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Chef opts for lower-profile life but still causes quite a stir

Kitchen ace Robert Wagner makes meals at mom's retirement home

The McCormick and Schmick's executive chef is cooking for his mother now. And for 200 of her newfound friends.

The dining rooms at Beaverton's Hearthstone at Murrayhill 'retirement community' Ñ rooms filled this noontime with silver-haired folks who've seen plenty of Jell-O molds in their day Ñ are abuzz. It's a tough crowd to please. But Robert Wagner seems to be pleasing beyond all belief.

'Robert is the best,' says Eleonore Margolin, who marvels at Wagner's salmon and cod and tries to be delicate about the quality of food at Hearthstone before last month.

Last month, the 47-year-old Wagner gave up a serious culinary career path for family. And for his mother.

The native Californian had spent 10 years rising through the ranks at McCormick & Schmick's restaurants in Portland Ñ from assistant chef at Jake's Famous Crawfish to, in the end, executive chef at the Harborside at the Marina restaurant on the banks of the Willamette River downtown.

But Wagner grew tired of the stress of his job and working the long, demanding hours. And, recently divorced, he wanted to be able to spend more time with his 15-year-old son and 12-year-old daughter.

So he jumped off the career track and applied to be the head cook at his mother's retirement home.

Needless to say, he got the job. Along with a $20,000 cut in his salary. And a sudden feeling of being right with the world.

'Work was all-encompassing,' Wagner says, taking a break and sitting in a plush chair in the lobby of Hearthstone, a splash of pot roast gravy dribbled on his chef's coat. 'And maybe was a reason for a lot of things that didn't give me happiness.'

He pauses. 'Parenting gives me happiness. Being with my mom gives me happiness,' he says.

Shorter days, same standards

These days, Wagner is finished with work at 6 o'clock, compared to the Harborside's 9 p.m. or so. He gets to spend more time with his kids. He gets to see his mother more often Ñ although she suggests it's not enough, and he says it's because she's often napping during his free time.

One thing hasn't changed: He still cooks like a real chef. Which is more than OK with Hearthstone's delighted residents.

'I don't really like fish,' says resident Judy Froats, finishing lunch with a group of five others at a round table in the Hearthstone dining room. 'But I'd eat fish from his kitchen any day.'

Ginni Poulos, a Hearthstone staff member, says she now overhears several meal-oriented comments daily from residents, who talk about the shrimp scampi or the pork loin or the chicken piccata they had that day.

'His salmon is Ñ I hate to use such a clichŽ Ñ to die for,' Poulos says, almost swooning.

And anyone who thinks the critics can't be as finicky here as they are at high-end riverfront restaurants hasn't spent much time at retirement residences.

'This is their home, so it's like he's cooking for them in their home,' says Hearthstone General Manager Tom Freitag.

A discerning crowd

Meals are a primary time for socializing, Freitag and residents say.

'In fact, it's about the most exciting thing in any 24-hour period,' says resident Jim Blanton, who is smiling and at least half-joking.

But Froats, sitting next to Blanton, adds, more seriously: 'When you make up your mind to come here, you've given up a lot from your life. And food becomes very important.'

Wagner explains: 'It's almost more important to be very good, all the time. Because it will spread all around. They have a bad lunch, they're going to look to be critical at dinner.'

But, unlike with commercial restaurants, 'you can win 'em back,' Wagner says Ñ even, he says, if it takes special delivery of a can of artichokes to an artichoke-lover's apartment room.

Wagner's mother, 80-year-old Sybil Wagner, is happy that her son is here ÑÊand proud, of course.

Robert and his sister helped move her here a year ago, after she had a series of small strokes. She communicates haltingly but can talk about the holiday events she used to host for the family, and about the cooking she used to do for Robert and everyone else.

Asked about her son's cooking, she smiles.

'I take all the credit for that,' she says.