Steven Cook & U’ilaniku’ulei Vele


Words Byron Beck
Photography Tim Sugden

Sanctuary. It’s not exactly the first word that comes to mind when you think of a place to have a drink.

But that’s exactly the well-intended goal of Chapel Hill, already one of Portland’s hottest, and most inclusive, drinking and eating establishments, even though it’s only been open a few months.

Located on the upper end of Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, this darkly lit house of well-crafted cocktail worship, and heaven-sent vegan-friendly cuisine, comes from the same team that created Sandy Boulevard’s incredibly popular godsend, Church.

The mission statement for this divine drinkery with a missionary zeal to do the right thing states that “Chapel Hill was intentionally designed to reflect the values and makeup of the community through shared food, drink and experience. Each element has been carefully constructed as a means of facilitating community engagement that is rooted in inclusion, equity and safety: a place to freely embrace self-expression and celebrate the fabric of our community.”

And it doesn’t stop there. The owners of Chapel Hill are also spreading the gospel of their nonprofit organization, 1 Portland. A safe space, aka “sanctuary,” 1 Portland was recently launched for those specifically in the restaurant and bar industry.

Portland Interview Magazine had a chance to commune with co-owner Steven Cook, 38, and Chef U’ilaniku’ulei Vele, aka “Ui,” 29, about their personal and professional inspirations as well as what’s in store for Chapel Hill.

What compelled you to open Chapel Hill?
Steven: After being in the industry for a while I saw a tremendous opportunity to connect with the community and go beyond providing food and drink. I think there exists a lot of potential for enhancing and strengthening our communities as well. That’s why I like (Chapel Hill’s) religious theme. I think it calls attention to the similarities between religious institutions and restaurants and bars. These institutions offer an opportunity to connect with others and support each other through shared experiences and values. I love the idea that we can facilitate these interactions and encourage community involvement.

Can you tell us about the team at Chapel Hill?
Steven: The food menu was developed by Ui, who worked extensively with co-owner Jacob Gross, and the rest of her (female-centric) crew. It’s just inspirational and, in the spirit of inclusivity, they have made everything available vegan and/or gluten free as well. Kinzi Ford helped curate the cocktail menu alongside our bar manager, Rachel Stolfe, with a focus on being innovative, accessible, light, and fun. We have really aimed to be more cooperative than hierarchal, offering profit sharing, and making decisions communally. Ideally, our internal structure should reflect our values and strengthen our commitment to the greater community. I look at the concept of community as being comprised of the sum of many important and enriching micro-communities, especially here in Portland. I think we have a unique opportunity to serve as a medium for engagement between communities that might not always end up in the same place or feel comfortable in the same place.
Tell us about your non-profit organization, 1 Portland.
Steven: 1 Portland is geared toward creating a safe and inclusive environment within the (bar/restaurant) industry in order to facilitate the community engagement. We work with many community organizations, including Raphael House, on both sexual assault prevention and equity training (which is led by our incredibly talented Executive Director, Terralyn Wiley). Both trainings are workshop-based, semi-annual, and intended to grow and evolve over time as a result in order to keep the curriculum current relevant. Although we are aware that it would be impossible to guarantee safety and inclusivity, we know we are actively transforming our values into concrete action and doing all we can to create and maintain that environment.

Why start it, and why now?
Steven: Working in this industry, we can see that, at the heart of it, people need a place to relax, enjoy and connect with others. It soon became apparent to me that in order to enjoy those experiences, one must first feel safe, respected and represented. Unfortunately, it takes active engagement and commitment to those values to facilitate that type of environment. I suppose I just became excited about the prospect of doing such a thing, and it led me down that path. Ultimately, we’d like (all our businesses) to be a part of a much larger movement geared toward shifting bar/restaurant culture in such a way that it reflects the values we hold dear.

Ui, where did you grow up?
Ui: I was born in Honolulu, Hawai’i. My family moved to the Bay Area in California and finally ended up in the Central Valley where I spent most of my (early) adulthood.

What made you want to become a chef?
Ui: I kind of fell into cooking. I started at a grimy burger spot in Modesto and never stopped growing. I became obsessed. I knew I wasn’t going back to school. I fell in love with the rush and making sure that every dish I put up for my chefs was up to their standard, and eventually I developed my own standard.

Why did you choose to be a Chef in Portland over other cities?
Ui: Portland chose me. My previous Chef from Sacramento, Katrina Mattia, moved here to start working in a restaurant that her best friend had taken over as the Executive Chef. She told me she would give me a job and a place to stay until I could get established. So, I did. I packed three bags, bought a $92 Amtrak ticket and started working up here. The moment I got off the train I knew Portland was going to be my home. I knew I was exactly where I was supposed to be. I haven’t looked back.

What is it like to be a chef in Portland, Oregon?
Ui: It’s been incredible. I’ve only lived here going on three years now, but this is what I came here for. I knew Portland’s food scene was expanding and growing and I want to be part of that.

Can you tell me how you became involved with Chapel Hill?
Ui: I became friends with Jake…shortly after I moved here through a mutual friend. His passion for food and this industry matches mine. I was working on the line at Departure when Jake approached me and asked me to join him on this new venture. We collaborated on this menu which is inspired by our favorite flavors and foods. I appreciate him believing in me and trusting me to run this kitchen.

Can you tell me about the kitchen team behind Chapel Hill?
Ui: Queer. Female-dominated. Strong. Funny. They work hard every single day to make sure this place is going to have a smooth service. It’s also very green. This is the first kitchen for two of the people on my crew. I just promoted one to the line because she just gets it. The flow of service clicks with her. I’m excited to see her grow. She’s going to outgrow this place and I’ll be proud to send her off to her next restaurant and chef. They all bring something fresh to the table. I’m proud to work beside them every day.