In today’s episode, we speak with our guest James Porter, Arizona-born chef and business owner of TERRA farm + manor—a combined restaurant and rustic farm cooking school located in the Prescott National Forest.
With a career spanning 33+ years in the hospitality industry, including private clubs and boutique hotels, Chef Porter is nothing short of a creative visionary. Now at TERRA, he’s dedicated to employing sound culinary principles that directly support local businesses, farmers, and ranchers. Chef Porter always presents fresh, innovative menu ideas that still remain nostalgic.
Listen as Chef Porter talks about how he built his own food mecca from the ground up, his transition from apprentice to culinary risk-taker, and ways to bring innovative menu ideas to the table.
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Kirk Bachmann: Hi everyone, my name is Kirk Bachmann, and welcome back to The Ultimate Dish. In today’s episode, I’m speaking with James Porter, an Arizona-born chef and business owner of Terra Farm and Manor, a combined restaurant, inn, rustic farm, and cooking school located in the Prescott National Forest.
With a 33-plus year career in the hospitality industry, including private clubs and boutique hotels, James is nothing short of a creative visionary. He has received dozens of awards and accolades for innovative cuisine, including Edible Phoenix 2009 Hero Award, Best New Restaurants 2010 [from] Phoenix Magazine, just to name a few. We’ll get to more in just a moment.
At Terra, he’s dedicated to employing sound culinary principles that directly support local businesses, farmers, and ranchers. Chef Porter always presents guests with fresh, innovative menu items that still remain nostalgic.
Join me today as I chat with Chef Porter about how he built his own food mecca from the ground up, his transition from apprentice to culinary risk-taker, and his philosophies around cuisine.
And there he is! You’ve got to smile when you see this guy. How are you?
James Porter: I’m doing good, Chef. Thank you. That was very kind.
Kirk Bachmann: Very nice to see you. As we were chatting before we got started, we both realized we’ve run into each other. Chefs kind of do that throughout history. I’ve got to set the stage. You said one of the funniest things when we were just chatting a little bit. You’re in the beautiful state of Arizona. I’ve longed for Arizona for many years. You’re shoveling sunshine today, as every day.
James Porter: As we speak, looking out of my office window, I think it’s a little bluebird sky today. I apologize if that’s a little frightening for you.
Kirk Bachmann: It is. Yesterday was seven below and I’ve got two frozen pipes, and today it’s warming up to three degrees in beautiful Boulder, Colorado.
James Porter: Hey, we all have choices.
Kirk Bachmann: You’re not making me feel any better about it.
We’re going to have some fun today. You’re one of those superstars in the beautiful state of Arizona. We have a lot of people in common. Chef Beau MacMillan, Jon-Paul Hutchins, Chef Lee and more. We’re so honored that Beau tapped us on the shoulder and said, “You’ve got to talk to this guy.”
What is it about the camaraderie among your group – let’s just call in Arizona chefs – that number one, makes it so special to be there, and number two, that it makes it special to dine there?
James Porter: First of all, we’re just good friends. We’ve gone on vacation together. I’m leaving in 24 hours with Beau to go to a Naples Food and Wine. I’m sponsoring the Wagyu beef for his entree and a dinner that we’re doing together. Then we’re raffling off a big charity event out at our farm.
I think it’s the unique combination of a bunch of guys and there are some gals in the mix somewhere that are truly at a state in their careers that started at a certain point in their career that have realized the power comes in collaboration. The power comes in knowledge, mentoring, and working with each other. We’ve all grinded [sic]. We’ve all done and had amazing accolades. Now, inter-working, we are businessmen working together for the greater of the good.
I’ve got to tell you: there’s not a day that goes by that’s not exciting when you get to interact with guys like Beau. Lee is a super great friend. Jon-Paul Hutchins, we just connected. He was my basics instructor in culinary school.
Kirk Bachmann: I love Jon-Paul. You’ve got to give me at least one Jon-Paul story from way back in the day.
James Porter: Well, I wasn’t a very good student. Thank God we had a common like for the Grateful Dead. He put up with my shenanigans. I was a visual thinker. I remember him explaining how to flip an omelet in the pan, flip things in the pan. I remember, we stuck button mushrooms in a saute pan.
At that time, in culinary school, a lot of us already had experience. We kind of knew these things, so it almost was a refinement for us. We got down on the ground, and Jon-Paul was explaining to us how to flip an omelet in the pan through an acrobatic cartwheel movement that we were all having to do on the ground. I thought, “You know what? I like this guy. He can work with me, and I can work with him. This is going to go well.”
Kirk Bachmann: Isn’t it amazing, though? This is a true story. I was teaching early in the 90s at a small culinary school in the northwest. My first class, which probably had 13 people in it, two of those chefs are still in contact with me today. One’s in Austin, Texas, and one is out on the East Coast.
James Porter: That guy that was on the east coast, would this culinary school happen to be near Washington or Oregon, in one of those states, perhaps?
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. Portland, Oregon.
James Porter: I helped up in that new campus. I remember hanging out at the caviar station at the grand opening of that culinary school as a guest.
Kirk Bachmann: No way. What are the chances? That must have been, what 2000?
James Porter: 2001.
Kirk Bachmann: Unbelievable. Now it all makes sense. I’ve got four kids. The conversations we have are about going to school, regardless of where you go to school, it’s also about the experience. It’s about the culture. It’s about getting to know people.
It’s different today. Vocation has changed. The internet has changed a lot of different things. I’m here every single day, and what’s most important to me is that people are respectful to each other, and they develop cool relationships with each other. Because you never know when Beau’s going to call.
James Porter: You never know.
Kirk Bachmann: You never do. You know what? Let’s talk about you. I am absolutely fascinated. I’m going to embarrass you a little bit. You did an amazing apprenticeship after culinary school when apprenticeships were very popular. We’re seeing those coming back. My father, for the record, is a master pastry chef. He came from Germany in the 60s. That’s the only life he knew – apprenticeship, apprenticeship, apprenticeship. You had the honor of working at the Greenbrier. You don’t even have to say anything; you just say Greenbrier, everyone knows it’s the Greenbrier.
We’ll talk about butchering 30 legs of lamb in a minute, but, very, very respectfully, I had the great privilege of knowing Master Chef Peter Timmins. Amazing human being. Amazing human being. When you think about the list, Chef, of alumni: Richard Rosendale, Michael Voltaggio, Todd Warner, Amy Mills, Stephen Gustard, Jered Miller. The list goes on. And you. I’m sure it was rigorous. I’ve got a little-
James Porter: I’m getting goosebumps, honestly.
Kirk Bachmann: Are you getting goosebumps?
James Porter: It was a great point in food. It was a great time in education, I think, for me. It was an opportunity to dive into something raw and run at 150 miles an hour for about three years. I don’t regret an ounce of it. The respect and the relationships that we have within the alumni is quite amazing.
There’s not one of those guys from either the class that I was in or classes 25-50 years prior to my class that if you picked up the phone and said, “Hey Chef, I need you here. I’m doing an event, and I only want to work with Greenbrier grad,” that person would be there in a heartbeat. It is a bond. It’s an unbreakable bond.
Kirk Bachmann: We talked about it earlier. Richard Rosendale, Certified Master Chef was…
James Porter: Animal. Animal! Animal!
Kirk Bachmann: He’s been on the show. He’s an incredible professional. How did that all come about? How did you end up at the Greenbrier? Because you were in Arizona, right?
I was. I graduated from culinary school, and one of our other instructors in the class was an Austrian guy. “So now what, Chef?”
He said, “Well, you pack your bags.”
I said, “Okay, we’ve packed our bags.” So I went to Jenny Lake Lodge in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. At the time, Jenny Lake was owned and operated by the Greenbrier resort Management company. Then I got a call one day from Walter Scheib.
Kirk Bachmann: No! Wow!
James Porter: It was kind of embarrassing. I was a cocky young guy. I remember being in a kitchen. I was working with Paul Ramsey, my chef at the time, whose father was a pastry chef at the Woodstock Inn for a long time. Paul had been an apprentice at one point and was a chef at the Greenbrier. He kind of said, “Hey, maybe this is a good guy.”
So Scheib called and said, “Hey, would you like to apply?”
“Oh, apply? What is this? How does this work?” So I applied, and then I went down to work for CSX at the Boca Bay Pass Club at Boca Grande, Florida, also owned by the Greenbrier.
Then I went back to Jenny Lake. Then they were like, “Okay, after your next season you’ll be ready. We want you to come up to the Greenbrier and be an apprentice.” It was me and seven guys. We had a junior class. We were the juniors and seniors. Rich, I believe at the time, was our junior, but he could have taught the class at that time. He’s a special human.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah. I just love the stories. One additional thing: I have a little journal that I’ve carried around over the years. This was years ago. Peter simply said, “Best wishes from the culinary brigade at the Greenbrier. Peter Timmins.” Good memories. Good memories.
James Porter: You know, the words that I remember. I get choked up about it. The words I always remember is, “Be aggressive in your own rescue. Be aggressive in your own rescue.” He would sometimes yell that at us or simply lean over and grab you by your collar on your coat and pull you in real tight and close. He would say, “Seamus, be aggressive in your own rescue.” Then he would put you back.
After you’d get your ass kicked throughout the night, you would maybe meet down at the local tavern and have a gin and tonic or something. And if he sat with you – and that was then – it was a small group in West Virginia. We’d go out when we had a moment to breathe. But he was special, and he was a teacher. He was a mentor, and he was a friend, and he was an instructor. Some guys worked with him a lot longer than I did, and some worked less. The amount of knowledge that he poured into what we would do. When you thought you were about ready to break, he would push the gas pedal down ten more percent, twenty more percent. Literally, until those wheels were wobbling. Then he would wait, and he would look at you. He would wink, and then he would jump in with you, and he would help you. He would swim with you, and he would run with you. It was incredible.
When you hit that revelment, where you’re like, “I have been cooking at 100 miles an hour for the last six hours. I’ve sweated out five gallons of water. I can’t put enough fluids in me. I am literally sopping wet on a brigade of sixteen chefs.” Cooking 175 a la carte meals myself, or whatever the number was on our scoreboard – that was the big thing back then, the scoreboard – he would jump in. He would be your wingman at that point. You would give him instructors. “Chef, I need this. Chef, I need that.” It was a surgical dance. You would hold your hand out, and something would go right into it. It was a magic moment in my life.
Kirk Bachmann: Now I’m getting all chilled. Those are unbelievable memories. Leading by example by you, not behind or in front of you. Absolutely love that.
That reminds me, we started to talk a little bit about this gentleman right here. Maybe not as eloquent, but nonetheless a leader.
James Porter: A massive leader. I remember when that book came out, not a lot of people knew who Marco Pierre White was. Actually, I remember getting one of my first Marco Pierre White books at the Greenbrier with another friend of ours, Peter Schintler, who had worked for Peter Timmins in Ireland and then traveled around and worked in Baltimore Country Club.
Nevertheless, once you open up the first few chapters of White Heat, if you grew up in that era of cooking, it completely made sense. If you did not grow up in that era, you’re thinking, “Jeez, have I picked the right career?” And if you’ve picked up the book anytime recently, you’re like, “How does that happen?”
I was sitting in my first restaurant, Tapino Kitchen & Wine Bar circa 2004 and heard that Marco Pierre was coming to Washington, to the Pacific Northwest to do a book signing tour. I forget the darling chef up there at the time who had a bunch of restaurants. So I called this restaurant after service one night. It was about one o’clock, two o’clock in the morning. I had cleaned the kitchen up and was getting ready to go home, had a couple glasses of wine in me. I called the chef.
I said, “Hey listen, Chef. I’ve got a restaurant down in Arizona. I heard that Marco was coming to town.”
He said, “Yeah, it’s sold out.”
I’m like, “Aw man! One of the greatest guys that I’ve always wanted to see. Marco Pierre White. It would be great to hang out with him.”
He’s like, “Chef, just come up. Don’t worry about a thing. Get on a plane and come up.”
So I booked a red eye. Flew up two days later. I landed at seven o’clock in the morning and literally did a tasting around town for about nine hours before I got to the dinner.
Arrived at the dinner and walked in, and there’s Marco. He’s a big guy. He’s got that aura and presence and kind of “F-you” about him that is just cool. He looked at me and he goes, “Oh. So you’re the bloke that flew in, huh?”
I said, “Yeah, Chef.”
He goes, “Sit right here.” So I sat right down next to Marco. We had dinner together. He signed my book. It says, “He flew in. -MPW”
At the end of the night, he says, “Boys? How about we go around town and eat?” So we literally roamed around Seattle, Washington until about sunrise in the morning through the fish market with Marco Pierre, eating, drinking, smoking. It was an absolute epic time. He was the most gracious human in the world. Gracious human in the world. Talking about his studies. Was never braggadocious. Never got into whatever. Just talked about foundation. That was great.
Kirk Bachmann: I just love it. You said something about the gracious state of Washington. Thierry? Thierry? Chef Thierry used to wear a beautiful top hat.
James Porter: No, not him.
Kirk Bachmann: No.
James Porter: I want to say Mark or Matt. He had four or five restaurants in about 2004 or 2005, he won best chef of that area. He was a nice guy, too.
Kirk Bachmann: Super quick story about this. This is actually a menu. I was in Dublin with my wife for her birthday. We were walking around, and I was telling her similar stories. I was telling her about Marco Pierre White.
James Porter: They’re hard to believe.
Kirk Bachmann: Yeah! And we’re walking down the street, and I look across the street, and it was like I’d seen a ghost. Marco Pierre White Steakhouse had just opened up. Literally, it couldn’t have been more serendipitous. I didn’t know that, so we couldn’t get in that night, but we got in the next night. He wasn’t there, but they gave me the menu, and it was spectacular. As if he was there.
James Porter: He has an aura. Guys of that time, you look at Pierre Koffmann, the Roux Brothers. Guys that really set generations up for success. Look at Hartmut Handke, Hermann Rusch.
Kirk Bachmann: Oh, the names! I’m getting chills. I love this.
James Porter: it was my winter off of my apprenticeship. We were in a room, and we were doing our platter judging, our last platter judging before we went away for our fall for a couple of months. Timmins looked at me.
I had been working in the Virgin Islands, down in St. John. I wanted to do this goat platter. So I was taking it to the next extreme. Out at the butcher’s house, I was raising the goat because I wanted to slaughter this goat for the platter. Everybody was like, “That’s next level. That’s next level.” I said, “We’re going to slaughter this goat.”
Hartmut was one of our coaches and Lawrence McFadden and Johnny Johnstone. These guys would come and judge our stuff. We sat down for our platter, and Peter – the whole year – he looked at me, and was like, “Seamus. Nobody eats goat. Nobody eats goat.” He was dogging me on this platter.
Then in the final judging, Hartmut was in there, and he looked at me. In his accent, he said something to the effect of, “I’m glad you did something other than the normal stuff like lamb or beef or pork.” He says, “Goat really impresses me.” I remember looking at Peter and going like this! And he nodded. That was the joke. Porter’s goat platter, the whole time. I think there was a little twinkle in Peter’s eye for a second. “Okay, you got me.”
Kirk Bachmann: Got you! But humbled enough to be able to admit that.
I love the names. John Johnstone. Oh my gosh! He was at the Broadmoor for a while. Lawrence McFadden. Was there…is there better talent?
James Porter: The Duquesne Club was…
Kirk Bachmann: Pumping them out. Yeah.
James Porter: When people look at what Charlie Trotter was doing years in life, that was great, but there were guys like Lawrence McFadden that were doing it years before. Everything that we did during our apprenticeship revolved around technique, execution, and stamina, but we also trained and practiced to help assist Mark Lombardini and these guys going to the Culinary Olympics in Kochkunst, in Germany. It was a training thing.
Kirk Bachmann: Let’s talk a little bit about how your career, then, progressed. Then we’ll get to Terra. You’ve shared some of the names. You’ve worked at a dozen resorts, and then ended up in Arizona. Petite Maison. I’d love to hear you. You’re already smiling. I love the name. Let’s talk about that a little bit, then we’ll jump in to Terra.
James Porter: Well, my first dip in the restaurant business, I was trying to open up a restaurant right next to Higgins, Greg Higgins, up on the South Park Blocks, the old Macheezmo Mouse space that was on the south.
Kirk Bachmann: I know Greg. I know Greg. Wow.
James Porter: I was trying to open up a restaurant up there, and realized that I didn’t know anybody and couldn’t get any capital. Moved back to Arizona. I remember laying in bed. Somebody FedEx-ed me the lease. Didn’t even read it. Just turned to the last page, signed the last page, put the lease in a FedEx envelope, sent it back, and started my first restaurant, Tapino Kitchen and Wine Bar. Fifty wines by the glass, global tapas. It was cutting edge. Everything in that restaurant was something I could look back now and go, “Wow!” We were earlier in the game on some things.
Six years later in 2008, I went bankrupt. I lost everything that I had. Bankrupt. Gone. It was during the financial crisis, and quite honestly, it was a bad business model on my part as a chef. It was hell fun, and we had a blast, and we poured Chateau d’Yquem by the glass. Wines that nobody’s got any common sense to do because I just wanted to get and expose people to some really cool stuff.
My resurgence as a Phoenician, the Phoenician will rise again. I found this old beat up adobe building in downtown Scottsdale. We opened up Petite Maison. Classic French bistro, my two best friends, two good buddies of mine. Both Matt Carter and Christopher Gross owned and have French restaurants. I thought, “I want to do something a little bit different than what they do.” They are all very geographically spread apart. It was great. It had eight seats at the bar, 20 seats inside, 60 seats out on the patio. We cranked out numbers.
We worked in a space that was probably the size of your office with two stoves that I got from Le Cordon Culinary School when they did their capital expense remodel. Somebody called me and said, “Hey, do you want to buy some equipment?”
I thought, “God, it’s probably been cleaned a thousand times. This s*** is spotless!” I said, “How’s $250 a stove?”
They said, “Come and get them.”
Kirk Bachmann: Oh my gosh!
James Porter: I thought, “How apropos is that?” It was great. In 2014, walked in, made an offer. Usually the only way to make money in the restaurant business is burn it down or sell it. I’ve been tempted. I took the sell part, moved to Wisconsin with an old GM from the Biltmore in Miami, opened up and did some hotel consulting for a few years. During that time, started what is now this mecca, Disneyland of cool stuff we’re working on.
Kirk Bachmann: Before we jump into that, I’m just curious. If you don’t mind sharing, you went from the pinnacle of culinary training and apprenticeship. You went to culinary school, but an apprenticeship at the Greenbrier. That’s about as 90-degree as you get. This is how you do it.
James Porter: It was.
Kirk Bachmann: Then you became a risk-taker. Talk about that a little bit.
James Porter: In between that, I left the Greenbrier. Remember, we did our final show presentation. You stayed up for like five days. I can show you pictures, and it looks like I was living on the streets in Seattle. It was due to no sleep. You would literally go three days without sleep and still operate at 100 percent. When you had sleep, you’re at least at 110, 120.
My first chef job was at the Arizona Biltmore. I moved out here. I remember, I was working with the executive chef, Geoffrey Cousineau. Super great guy. I said, “Listen, I don’t care what you pay me. I honestly don’t care what you pay me, because I will out-work every single human in this hotel, and I will outperform every single human in this hotel. Give me 30 days, and you will see an instantaneous return on it.”
On Day 31, they called me up into the office and said, “We’re not looking for an interim chef anymore. We know that we’ve got our chef here.”
I said, “Of course you do.” They brought me on.
Kirk Bachmann: Great story.
James Porter: From there, I went and worked for Steve Wynn and opened the Beau Rivage Casino. Brought in a whole bunch of Greenbrier alumni to help me open up that. Some are still down there.
You get to a point, I ended up back down at the Biltmore in Miami, working down there in the early 2000s in California during ‘99. Quick stint in New Jersey with great chef Tony Wall from the Grand Hyatt in New York. Opened up his own place and a bunch of guys went and helped him open it up.
I remember the moment I was sitting in Miami and I was on Telemundo Television. If you know anything about Telemundo, it’s definitely not English-speaking television. I was giving it my all. I was hacking through the best Spanglish chef-speak, kitchen talk that I could get down. In between that, they were bleeping the words. I don’t know if people thought I was cussing, or if they just thought I was really bad at speaking Spanish, but it worked.
I took a restaurant that was a unique concept at the time, a big exhibition kitchen, and grew it to two-and-a-half million in about a year from about a million dollars. I thought to myself, “I can work. The Greenbrier has prepared me for the mental strain of what comes at you. I’m doing 90-hour workweeks no problem. That doesn’t bother me.” I went to the ownership. I said, “Listen, I’ve made you some cash. Would you like to invest in me, or I’ve got to go?”
“Listen, we would.”
I said, “I’m going to Portland, Oregon.”
They said, “Portland, Oregon!”
I said, “Yeah. I found a gal. I’m going to Portland, Oregon and I’m going to go open a restaurant.”
So I moved there. They didn’t want to do anything. I ground it out there for about a year, trying all sorts of fun stuff. I just remember being there, and I was trying to open up a restaurant at the South Park Blocks right there at that Macheezmo Mouse. I couldn’t get anything going.
Finally, I woke up, found a spot online in Arizona, and said, “Send me the lease.” I honestly, Kirk, I didn’t even read the lease. I opened it up, signed my name, did a personal guarantee, shipped it back. I thought, “Here we go.”
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. I love it. I love the authentic enthusiasm. That’s what defines you. I could just sit here and listen to you talk for hours.
Let’s talk about Terra. I have to set the stage. Everybody’s got this dream. I was telling you before we got on, that my wife gets on me a lot because we live in Boulder, Colorado, and when we get away, I like to go to Jackson Hole. I like to go to Montana. I like to go to central Oregon. I like to go to Arizona. What you have built here – and we’ll let you do this in your words – but Terra Farm and Manor: it’s a chef’s dream. Hell, it’s anyone’s dream. Big ranch. Chef-orchestrated meals and beverages. Interactive farm activities. It’s a farm/ranch. I’m seeing horses. My twelve-year-old boy, Joseph Henry, dreams. I showed him your website. He was just, “Let’s go, Dad!”
James Porter: We are accepting applications for young apprentices.
Kirk Bachmann: He’s a tough kid. Was this all-inclusive resort idea always brewing for you? It’s fascinating. “You come to us. Park your car, because we’ll take care of the rest.”
James Porter: Back pedal a little bit. I had sold the restaurant, Petite Maison, and moved to Wisconsin. Literally right before I had left, a gentleman that I had some interaction with walked in and said, “Hey, I got your number from not only the culinary school across the street” – which was Le Cordon Bleu – “but a mutual relative. I want to meet with you and talk to you about something I’ve got going.”
He came. He said, “Take a ride with me. Let’s go up to Prescott. I want to show you something.” We got a car. We drove up to Prescott. He showed me this property. He is my current business partner. He drove me up to this ranch property that was half done and half not done. He said, “You got any ideas what we could do with this?” I almost had an aneurysm.
“Ideas?!” He’s a good mentor. We’re business partners in this. He’s given me the ability to do something as wacky and as crazy as that. I think he’s as wacky and as crazy as I am. He’s a numbers guy, and I’m a creative guy. We met in the middle. He mentors me on my business acumen and the things that I want to learn. As chefs, when you get into this, you’re not a businessperson. You don’t know it. You make a lot of financial mistakes. That’s why you make no money. Then you finally realize, “If we tweak it and I learn a little bit, we can do better.”
He’d ask me, “What do you think you do for it?”
I said, “Listen. Whatever we do, I made a handshake deal with a previous friend of mine to open a project up in Wisconsin. I’ve got to put that [first].”
He said, “Whenever you’re ready. You let me know. The moment you’re ready to do something, we’ll do it.”
I was up there six months, came back, and reversed where I was living in consulting and started the project. Selfishly, everything is designed around me. It is designed, wholeheartedly, for every ounce of sweat that I’ve put into this career my entire life. It’s everything that I want out of it. It’s everything. It’s a chef’s place to go. If you were sitting there, you’d be like, “A little menu RDs. A little moist towel to wipe my hands. Look, there’s a little lemon bowl to soak my fingers in after eating the shrimp cocktail. Somebody’s parked my car. They’ve vacuumed it. They’ve done every little detail from a chef’s perspective, diving into it, and then being able to execute it and charge people accordingly.”
Kirk Bachmann: So as you walk around, I want our listeners to understand the experience. You said something very important: “From the chef’s perspective.” Because the chef, the restaurateur, the entrepreneur, the hospitality person, sees this all day long. Curtis Duffy told me one time. His restaurant in Chicago, Ever, when you walk up, it’s smack-dab in the middle of Chicago. His 30 feet by 5 feet sidewalk in front of his restaurant is spotless.
James Porter: Cleaner than a whistle.
Kirk Bachmann: By design, so that when you step out of your vehicle, you’re about to enter an experience. I love that you said that. Walk me through. You can tell I’m excited about it. When you wrap up the evening, and you’re walking the grounds, you’re walking the kitchen, is it just constant? “Oh, starting tomorrow we’re going to do this. I’m going to get new golf carts that are designed after vehicles for guests to take from the restaurant.” It’s crazy, right?
James Porter: It is. A lot of that creative process sits around with my partner. I get the creative avenue, but he’s definitely my support, tapping me on the shoulder. “Okay, let’s dabble in this. Let’s play in this. Go for it and try it.” As business-people, you get a lot of hesitance and [fear]. Well, if you can take that out and you can have somebody to help manage that piece for you that allows you to do what you’re good at doing. That’s what I’m good at doing.
My nights up there usually wrap up with the clients and the guests around the campfire, sipping a scotch, drinking a glass of wine, smoking a cigar, talking about the experience, and listening to where they’ve traveled and what’s going on. If there are any key things that they talk about, I can easily shift and manipulate. “Oh, you lived in Nantucket. Let’s do this.” I can incorporate some of our farming practices in there. Generally, all of the decisions as a diner and as a guest have been made for you prior to ever coming on that property. We do preference sheets. We do these dossiers that ask you a gazillion questions. Then, some questions just to throw you off, like your astrological sign. I don’t know. I just want to know who I’m hanging out with. Who’s out here?
It’s not that we’re sitting down for meals that are 100 courses. Everything is authentic. Everything is made out there. Quote – the farm to table. It’s a radio call away, and I have a vegetable out of the ground and into the kitchen in five minutes. That’s the level of freshness that I want it to be in.
Kirk Bachmann: But you’ve worked your entire career to get to that. Taking mental notes.
James Porter: It is those mental notes. The Ritz-Carlton used to – and this was at the Greenbrier, ladies and gentleman being served by ladies and gentleman. That was the motto. Later on, you can reference the Hillstone Group. If you were to eat at a Hillstone Restaurant in Kentucky and go to one in California, they’d be doing line-up at the same time. They’d be serving the same creamed spinach. It was like a mechanical machine. If you called the Ritz-Carlton in Calcutta, India, it would be in under three rings that somebody would pick up. “Good morning, good afternoon, good evening. How may I help you?” We’re the service industry.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. That’s TikTok right there.
You have a market at Terra as well, right?
James Porter: We do. The market came about from thinking, “Hey, let’s get some fancy pigs. Let’s get some fancy beef.” Just as crazy as I am on the food side, my partner was like, “Okay.”
He called me and said, “Hey, I found a herd. We’re going to buy a herd in Portugal. I’m sending a guy over there. He’s going to go hand-select different bloodlines of these pigs in Portugal. We’re shipping them back to the U.S. It will take about eight months.”
I thought, “Jesus Christ, I just needed two pigs! I needed two pigs!” Now, 1000 pigs later, a charcuterie business. I get help from a great chef up in your area, Justin Brunson. He used to own River Bear Meats, a little charcuterie up there. Then we started with the Wagyu beef as well. Now we raise about 1000 head of 100-percent Tajima Wagyu Japanese beef on about 200,000 acres.
Kirk Bachmann: I just love it. You know what I love about the market concept? It’s that opportunity for a guest to take a little bit of you with them. Whether they put it on their counter, in their fridge, in their bellies, whatever it is. Really good friend of mine and the school, Farmer Lee Jones. he’s got a beautiful place in Ohio called the Chef’s Garden.
James Porter: Lee is a dear, good friend. I was just on the phone with him not too long ago. A friend of hours had passed away. Had a funeral. I was on the East Coast. Lee called me. It was a group of chefs sitting around mourning and celebrating life. Lee called me on the phone and said, “I’ve got a couple stories to tell you. One year, Tony was so God-damned busy, he told me to, quote, ‘Pack up a Christmas tree, decorate it, and ship it to me.’ I had a couple Christmas trees growing out on the property, so I packed it up, I decorated it, and sent it to the Grand Hyatt in New York. All he had to do was take it out of the box and plug it in. It was fresh.”
But Lee is an absolute gentleman. Brilliant guy.
Kirk Bachmann: I’m going to start crying. He is that, and a great friend, not only to the school, but my family. I took my 12-year-old boy there in October. He just had the time of his life.
The reason I brought up the market is because he’s got his 400 acres there. The heartbeat is the market, which burned down a year ago. They rebuilt it. Beautiful community there. The market is amazing, and it’s packed. It’s Amylin, Ohio. Not a huge population. Outside of Cleveland, but the market draws people in. I love that. I love that aspect about it.
James Porter: I remember getting catalogs from Lee in the early days. They weren’t even catalogs. They were Xeroxed sheets of pictures. You knew that you had gotten…I remember back in the day when I was in California, I was like, “I’m going to order from the Chef’s Garden out here. I’m going to serve stuff from the Chef’s Garden.” I spent a lot of money with Lee when we opened up the casino, the Beau Rivage in Biloxi. We spent about ten grand a week with Lee. When I opened up, he flooded me with piles of stuff. He said, “Don’t worry about it.” It was great.
He is a pioneer farmer for this country.
Kirk Bachmann: Unbelievable. The Culinary Vegetable Institute, and the team, the 75 people that work for him are in line. The culture is there. It’s a community of service. I absolutely love it.
Let’s talk a little bit about your approach to food philosophy at Terra: the sustainability, the local sourcing, your collaboration with local ranchers, your inspiration from day to day. I love this topic.
James Porter: It’s cool. I’ve been working a lot with the University of Arizona in Tucson with a couple of their professors down there. The reason I bring that up is because we talk about wellness. We talk about wellness in this industry a lot, for a host of reasons. Because of what this industry is. I think we’ve all seen results of pros and cons of what it can do and what it can’t do. The best thing to do is navigate down the middle of it and do the best you can.
But when you talk about wellness, there is mental wellness, there’s physical wellness, and then there are these things that you put into your body, and the wellness of the animal. Our practices are very regenerative that we do on-property. The whole property itself is self-sustainable. It’s all solar powered. There’s not an ounce of electricity that comes from outside sources. It’s all generated on-property. The animals that we raise are all heritage breeds of animals, so they’re not overgrown. They take their time. They like the long walks in the evening, strolls in the meadow to eat versus being caged up in any sort of pens.
The inspiration after I was chatting with one of the professors down there that we’re working on some projects together, is whole wellness. What does that mean to me? What it means to me is A) I get to work with great ingredients. I remember early on, you would take a carrot, you would manipulate it, and you would have to do this and do that to it, do 42 things to it, and add to it. Now, as I get older – and maybe lazier, possibly – or just smarter to some degree, how about we just take a carrot that today the Brix levels in it are the perfect sugar content? We’re going to pluck it right now, and we’re going to go eat it in the next fifteen minutes. Nobody can do that. Not many people can do that. Farmer Lee can, and Wade on their property. They can get away with doing that. I know Lee would be singing these praises as well. There’s a difference. And his is a business. Mine is a business. I don’t sell vegetables. I may grow a row of fifty items. Unfortunately, if I feel 49 of them to the animals because they’re not perfect, oh well. For me, it’s going out there and finding the best-tasting one out of that whole bunch and going, “Oh, perfect.” Salted water, a little bit of this, a little vinegar, whatever it might be. Serving the food.
The simplicity of the cuisine, the authenticity in the cuisines. It may have been John-Paul. I don’t know who it was, but we were talking about cuisine at one point, not calling it confusion. It’s not fusion or confusion. Just let it be! Now that we’re raising Tajima Wagyu beef, some of the best beef in the world, all that you want on it is a little salt, a little pepper, and just cook it correctly. Actually, that’s all that I ever put on the food. I don’t even put sauces on stuff anymore. Maybe a little olive oil. The pig, whatever it is.
The inspiration I have when I’m out there is the ability to go, “Wow! Here’s another angle of looking at our industry, folks. Here’s another angle of doing it.” Does it work on a large scale for stuff? It’s stuff. It can be tough. I know they did it at the Greenbrier. Rich started a whole farm at the Greenbrier. They were able to do that. For me, walking around on the property, what makes me happy is the ability to realize that I’m serving the best food at the best time. It may not be manipulated the best. It may not look like what we just saw last weekend at Bocuse d’Or, but that’s not what I’m going for. That’s not what I want to do.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. The whole time I’m listening to you, I’m thinking about what I’m going to say next. You’ve got this super cool vibe there in Arizona. A local guy here, you’ve probably heard of Bobby Stuckey.
James Porter: Bobby’s an Arizona boy!
Kirk Bachmann: He’s an Arizona boy. Northern Arizona. Good friend of the school, really good friend of the school. A lot of people I speak with. Bobby’s a runner, going to speak with Brian Dalton in a couple of weeks. He’s got a few restaurants here. He’s an ultra-marathoner. Curtis Duffy is a music and motorcycle guy. Which is it for you: Music. Jon-Paul. Come one.
James Porter: I’m a big music fan. You’re asking me the question, When I’m not working, what is my muse?
Kirk Bachmann: Well, I’m waiting if it’s music, I need the podium. Top three bands of all time. Go.
James Porter: Top three bands of all time: the Grateful Dead, the Grateful Dead, Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Kirk Bachmann: I’m right with you! Can I tell you a funny story? Years ago, my family had a restaurant and hotel on the Western Slopes. Think Crested Butte, Colorado, that area there. My parents are European. I was away at college. A buddy of mine who apprenticed at the Broadmoor was running the kitchen of our restaurant.
James Porter: With Ziggy!
Kirk Bachmann: Ziggy! Ziggy! Yeah. My dad introduced me to Zig. Oh my gosh! God, I love this conversation!
James Porter: I could tell you a crazy story, but I won’t.
Kirk Bachmann: My kids are going to listen to this.
I’m at the University of Oregon, going to school. I might have been a sophomore. I call. “How’s it going?”
“Well, Keith’s not here.” Keith’s the chef.
“Where’s Keith?” Summer, it’s busy.
“He went to go see some dead people in Telluride.” Like I know exactly.
James Porter: Great show.
Kirk Bachmann: Great show!
James Porter: Ziggy was a little upset. I literally flew up there when we were opening the casino at the Beau Rivage. I flew up there, and my good friend, Peter Schintler was the executive chef of the Penrose Room. Two other apprentices were his sous chefs under him, and then it was all Europeans that he had brought over. He was from Ireland. Through Peter Timmins and whatever. I went over there, and I was like, “Peter, I want your whole team. We’re moving your whole team to Biloxi, Mississippi.”
“Yeah. We’re hiring everybody.” So we hired everybody. They had to shut the Penrose Room down for a couple months. Ziggy got on a plane and flew down to Mississippi and had gone after our executive chef. “What are you guys stealing my staff?”
Kirk Bachmann: Oh my God, the memories! When’s the book coming out? Are you writing it? Come on!
James Porter: Honestly, if I learned how to write, that’d be the number one piece. I’d probably start with dictation, maybe a podcast. It’s a little easier for me.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. So many great stories. If you had to just share one nugget of knowledge for those who listen to their words, and they are trying to envision their path, their journey, what are you going to tell them?
James Porter: I wish it was an original, but I’ll steal it because I think all great things have been reworked a few times. The late great words of Peter Timmins, “Be aggressive in your own rescue.” You control your destiny. You’re the one that needs to push yourself. Be smart. Be productive. Be professional. Be respectful. And be genuine and be humble.
Listen. I’ve done some dumb [things] in my life and I have pissed off some people. I don’t do it intentionally. I move at a certain speed and pace that was the way that I was taught. It was the way that I was trained. But you don’t need to learn. Respect, you can give it for free. It doesn’t cost us, is my point.
These things aren’t something that you have to go out and buy. Just be humble. Tell people that they’re doing a good job. Tell another chef, “Hey, awesome dish. Do you mind if I steal it?” I do that all the time. “I love that idea. I’m going to steal it.” I do it with Beau. There’s stuff on Beau’s menu where I think, “Huh? I wonder where you got that?” There’s stuff I call, and say, “Hey, listen. Give me the recipe for- that smoked peanut relish. Because I had it on a dish that you made and I ate nine spoonfuls of it. It’s amazing.”
I think as chefs, when you are able to open up and just be honest and just be outright truthful and sincere, it elevates you in a world that you’re able to operate that a lot of people find to be weird. “[You] told him it was a good dish, and he’s another chef?” Yeah! It’s a f***ing great dish.
Kirk Bachmann: It’s okay. It’s a great dish. High five.
James Porter: Tell him you’re going to steal it and run it as a special next week.
Kirk Bachmann: And then post it on social media.
James Porter: it’s all about the execution and the technique. That’s the difference. If you do not have the basics, and you do not have the foundation, you could steal as much in the world as you want, but you can’t execute it. Be smart. Learn the technique. Learn where it comes from. Learn where it came from. The definition of the dish. Peter used to – God, the stories he would tell about dishes. He was like a walking journal. He would recite. He would tell, “Page 36 in La Rouxs Caster Maker!”
Kirk Bachmann: Escoffier.
James Porter: No, he carried a “Repertoire de la Cuisine” around. I think that’s the best book. He would be like, “Page 30, Chef. Look it up.” He would motivate you in weird ways.
Kirk Bachmann: I love it. Speaking of food, the name of the podcast is The Ultimate Dish. We’re going to leave our conversation after you tell me what the ultimate dish is. Could be anything! Could be a memory. Could be something you stole from Peter or Beau.
James Porter: The ultimate dish that I’ve eaten or the ultimate dish I would want to create?
Kirk Bachmann: Let’s do both.
James Porter: The ultimate dish that I had one time was in the Tabard Room at the Greenbrier. Peter Schintler was the chef there. We used to make this smoked salmon vanilla risotto with fresh English peas, a little droplet of Spanish sherry vinegar in there. I don’t know, at the time in my life, it was just that popping. Wow!
Kirk Bachmann: Would you say that if there was a stacked ranking of all chef’s favorite dishes, where would risotto land? It would be on the podium.
James Porter: Probably the top five. In your mind, you’re thinking execution and food cost.
Kirk Bachmann: Alright, what’s the ultimate dish that you’re going to create?
James Porter: The ultimate dish that I’m going to create is a dish that we’ve raised. It’s 100 percent Tajima Wagyu beef Denver steak. Denver steak, not a lot of people use Denver steaks. I’ve been using them this last year. Everything that I do, again, it’s just exploration of a different cut of an animal that reigns supreme in the world of taste, flavor, marbling, and tenderness. With Wagyu beef, you can use a lot of different cuts. It’s the Denver steak. Simply grilled with salt.
Kirk Bachmann: A little pepper. Maybe olive oil or not.
James Porter: That’s it. You know, I do like African olive oil. That simple. No sauce, no nothing. Just good food.
Kirk Bachmann: I just love it. Chef James Porter, thank you for an exhilarating 120-mile-an-hour chat today. I just really, really enjoyed it. So proud of you, and I’m happy we were able to reconnect, even though the years have been between us. Best of luck. If I can talk my wife into it, we’ll be down to see you.
James Porter: We’re going to work together. That’s how we do these things. You’re going to come and be a guest chef for the weekend. That’s how we tie this in.
Kirk Bachmann: That’s how we do it. I love it. Brilliant.
James Porter: I love it.
Kirk Bachmann: Thanks so much, buddy. Thanks for being here.
And thank you for listening to the Ultimate Dish podcast, brought to you by Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Arts. Visit escoffier.edu/podcast, where you’ll find any materials mentioned during the podcast, including notes, links and other resources. You can also browse other episodes and subscribe.