Customer Profile: Chef Dave Miller of Portage Bay Cafe

Bluebird Community

Chef Dave Miller of Portage Bay Cafe has jokingly commented that in his family, his career choices were entering the service or restaurant work. He’s only half joking. “I’m the first male in my family not to join the military in 7 generations,” Miller says. “Growing up I thought I was in boot camp.” He adds–again, only partly in jest–“The first half of the movie ‘Full Metal Jacket’ was just like my childhood.” Military life did not call Miller, but fortunately his family’s restaurant ties did. “I got started in [my father’s restaurants] at the age of 11, washing dishes and bussing tables. Through the years I worked on my knife and line position skills to where I could branch out and away from the family restaurant and learn from someone else.”

By high school Miller was quite certain that he wanted nothing to do with the military, but he still wasn’t sure if he would make a career out of cooking. So he moved to Seattle in the late 1980s, intending to attend dive and underwater video/photography school. He needed to pay for school and he landed a job at Ray’s Boathouse (still an iconic Seattle seafood eatery), which is where, Miller says, “Something happened there that made me realize what my true calling was. I never did attend the dive school.”

Food was, indeed, in Miller’s blood, he discovered. With the transient life of a military family, food provided a stable presence for family life. “We moved every 18 months on average,” Miller says, so being in a new and different environments was the norm. “We were stationed in several states, and overseas,” he says. “Cooking was always the way to bring the family together.”

Living internationally also cultivated in Miller an adventuresome palate. “I grew up eating foods from whatever region we were in, always a little different,” he says. “One of my favorite places we lived was Panama, my time there made a lasting impact on me. Both of my parents were great cooks, and they were always using the local ingredients no matter where we lived.” He credits his parents’ cooking for his inventive style: “I’m sure that’s where I got my creative spark.”

It is also, quite possibly, how Miller developed an interest in regionally-sourced ingredients. Although Miller is quick to note that it was Portage Bay Cafe’s original owners, Amy and John Gunnar, who “were truly on the forefront of the local, sustainable, and organic dining” movement, it’s a commitment that Miller has adhered to during his time at Portage Bay. He says, “It has been very exciting for me to work with so many small farms and local producers. We really take local, sustainable, and organic seriously.” So seriously, in fact, that the Portage Bay menu section’s listing of local producers is called “Eat Like You Give a Damn.”

Given this commitment to quality foods, Portage Bay Cafe and Bluebird Grain Farms are a swell match. Still, Miller happened upon Bluebird quite by accident. “Portage Bay was using Bluebird products long before my time here,” he says, “but my first experience with Bluebird Grain Farms was years ago while whitewater rafting in the Methow Valley. It seemed every restaurant in the valley was using Bluebird flours or grains.” Miller was already sold on Bluebird’s products, but “the fact that Bluebird is local and family-run adds to the attraction of the products.”

Portage Bay’s famous pancakes are made exclusively with Bluebird Grain Farms Pasayten Hard White wheat flour, says Miller. “We also feature the Emmer Farro on our Greens and Grains salad, along with other weekly specials.” He continues, “The customer response has always been fantastic. It makes our job easier to work with great products like Bluebird Grains.”

Portage Bay Cafe has been said to have “the best brunch in America.” Miller says, “Breakfast/brunch customers can be fickle. Some will eat their favorite dish every time, others look for a little more variety.” Portage Bay’s goal, says Miller, “is to be consistent with our standard menu items for those who want their go-to favorites, as well as being creative with our specials to entice someone to try something new. It can be a challenge to keep everyone happy, but that’s what keeps them coming back day after day.”

When Miller dines out, he looks to see what his peers are doing. Creativity always catches his eye. “It’s easy to fall into the mindset that everything’s been done before,” he says. “I really look for what’s next with food. Some call it a trend, but I call it menu evolution. Almost every chef has the same product that’s available, it’s what they do with it that counts.” With 4 Portage Bay locations in the Seattle area, Miller has his hands full, but also has the opportunity to exercise his creativity. That’s why you might find on the brunch menu both a Classic Benedict and a Dungeness Crab Cake Benedict; Shrimp and Grits; Oatmeal Cobbler French Toast. Familiar items, yet with a twist.

Portage Bay Cafe is turning 20 this year and to celebrate, each of the locations will be doing a pop-up 3-course dinner in December. Each location will have a different menu created by the cafe’s chefs. “It will be a fun night for all,” Miller says. Check Portage Bay’s website and Facebook pages for upcoming details.

Miller’s professional life has centered around food, and his philanthropic side leans that direction as well. 17 years ago Miller got involved with Fare Start, a non-profit that provides solutions to homelessness, poverty, and hunger by providing job training and real-world restaurant and catering work to those who struggle with finding or maintaining stable employment. “It’s a program that’s near and dear to my heart,” says Miller. “I’ve been blessed to be able to contribute my time, experience, and skills to them. It is truly rare to have an opportunity to give back to the industry that has given me a career, and to directly see the change you can make to an individual.”

Fare Start students work in restaurant jobs, catering, catalyst kitchens, and mobile meals. Every Thursday, Fare Start offers a 3-course meal for $29.95 at the Fare Start Restaurant. Working under guest chefs such as Miller, John Sundstrom of Lark, and Adam Hagen of Alderbrook Resort, Fare Start students prepare and serve meals with menu offerings as sophisticated as chicken terrine, as comforting as lobster mac and cheese. Of Fare Start Miller says, “It is one of the best things I have been involved with in my life.”

Visit Portage Bay Cafe at one of its 4 locations: Roosevelet, South Lake Union, 65th, and Ballard.