PIES de RÉSISTANCE
WORDS Justin Fields | PHOTOGRAPHY Tim Sugden
When you think of homemade pie, the first images that come to mind may be that of a pie cooling on a windowsill, or a holiday family gathering. You might also remember the sight of a family member chopping and peeling fruit, or their hands kneading and rolling dough, involved directly in creating food for loved ones. It’s just this kind of tactile and personal artfulness in baking that Brittany Jurj, co-owner of TILT, has infused into the remarkable menu of pies served fresh daily at two, soon to be three, locations in Portland.
This isn’t the first time this publication has written about Tilt. In a 2015 interview, I introduced our readers to co-owner Octavian Jurj, a master of marketing with a penchant for great business timing, and even better judgement and taste in “blue collar-inspired” food. Brittany wasn’t available for that interview, but it was apparent she was a huge part of TILT’s success. It was Octavian himself who praised his wife Brittany for adding the triumphant pièce de résistance (or shall I say “pies” de résistance?) to TILT’s already stellar menu.
Personally, I could more effectively resist walking into TILT on the frequent days and nights I’m nearby if it were just the fluffy biscuits made from scratch, just the burgers piled so high that they all slightly tilt, or just the amazing whiskey, beer and cider selections behind the bar. But the homemade pies made fresh daily?! I’m just a mortal man (especially in the morning), and the sights and smells of that pie case are too much to resist. Please pour me some of that house roasted coffee, and I will belly up to the counter for apple pie ala mode, more often than not.
With two established locations (one in the Pearl District and one on Swan Island) and another under construction at 22 NE Second Avenue near the Burnside Skate Park), TILT’s simple yet premium brand of food, “hand built for the American workforce” , has quickly made their restaurants and bars synonymous with the food and drink scene in Portland. Brittany’s hands-on, old school approach is one of the top reasons for that success.
However, you might be surprised to know that she wasn’t always so proficient in the language of dough and sugar. On a sunny July morning, I sat down with Brittany at her pearl location to hear how her baking skills went from poor at best, to full tilt.
Was it always your intention to go into baking or restaurant ownership as a career? No, I didn’t work a day in this industry. I went to school for apparel design. Shortly after graduating, I realized that my heart wasn’t in it and it wasn’t necessarily the industry that I wanted to be in. I didn’t even know how to boil water when I got married. Being a newlywed and having my own kitchen for the first time, it was kind of like having my own playground. I would just come home, bake, and try recipes and new techniques. My husband was super gracious to taste truly bad food at the beginning. (laughs)
Did you have a recessive baking gene, just waiting to be activated?
There was something in my genes, waiting to come out I think. Apparently, my Great Grandma was a beautiful, but messy, baker. She cared only about the final result and didn’t care about a messy kitchen. I think I inherited that gene from her. But honestly, my curiosity about baking started when I was even younger. My best friend and I, who are still best friends to this day, would spend a lot of time at her house, and her mom was a beautiful pie maker. We got to help her out in the kitchen and peel apples. One thing that stuck with me was watching her hands – so delicately – handle the crust. As I got older and started doing my own baking, I kept going back to her kitchen. She always used a bright yellow Tupperware bowl to do all of her mixing. Her apple pie trumped any apple pie, and always will, because she made each one with such love and attention to detail. Arlene passed away unexpectedly in 2011, but I will never forget her and her amazing pies.
So when did your experiments in your “tin playground” get more serious? When did you realize you could make a mean pie? Two years after OJ and I got married, everyone in my family signed up to bring something for the holidays, and I signed up to bring pie. I had never made a pie but I did it as a challenge to myself. I committed to something and I started working. I loved the learning process, and everything about it was very therapeutic to me. My husband would come home and all the surfaces would be covered with what I had baked and I didn’t eat any of it; I just loved trying new techniques and recipes. I did everything pretty much by memory. I always went back to Arlene. That Thanksgiving, I really worked on my apple pie and probably made 100 of them before bringing my product to the family gathering. My family just loved it, so of course, I felt proud and I just kept perfecting it. I really honed in on apple, because there is a fine science to the perfect apple pie.
Was there a moment when you felt your confidence had coalesced? Swan Island – our first location – was a challenge, but it was a good place to develop and establish our brand. I worked very hard at fine tuning our recipes there. Soon enough, we started selling out of our pies and getting same-day orders for ten more the next day. At that time, it was just myself and one other baker, and we were there until 2:00 or 3:00 a.m. each night. We just kept doing that, and at the same time kept watching the sales go up every week. It hasn’t slowed down since – that would naturally boost anyone’s confidence!
Has baking been therapeutic to you? 100%, absolutely. I have baked hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of things in my adult life and I just love it. You can always make someone happy with something you make and be equally fed while making it.
Have there been challenges along the way? The biggest challenge for me with my baking is that I did everything by memory. Writing recipes down in order to be able to train others was my biggest challenge. I memorized my recipes and techniques, and I knew what the flavor of the raw product should be before it’s baked. From there I would just start throwing ingredients in by hand. We make about 60 pies a day, and most days we have a line out the door.
Do you still have your hands involved in actually baking? I do. I was just in the bakery last week providing training on lattice crusts. I’m very hands-on with my teaching. We don’t operate out of a textbook, just the kitchen. You just roll your sleeves up and you get it done. That’s how I learn best – show me once and I’ll remember and keep perfecting the technique – and that’s how I teach others, too. Whenever we bring in a new hire or baker, I am very involved with the training. We still do our pies by hand, and I will never waver from that. Our tagline in the bakery is “cut dough, not corners” and I teach that. It takes patience and love to make the perfect product. I’m very involved with the bakery, because I love it. My other duties may pull me away, but I’m always drawn back to the bakery.
Did you and Octavian work on the menu together? We were both very involved with the process. We knew exactly what we wanted as far as a more upscale type of place – not a diner, if you will. Our menu has stuff you wouldn’t see in a diner back in the day. As far as the pies go, he would just be my taster and he would give me tips. He has an excellent palate, but he doesn’t know baking, so that was my area to define. It’s super fun because the two areas of our business that rotate in flavor are the bar and the bakery, so we do seasonal offerings, whereas some menus are fixed. It can be a surprise from one week to the next.
I hear OJ had a cooking table custom made for you. Is that true?
True. It’s a taller table and we make everything right there. I’m obviously pretty tall, so he made it 3-4 inches taller than your average baking counter. We all work together as a team and it’s a very special place to be. Some of the other workers have to be on a step stool to use it. (laughs)
How do you feel your pie program fits into the marketing ethos for TILT? We should have been born and raised in the ‘50s. It’s just very simple homemade comfort food. The greatest compliment that I can receive is when someone says that our pie rivals their Grandmother’s pie. Grandmothers never cut corners. They worked hard, used the best ingredients and didn’t over complicate recipes. They just kept it simple, delicious and generous. That formula worked 70 years ago and it still works great for us today.
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