Walking into a restaurant before opening feels like sneaking backstage at a concert. Getting in the door is easy enough but any minute now, we’re going to get kicked out, right?! Except this time, as we walked into Ataula, Portland’s premiere Spanish restaurant, it was Chef José Chesa himself who had invited us.
Portland Food Photographer
To give you an idea of what it’s like to enter a restaurant before opening, imagine hearing Tunnel Vision from Kodak Black, blasting. Here, let me help you with that.
Relaxed but busy, the Ataula team, dressed in uniform t-shirts and jeans are deep in prep mode. Servers are setting up tables, folding napkins and chatting.
Owner Cristina Baez is sitting at the bar, back to the door with long time Bar Manager Angel Teta. Cristina is trying to get her Son to eat dinner before service starts.
It’s as if we’ve walked into a family home, right before a party.
Turning, Cristina greets us warmly and helps us get to work. After picking out a table for food photography, she waves to the kitchen. “It’s tight in there, but feel free to go on in.”
Entering the kitchen, the energy shifts. The front-of-house music fades, replaced by a hum of concentration.
Large pots simmer to my left. Two Chefs cutting in focused silence to my right. A mesmerizing amount of control at work, through every rapid movement.
Paolo quickly gets to work himself, focuses on the vibrant colors of fresh peppers juxtaposed with hands and flashing knives. The faint, rapid click of his camera, marks our only intrusion.
Shortly after, Chef José arrives. Greeting us briefly with a smile and a kiss. He too goes straight to work. Demonstrating the exact size cuts he wants for the zucchini and potatoes.
One of the hardest working Chefs in Portland, Chef José Chesa leads by example.
Chef José and Cristina have a lot of love for the people who work for them.
Average employee turnover rate in the restaurant business is just over 72% a year. That day, Cristina pointed out several staff members that have “been here with us from the beginning.”
At the end of the day, as we wrap up to leave, there is a feeling of guilty pleasure (afterall we did get to eat the food) mixed with a tinge of remorse. We got to hang with the cool kids for a moment, yet we had not earned our right to be among them. We left with nothing more than our memories, full bellies, and Paolo’s pictures.
It is our hope that sharing these words and Paolo’s Ataula restaurant photography, shows our immense respect for not only for Chef José and Cristina but for all the Ataula team. Those who show up day after day and get to work.