, he plans to have tattooed paw prints of animals he’ll raise for food, including quail tracks, a bison print and cow hooves. One day, IF he ever gets married, which at this point he’s both ambivalent about and wistful, he’ll have a family totem down his back and his grandkids’ representations on his butt, just so he can tell them they’re “pains in his ass.”

Bob is working on an idea for a walk-around meal-in-one, from entrée to dessert, in an edible container, leaving a minimum carbon footprint. By then, he may also be launching a whole new food cart pod in Portland. If half of Bob’s ideas come to fruition, there’s going to be a lot of fun and great eats, whether he stays on the West Coast or migrates eastward.

Beer-Braised Beef Short Ribs

Serves 4

10 lbs. bone-in beef short ribs. Ask butcher to cut in 2-inch pieces. If not possible, use cleaver and cut, or choose smaller ribs from the store. (avoid Korean cut ribs). Trim off fat, if necessary.

3 tablespoons flour or arrowroot

salt and pepper

1/2 lb. smoked bacon, sliced in 1/4” pieces from one end of slices to the other.

2 TBSP oil for cooking, Grape Seed takes the heat the best, otherwise, use vegetable oil.

3 lbs yellow onions, sliced thin

1/2 C finely chopped celery

2 Tablespoons molasses

2 Tablespoons balsamic vinegar

2 (12 oz.) bottles dark beer

1/4 cup tomato paste

1 jalapeno pepper, sliced

2 teaspoons dry thyme

3 bay leaves, (avoid laurel bay, Turkish is the common cooking leaf. Bay laurels are medicinal tasting so, if you don’t have a choice, use 1 laurel bay leaf).

3 tablespoons cornstarch

Pre-Heat oven to 275%

  1. Sprinkle salt and pepper on all sides of ribs.
  2. Sprinkle ribs with flour (use arrowroot, if you are gluten-free).
  3. In a Dutch oven or any lidded oven-proof casserole that can be used on the stove-top, cook bacon until browned. Remove bacon with slotted spoon. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat.
  4. Add 2 tablespoons of the oil. Heat until hot but not smoking. In small batches, add beef ribs and brown on all sides, remove from pan, add more ribs and continue until all have been browned. Set aside.
  5. Add sliced onions and chopped celery to pan stir and cook until onions are translucent and just beginning to brown.
  6. Stir in molasses, balsamic vinegar, beer,  tomato paste, jalapeno slices, thyme and bay leaves. Bring to simmer then add the bacon and beef ribs.

Place in pre-heated oven and cook for 3 hours, until ribs are fall-apart tender, when pierced with a fork. Remove from oven, remove ribs to platter. Skim off any excess fat. Pour off sauce into saucepan. Bring to boil. Mix 3 tablespoons of cornstarch with 3 tablespoons of cold water. Drizzle into boiling liquid slowly (you may not need it all) until the sauce thickens to a thin gravy. Serve with short-ribs. Buttered pasta works well with this dish as do roasted potatoes. There’s enough sauce to pour over the pasta or potatoes.

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